Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter XVII

How to Remember Facts

In speaking of this phase of memory we use the word “fact” in the sense of “an ascertained item of knowledge,” rather than in the sense of “a happening,” etc. In this sense the Memory of Facts is the ability to store away and recollect items of knowledge bearing upon some particular thing under consideration. If we are considering the subject of “Horse,” the “facts” that we wish to remember are the various items of information and knowledge regarding the horse, that we have acquired during our experience–facts that we have seen, heard or read, regarding the animal in question and to that which concerns it. We are continually acquiring items of information regarding all kinds of subjects, and yet when we wish to collect them we often find the task rather difficult, even though the original impressions were quite clear. The difficulty is largely due to the fact that the various facts are associated in our minds only by contiguity in time or place, or both, the associations of relation being lacking. In other words we have not properly classified and indexed our bits of information, and do not know where to begin to search for them. It is like the confusion of the business man who kept all of his papers in a barrel, without index, or order. He knew that “they are all _there_” but he had hard work to find any one of them when it was required. Or, we are like the compositor whose type has become “pied,” and then thrown into a big box–when he attempts to set up a book page, he will find it very difficult, if not impossible–whereas, if each letter were in its proper “box,” he would set up the page in a short time.

This matter of association by relation is one of the most important things in the whole subject of thought, and the degree of correct and efficient thinking depends materially upon it. It does not suffice us to merely “know” a thing–we must know where to find it when we want it. As old Judge Sharswood, of Pennsylvania, once said: “It is not so much to know the law, as to know _where to find it_.” Kay says: “Over the associations formed by contiguity in time or space we have but little control. They are in a manner accidental, depending upon the order in which the objects present themselves to the mind. On the other hand, association by similarity is largely put in our own power; for we, in a measure, select those objects that are to be associated, and bring them together in the mind. We must be careful, however, only to associate together such things as we wish to be associated together and to recall each other; and the associations we form should be based on fundamental and essential, and not upon mere superficial or casual resemblances. When things are associated by their accidental, and not by their essential qualities,–by their superficial, and not by their fundamental relations, they will not be available when wanted, and will be of little real use. When we associate what is new with what most nearly resembles it in the mind already, we give it its proper place in our fabric of thought. By means of association by similarity, we tie up our ideas, as it were, in separate bundles, and it is of the utmost importance that all the ideas that most nearly resemble each other be in one bundle.”

The best way to acquire correct associations, and many of them, for a separate fact that you wish to store away so that it may be recollected when needed–some useful bit of information or interesting bit of knowledge, that “may come in handy” later on–is to _analyze_ it and its relations. This may be done by asking yourself questions about it–each thing that you associate it with in your answers being just one additional “cross-index” whereby you may find it readily when you want it. As Kay says: “The principle of asking questions and obtaining answers to them, may be said to characterize all intellectual effort.” This is the method by which Socrates and Plato drew out the knowledge of their pupils, filling in the gaps and attaching new facts to those already known. When you wish to so consider a fact, ask yourself the following questions about it:

I. Where did it come from or originate?

II. What caused it?

III. What history or record has it?

IV. What are its attributes, qualities and characteristics?

V. What things can I most readily associate with it? What is it like?

VI. What is it good for–how may it be used–what can I do with it?

VII. What does it prove–what can be deduced from it?

VIII. What are its natural results–what happens because of it?

IX. What is its future; and its natural or probable end or finish?

X. What do I think of it, on the whole–what are my general
impressions regarding it?

XI. What do I know about it, in the way of general information?

XII. What have I heard about it, and from whom, and when?

If you will take the trouble to put any “fact” through the above rigid examination, you will not only attach it to hundreds of convenient and familiar other facts, so that you will remember it readily upon occasion, but you will also create a new subject of general information in your mind of which this particular fact will be the central thought. Similar systems of analysis have been published and sold by various teachers, at high prices–and many men have considered that the results justified the expenditure. So do not pass it by lightly.

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