Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter VII


In the preceding chapters we have seen that in order that a thing may be remembered, it must be impressed clearly upon the mind in the first place; and that in order to obtain a clear impression there must be a manifestation of attention. So much for the recording of the impressions. But when we come to recalling, recollecting or remembering the impressions we are brought face to face with another important law of memory–the law of Association. Association plays a part analogous to the indexing and cross-indexing of a book; a library; or another system in which the aim is to readily find something that has been filed away, or contained in some way in a collection of similar things. As Kay says: “In order that what is in the memory may be recalled or brought again before consciousness, it is necessary that it be regarded in connection, or in association with one or more other things or ideas, and as a rule the greater the number of other things with which it is associated the greater the likelihood of its recall. The two processes are involved in every act of memory. We must first impress, and then we must associate. Without a clear impression being formed, that which is recalled will be indistinct and inaccurate; and unless it is associated with something else in the mind, it cannot be recalled. If we may suppose an idea existing in the mind by itself, unconnected with any other idea, its recall would be impossible.”

All the best authorities recognize and teach the importance of this law of association, in connection with the memory. Abercrombie says: “Next to the effect of attention is the remarkable influence produced upon memory by association.” Carpenter says: “The recording power of memory mainly depends upon the degree of attention we give to the idea to be remembered. The reproducing power again altogether depends upon the nature of the associations by which the new idea has been linked on to other ideas which have been previously recorded.” Ribot says: “The most fundamental law which regulates psychological phenomena is the law of association. In its comprehensive character it is comparable to the law of attraction in the physical world.” Mill says: “That which the law of gravitation is to astronomy; that which the elementary properties of the tissues are to physiology; the law of association of ideas is to psychology.” Stewart says: “The connection between memory and the association of ideas is so striking that it has been supposed by some that the whole of the phenomena might be resolved into this principle. The association of ideas connects our various thoughts with each other, so as to present them to the mind in a certain order; but it presupposes the existence of those thoughts in the mind,–in other words it presupposes a faculty of retaining the knowledge which we acquire. On the other hand, it is evident that without the associating principle, the power of retaining our thoughts, and of recognizing them when they occur to us, would have been of little use; for the most important articles of our knowledge might have remained latent in the mind, even when those occasions presented themselves to which they were immediately applicable.”

Association of ideas depends upon two principles known, respectively, as (1) the law of contiguity; and (2) the law of similarity. Association by contiguity is that form of association by which an idea is linked, connected, or associated with the sensation, thought, or idea immediately preceding it, and that which directly follows it. Each idea, or thought, is a link in a great chain of thought being connected with the preceding link and the succeeding link. Association by similarity is that form of association by which an idea, thought, or sensation is linked, connected, or associated with ideas, thoughts, or sensations of a similar kind, which have occurred previously or subsequently. The first form of association is the relation of sequence–the second the relation of kind.

Association by contiguity is the great law of thought, as well as of memory. As Kay says: “The great law of mental association is that of contiguity, by means of which sensations and ideas that have been in the mind together or in close succession, tend to unite together, or cohere in such a way that the one can afterward recall the other. The connection that naturally subsists between a sensation or idea in the mind, and that which immediately preceded or followed it, is of the strongest and most intimate nature. The two, strictly speaking, are but one, forming one complete thought.” As Taine says: “To speak correctly, there is no isolated or separate sensation. A sensation is a state which begins as a continuation of preceding ones, and ends by losing itself in those following it; it is by an arbitrary severing, and for the convenience of language, that we set it apart as we do; its beginning is the end of another, and its ending the beginning of another.” As Ribot says: “When we read or hear a sentence, for example, at the commencement of the fifth word something of the fourth word still remains. Association by contiguity may be separated into two sub-classes–contiguity in time; and contiguity in space. In contiguity in time there is manifested the tendency of the memory to recall the impressions in the same order in which they were received–the first impression suggesting the second, and that the third, and so on. In this way the child learns to repeat the alphabet, and the adult the succeeding lines of a poem.” As Priestly says: “In a poem, the end of each preceding word being connected with the beginning of the succeeding one, we can easily repeat them in that order, but we are not able to repeat them backwards till they have been frequently named in that order.” Memory of words, or groups of words, depends upon this form of contigious association. Some persons are able to repeat long poems from beginning to end, with perfect ease, but are unable to repeat any particular sentence, or verse, without working down to it from the beginning. Contiguity in space is manifested in forms of recollection or remembrance by “position.” Thus by remembering the things connected with the position of a particular thing, we are enabled to recall the thing itself. As we have seen in a preceding chapter, some forms of memory systems have been based on this law. If you will recall some house or room in which you have been, you will find that you will remember one object after another, in the order of the relative positions, or contiguity in space, or position. Beginning with the front hall, you may travel in memory from one room to another, recalling each with the objects it contains, according to the degree of attention you bestowed upon them originally. Kay says of association by contiguity: “It is on this principle of contiguity that mnemonical systems are constructed, as when what we wish to remember is associated in the mind with a certain object or locality, the ideas associated will at once come up; or when each word or idea is associated with the one immediately preceding it, so that when the one is recalled the other comes up along with it, and thus long lists of names or long passages of books can be readily learnt by heart.”

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