Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter IX

Training the Eye

Before the memory can be stored with sight impressions–before the mind can recollect or remember such impressions–the eye must be used under the direction of the attention. We think that we see things when we look at them, but in reality we _see_ but few things, in the sense of registering clear and distinct impressions of them upon the tablets of the subconscious mind. We _look at_ them rather than _see_ them.

Halleck says regarding this “sight without seeing” idea: “A body may be imaged on the retina without insuring perception. There must be an effort to concentrate the attention upon the many things which the world presents to our senses. A man once said to the pupils of a large school, all of whom had seen cows: ‘I should like to find out how many of you know whether a cow’s ears are above, below, behind, or in front of her horns. I want only those pupils to raise their hands who are sure about the position and who will promise to give a dollar to charity if they answer wrong.’ Only two hands were raised. Their owners had drawn cows and in order to do that had been forced to concentrate their attention upon the animals. Fifteen pupils were sure that they had seen cats climb trees and descend them. There was unanimity of opinion that the cats went up heads first. When asked whether the cats came down head or tail first, the majority were sure that the cats descended as they were never known to do. Any one who had ever noticed the shape of the claws of any beast of prey could have answered the question without seeing an actual descent. Farmers’ boys who have often seen cows and horses lie down and rise, are seldom sure whether the animals rise with their fore or hind feet first, or whether the habit of the horse agrees with that of the cow in this respect. The elm tree has about its leaf a peculiarity which all ought to notice the first time they see it, and yet only about five per cent of a certain school could incorporate in a drawing this peculiarity, although it is so easily outlined on paper. Perception, to achieve satisfactory results, must summon the will to its aid to concentrate the attention. Only the smallest part of what falls upon our senses at any time is actually perceived.”

The way to train the mind to receive clear sight-impressions, and therefore to retain them in the memory is simply to concentrate the will and attention upon objects of sight, endeavoring to _see_ them plainly and distinctly, and then to practice recalling the details of the object some time afterward. It is astonishing how rapidly one may improve in this respect by a little practice. And it is amazing how great a degree of proficiency in this practice one may attain in a short time. You have doubtless heard the old story of Houdin, the French conjurer, who cultivated his memory of sight impressions by following a simple plan. He started in to practice by observing the number of small objects in the Paris shop windows he could see and remember in one quick glance as he rapidly walked past the window. He followed the plan of noting down on paper the things that he saw and remembered. At first he could remember but two or three articles in the window. Then he began to see and remember more, and so on, each day adding to his power of perception and memory, until finally he was able to see and remember nearly every small article in a large shop window, after bestowing but one glance upon it. Others have found this plan an excellent one, and have developed their power of perception greatly, and at the same time cultivated an amazingly retentive memory of objects thus seen. It is all a matter of use and practice. The experiment of Houdin may be varied infinitely, with excellent results.

The Hindus train their children along these lines, by playing the “sight game” with them. This game is played by exposing to the sight of the children a number of small objects, at which they gaze intently, and which are then withdrawn from their sight. The children then endeavor to excel each other in writing down the names of the objects which they have seen. The number of objects is small to begin with, but is increased each day, until an astonishing number are perceived and remembered.

Rudyard Kipling in his great book, “Kim,” gives an instance of this game, played by “Kim” and a trained native youth. Lurgan Sahib exposes to the sight of the two boys a tray filled with jewels and gems, allowing them to gaze upon it a few moments before it is withdrawn from sight. Then the competition begins, as follows: “‘There are under that paper five blue stones, one big, one smaller, and three small,’ said Kim in all haste. There are four green stones, and one with a hole in it; there is one yellow stone that I can see through, and one like a pipe stem. There are two red stones, and–and–give me time.'” But Kim had reached the limit of his powers. Then came the turn of the native boy. “‘Hear my count,’ cried the native child. ‘First are two flawed sapphires, one of two ruttes and one of four, as I should judge. The four rutte sapphire is chipped at the edge. There is one Turkestan turquoise, plain with green veins, and there are two inscribed–one with the name of God in gilt, and the other being cracked across, for it came out of an old ring, I cannot read. We have now the five blue stones; four flamed emeralds there are, but one is drilled in two places, and one is a little carven.’ ‘Their weight?’ said Lurgan Sahib, impassively. ‘Three–five–five and four ruttees, as I judge it. There is one piece of old greenish amber, and a cheap cut topaz from Europe. There is one ruby of Burma, one of two ruttees, without a flaw. And there is a ballas ruby, flawed, of two ruttees. There is a carved ivory from China, representing a rat sucking an egg; and there is last–Ah–ha!–a ball of crystal as big as a bean set in gold leaf.'” Kim is mortified at his bad beating, and asks the secret. The answer is: “By doing it many times over, till it is done perfectly, for it is worth doing.”

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