Improving Memory

I recently wrote about a new cognitive condition being reported on called digital dementia that is affecting some even in their early teens and twenties.  This condition – a result of the overuse of digital technology –  leads to unbalanced brain development, impacting many functions including memory.

The virtual world offers an easy alternative making it tempting to resist the work of memory. Perceiving little need, are we forgetting how to remember? But what happens when our memory processes weaken?  Memory fuels creativity and allows us to make learning connections. In addition long-term memory forms the foundation of our personal  identity as a key player in linking the past to the future; looking back, our lives become a sum total of what we remember.

Memorizing is hard work but can become shockingly fun and worthwhile.

Memory is not an innate gift but is learned. It requires a depth of processing; a full mindfulness whose enemy is distraction. Memorizing is essential for creativity to happen; it’s fertile soil for learning as well as for wise decision making. To hide God’s word in my heart requires the work of memory.  Psalm 119:11 states that a heart full of God’s word forms a hedge against wrong choices.  The choices we make in haste – in those unexpected moments when we face the challenges of life – are responses that rise up from what is stored within our hearts.

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. 

Next week I will provide memory improvement tips for students but for now I encourage you to read a very, very thought provoking article  by Troy Schuknecht who serves as Head of the Upper School at Veritas Academy.  After reading his article below, I watched the TED talk he refers to and plan to read Joshua Foer’s book as well.  At any age, the processes of memory can be strengthened!

Memory -by Troy Schuknecht

In ancient Greece and Rome, the art of memory was at the center of education.  Students would memorize entire books and would not consider themselves as having learned something unless they had memorized it.  Memorization was essential for character building as it developed the cardinal virtues.  And, by memorizing a text, the ideas would become incorporated into the innermost parts of the being, the values absorbed, thus bringing about a foundation for ethical living.

 Memory is all too often neglected today. 

It is hard work and takes time.  In a fast-food world, we find that we do not have the time, patience, or diligence to grow our ability to remember.  I recently picked up a book by Joshua Foer titled Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.  In this book, the author describes himself as an average guy with an average memory.  He was a reporter who stumbled upon the United States Memory Championship.  220px-Joshua-foer-2007While interviewing the participants, he found that they were not savants, but a group of ordinary guys who had learned an ancient memory technique.

The book goes on to describe his process of learning this technique over the next year on his trek to win the following year’s memory championship.  Two months ago, while reading the chapter where the ancient technique is taught, I gave it a try and memorized a random list of 15 items.  Two months later, having not thought about this list even once, I was able to easily recall the entire list in order without a moment of hesitation or stumbling.

This ancient technique of memory is found in an anonymous book written in Latin around 60 B.C.  It is a book about rhetoric titled Rhetorica Ad Herennium.  In this book, the author introduces the memory technique as “the guardian of all the parts of rhetoric.”  He describes “two kinds of memory: one natural, and the other the product of art.”  The natural memory is the one modern Americans believe declines with age and places limits on who can excel in school.  However, “the natural memory must be strengthened by discipline so as to become exceptional.”

This technique requires discipline.  The ancient author admits that “in every discipline artistic theory is of little avail without unremitting exercise, but especially in mnemonics theory is almost valueless unless made good by industry, devotion, toil, and care.”  In other words, it isn’t easy.  But if you have been reading my mom’s blog, you will agree with me (and Albert Einstein), that “ease and happiness are not ends in and of themselves, such an ethical basis I find more proper for a herd of swine.”

I am not going to summarize the technique for you here.  If you buy the little red version of Rhetorica Ad Herrenium, the technique is described in an English translation in about 10-pages starting on page 205.  Or, for a more thorough understanding, you can learn it from Joshua Foer’s book.  If you are not a reader, (shame on you),  you can watch Joshua Foer describe the technique in a 20-minute TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_foer_feats_of_memory_anyone_can_do.html

In light of current evidence about brain plasticity and ancient writings about training the memory, the age-old excuse, “I have a bad memory,” is invalidated and reduced to being the mantra of an undisciplined mind.  We must recover the art and necessity of memorization.  We must model it for our kids, teach them how to memorize, and expect diligence from them in this arena.

It is time to exercise and grow your brain!

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