A Cognitive Rumination: Phonetic Alphabets

Cognitive offloading is a term used in cognitive psychology to refer to our reliance on external tools and resources in order to alter “the information processing requirements of a task”. These external tools might take the simple form of written notes, voice memos or telling a friend to remind something for you. These forms of offloading memory can help improve short-term and prospective memory by reducing demands on internal storage.[1] This is because the brain no longer needs to remember a collection of data, who, what, when, why, but rather just the location of the externally saved data. That might be the scribble on the back of your hand, or the sentence that you’ve chalked down on the slate hanging in the hallway. Tools, alien artefacts to the human body, have a direct effect on the way our body works. Of course, the act of cognitive offloading is a conscious one. We choose to export information onto an external tool and so alleviate the burden that is put on our minds and bodies. As a consequence of this behaviour, however, we have unconsciously created an environment where we rely on these external tools to an extreme degree. Further research into cognitive offloading, especially in relation to photography, has shown a photo-taking-impairment effect. Subjects of the study were shown to be “less likely to remember objects they photograph than objects they only observe”. Our organic memory is offloaded onto the prosthetic memory of the camera. Man and machine connected by an ownership of the same memory image. The same study, however, also found that the taking of photos itself disrupts the way we engage or encode the objects that are being viewed. Photographing seems to limit our “attention when encoding an experience”. We think we have encoded the object of our attention via our own organic memory, but this belief is superseded by the clicking of the shutter. In a way, our perception of the world is lessened by our involuntary reliance on cameras. 

            A couple of years ago I received an old and tattered copy of Charles Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published by Chapman & Hall when they were still located at 193 Piccadilly, London. It is a Household Edition and it contains fifty-seven illustrations by “PHIZ”. The book cover is loose, and when you open it, carefully, you can see that they used a newspaper to cover the spine. The whole book exudes tactility and materiality, it draws attention to its own process of creation. However, what truly struck me was a small booklet that came with the book. The previous owner, an elderly lady, had apparently kept a meticulous account of all the English words she did not know, and translated them into Dutch. Page after page of neat, almost italicized scribbling. The first entry reads “gloom – duisternis, nevelen” and the final entry “insult – beleediging”. The book by Dickens has four hundred pages, yet the improvised dictionary only goes up to page ninety nine. What happened after that page I do not know. Whilst leafing through the vocabulary I suddenly realized that this was an archive of cognitive offloading. In order to change and smoothen her reading experience, or “alter the processing requirements,” this lady had started taking notes. I wondered how this had changed her reading experience. 

The division of the book into fragmented, translated phrases correlates with what Marshall McLuhan wrote about the Western phonetic alphabet. In his chapter on the written word, he states that “[t]he breaking up of every kind of experience into uniform units in order to produce faster action and change of form (applied knowledge) has been the secret of Western power over man and nature alike”. The dictionary is a way of automating the reading and writing process. According to McLuhan the phonetic alphabet can be seen as an underlying structure that shapes our way of being in Western culture. Opposed to pictographic and hieroglyphic writing, as used in Egyptian and Chinese cultures, our phonetic system entails a separation of sound and sight from meaning and experience. Arbitrary noises come to stand for random scrawls. Pictorial and symbolic writing still represent “an extension of the visual sense for storing and expediting access to human experience”. In other words, it is writing itself that serves as the means for cognitive offloading. The use of these image-letters seems to take the process of offloading one step further than the simple note-taking that was used as an example by the researchers of cognitive psychology. Each word stands for “worlds of meaning and perception”.

           McLuhan states that the phonetic alphabet is an “intensification and extension of the visual function” and as such it “diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste” in its literate culture. Just as the photograph lessened our experience and perception of the world, so does the phonetic alphabet with its rupture of the senses. Being able to write down what one is feeling without actually experiencing it, has great psychological and social consequences. It allows the literate Western individual to simultaneously analyse in a dissociative manner and experience their world. It imposes a division of our imaginative, emotional and sensuous live and allows us to grasp complex, arbitrary metaphors such as money. The phonetic alphabet as technology numbs us. Informed by McLuhan, the romantic image I had of a frail old lady sitting by candle light, translating the English words she did not know, was transformed in a bizarre way. Instead of a candle, the woman was now working under a fluorescent tube. She was no longer frail and old, but sharp and logical. Her mind worked to analyse and to know, rather than to perceive and to experience. The notes she was taking sequenced her understanding of the Pickwick Papers. Contrary to the whimsical content of the book, with its exaggerated characters and adventurous episodes, her gaze is stern as she juts down word after word. The mechanics of the alphabet have given us the means to understand the world differently, but we must be conscious about how this ultimately also changes our understanding of ourselves.


[1] I was surprised by the vocabulary used by researchers in the field of cognitive psychology. Words that I’d only seen used to describe the inner workings of computers are used interchangeably for the functions of the human brain. 

Pauw Vos

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