Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter XVIII

How to Remember Words, Etc

In a preceding chapter we gave a number of instances of persons who had highly developed their memory of words, sentences, etc. History is full of instances of this kind. The moderns fall far behind the ancients in this respect; probably because there does not exist the present necessity for the feats of memory which were once accepted as commonplace and not out of the ordinary. Among ancient people, when printing was unknown and manuscripts scarce and valuable, it was the common custom of the people to learn “by heart” the various sacred teachings of their respective religions. The sacred books of the Hindus were transmitted in this way, and it was a common thing among the Hebrews to be able to recite the books of Moses and the Prophets entirely from memory. Even to this day the faithful Mohammedans are taught to commit the entire Koran to memory. And investigation reveals, always, that there has been used the identical process of committing these sacred books to memory, and recalling them at will–the natural method, instead of an artificial one. And therefore we shall devote this chapter solely to this method whereby poems or prose may be committed to memory and recalled readily.

This natural method of memorizing words, sentences, or verses is no royal road. It is a system which must be mastered by steady work and faithful review. One must start at the beginning and work his way up. But the result of such work will astonish anyone not familiar with it. It is the very same method that the Hindus, Hebrews, Mohammedans, Norsemen, and the rest of the races, memorized their thousands of verses and hundreds of chapters of the sacred books of their people. It is the method of the successful actor, and the popular elocutionist, not to mention those speakers who carefully commit to memory their “impromptu” addresses and “extemporaneous” speeches.

This natural system of memorizing is based upon the principle which has already been alluded to in this book, and by which every child learns its alphabet and its multiplication table, as well as the little “piece” that it recites for the entertainment of its fond parents and the bored friends of the family. That principle consists of the learning of one line at a time, and reviewing that line; then learning a second line and reviewing that; and then reviewing the two lines together; and so on, each addition being reviewed in connection with those that went before. The child learns the sound of “A;” then it learns “B;” then it associates the sounds of “A, B” in its first review; the “C” is added and the review runs: “A, B, C.” And so on until “Z” is reached and the child is able to review the entire list from “A to Z,” inclusive. The multiplication table begins with its “twice 1 is 2,” then “twice 2 is 4,” and so on, a little at a time until the “twos” are finished and the “threes” begun. This process is kept up, by constant addition and constant review, until “12 twelves” finishes up the list, and the child is able to repeat the “tables” from first to last from memory.

But there is more to it, in the case of the child, than merely learning to repeat the alphabet or the multiplication table–there is also the strengthening of the memory as a result of its exercise and use. Memory, like every faculty of the mind, or every muscle of the body, improves and develops by intelligent and reasonable use and exercise. Not only does this exercise and use develop the memory along the particular line of the faculty used, but also along _every_ line and faculty. This is so because the exercise develops the power of concentration, and the use of the voluntary attention.

We suggest that the student who wishes to acquire a good memory for words, sentences, etc., begin at once, selecting some favorite poem for the purpose of the demonstration. Then let him memorize one verse of not over four to six lines to begin with. Let him learn this verse perfectly, line by line, until he is able to repeat it without a mistake. Let him be sure to be “letter perfect” in that verse–so perfect that he will “see” even the capital letters and the punctuation marks when he recites it. Then let him stop for the day. The next day let him repeat the verse learned the day before, and then let him memorize a second verse in the same way, and just as perfectly. Then let him review the first and second verses together. This addition of the second verse to the first serves to weld the two together by association, and each review of them together serves to add a little bit to the weld, until they become joined in the mind as are “A, B, C.” The third day let him learn a third verse, in the same way and then review the three. Continue this for say a month, adding a new verse each day and adding it to the verses preceding it. But constantly review them from beginning to end. He cannot review them too often. He will be able to have them flow along like the letters of the alphabet, from “A” to “Z” if he reviews properly and often enough.

Then, if he can spare the time, let him begin the second month by learning _two verses_ each day, and adding to those that precede them, with constant and faithful reviews. He will find that he can memorize two verses, in the second month, as easily as he did the one verse in the first month. His memory has been trained to this extent. And so, he may proceed from month to month, adding an extra verse to his daily task, until he is unable to spare the time for all the work, or until he feels satisfied with what he has accomplished. Let him use moderation and not try to become a phenomenon. Let him avoid overstraining. After he has memorized the entire poem, let him start with a new one, but not forget to revive the old one at frequent intervals. If he finds it impossible to add the necessary number of new verses, by reason of other occupation, etc., let him not fail to keep up his review work. The exercise and review is more important than the mere addition of so many new verses.

Let him vary the verses, or poems with prose selections. He will find the verses of the Bible very well adapted for such exercise, as they lend themselves easily to registration in the memory. Shakespeare may be used to advantage in this work. The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam; or the “Lady of the Lake” by Scott; or the “Song Celestial” or “Light of Asia” both by Edwin Arnold, will be found to be well adapted to this system of memorizing, the verses of each being apt to “stick in the memory,” and each poem being sufficiently long to satisfy the requirements of even the most ambitious student. To look at the complete poem (any of those mentioned) it would seem almost impossible that one would ever be able to memorize and recite it from beginning to end, letter perfect. But on the principle of the continual dripping of water wearing away the stone; or the snowball increasing at each roll; this practice of a little being associated to what he already has will soon allow him to accumulate a wonderfully large store of memorized verses, poems, recitations, etc. It is an actual demonstration of the catchy words of the popular song which informs one that: “Every little bit, added to what you’ve got, makes just a little bit more.”

After he has acquired quite a large assortment of memorized selections, he will find it impossible to review them all at one time. But he should be sure to review them all at intervals, no matter how many days may elapse between each review.

The student who has familiarized himself with the principles upon which memory depends, as given in the preceding chapters, will at once see that the three principles of attention, association and repetition are employed in the natural method herein recommended. Attention must be given in order to memorize each verse in the first place; association is employed in the relationship created between the old verses and the new ones; and repetition is employed by the frequent reviewing, which serves to deepen the memory impression each time the poem is repeated. Moreover, the principle of interest is invoked, in the gradual progress made, and the accomplishment of what at first seemed to be an impossible task–the game element is thus supplied, which serves as an incentive. These combined principles render this method an ideal one, and it is not to be wondered that the race has so recognized it from the earliest times.

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