Your Mind and How to Use It

Chapter VIII


The subject of memory cannot be touched upon intelligently without a consideration of the Law of Association, one of the important psychological principles.


What is known in psychology as the Law of Association is based on the fact that _no idea exists in the mind except in association with other ideas_. This is not generally recognized, and the majority of persons will dispute the law at first thought. But the existence and appearance of ideas in the mind are governed by a mental law as invariable and constant as the physical law of gravitation. Every idea has associations with other ideas. Ideas travel in groups, and one group is associated with another group, and so on, until in the end every idea in one’s mind is associated directly or indirectly with every other idea. Theoretically, at least, it would be possible to begin with one idea in the mind of a person, and then gradually unwind his entire stock of ideas like the yarn on the ball. Our thoughts proceed according to this law. We sit down in a “brown study” and proceed from one subject to another, until we are unable to remember any connection between the first thought and the last. But each step of the reverie was connected with the one preceding and the one succeeding it. It is interesting to trace back these connections. Poe based one of his celebrated detective stories on this law. The reverie may be broken into by a sudden impression from outside, and we will then proceed from that impression, connecting it with something else already in our experience, and starting a new chain of sequence.

Often we fail to trace the associations governing our ideas, but the chain is there nevertheless. One may think of a past scene or experience without any apparent cause. A little thought will show that something seen, or a few notes of a song floating to the ears, or the fragrance of a flower, has supplied the connecting link between the past and the present. A suggestion of mignonette will recall some past event in which the perfume played a part; some one’s handkerchief, perhaps, carried the same odor. Or an old familiar tune reminds one of some one, something, or some place in the past. A familiar feature in the countenance of a passer-by will start one thinking of some one else who had that kind of a mouth, that shaped nose, or that expression of the eye–and away he will be off in a sequence of remembered experiences. Often the starting idea, or the connecting links, may appear but dimly in consciousness; but rest assured they are always there. In fact, we frequently accept this law, unconsciously and without realizing its actual existence. For instance, one makes a remark, and at once we wonder, “How did he come to think of that?” and, if we are shrewd, we may discover what was in his mind before he spoke.

There are two general classes of association of ideas in memory, viz.: (1) Association of contiguity, and (2) logical association.

Association of contiguity is that form of association depending upon the previous association in time or space of ideas which have been impressed on the mind. For instance, if you met Mr. and Mrs. Wetterhorn and were introduced to them one after the other, thereafter you will naturally remember Mr. W. when you think of Mrs. W., and vice versa. You will naturally remember Napoleon when you think of Wellington, or Benedict Arnold when you think of Major André, for the same reason. You will also naturally remember _b_ and _c_ when you think of _a_. Likewise, you will think of abstract time when you think of abstract space, of thunder when you think of lightning, of colic when you recall green apples, of love making and moonlight nights when you think of college days. In the same way we remember things which occurred just before or just after the event in our mind at the moment; of things near in space to the thing of which we are thinking.

Logical association depends upon the relation of likeness or difference between several things thought of. Things thus associated may have never come into the mind at the same previous time, nor are they necessarily connected in time and space. One may think of a book, and then proceed by association to think of another book by the same author, or of another author treating of the same subject. Or he may think of a book directly opposed to the first, the relation of distinct difference causing the associated idea. Logical association depends upon _inner relations_, and not upon the outer relations of time and space. This _innerness_ of relation between things not connected in space or time is discovered only by experience and education. The educated man realizes many points of relationship between things that are thought by the uneducated man to be totally unrelated. Wisdom and knowledge consist largely in the recognition of relations between things.


It follows from a consideration of the Law of Association that when one wishes to impress a thing upon the memory he should, as an authority says, “Multiply associations; entangle the fact you wish to remember in a net of as many associations as possible, especially those that are logical.” Hence the advice to place your facts in groups and classes in the memory. As Blackie says: “Nothing helps the mind so much as order and classification. Classes are always few, individuals many; to know the class well is to know what is most essential in the character of the individual, and what burdens the memory least to retain.”


Another important principle of memory is that the impressions acquire depth and clearness by repetition. Repeat a line of poetry once, and you may remember it; repeat it again, and your chances of remembering it are greatly increased; repeat it a sufficient number of times, and you cannot escape remembering it. The illustration of the phonograph record will help you to understand the reason of this. The rule is: _Constant repetition deepens memory impressions; frequent reviewing and recalling what has been memorized tends to keep the records clear and clean, beside deepening the impression at each review_.


The following general rules will be of service to the student who wishes to develop his memory:–

_Making Impressions._

(1) Bestow attention. (2) Cultivate interest. (3) Manifest perception. (4) Cultivate understanding. (5) Form associations. (6) Repeat and review.

_Recalling Impressions._

(1) Endeavor to get hold of the loose end of association, and then unwind your memory ball of yarn.

(2) When you recall an impression, send it back with energy to deepen the impression, and attach it to as many new associations as possible.

(3) Practice a little memorizing and recalling each day, if only a line of verse. The memory improves by practice, and deteriorates by neglect and disuse.

(4) Demand good service of your memory, and it will learn to respond. Learn to trust it, and it will rise to the occasion. How can you expect your memory to give good service when you continually abuse it and tell every one of “the wretched memory I have; I can never remember anything”? Your memory is very apt to accept your statements as truth; our mental faculties have an annoying habit of taking us at our word in these matters. Tell your memory what you expect it to do; then trust it and refrain from abusing it and giving it a bad name.


Finally, remember this rule: You get out of your memory only that which you place in it. Place in it good, clear, deep impressions, and it will reproduce good, clear, strong recollections. Think of your memory as a phonographic record, and take care that you place the right kind of impressions upon it. In memory you reap that which you have sown. You must give to the memory before you can receive from it. Of one thing you may rest assured, namely, that unless you take sufficient interest in the things to be remembered, you will find that the memory will not take sufficient interest in them to remember them. Memory demands interest before it will take interest in the task. It demands attention before it will give attention. It demands understanding before it will give understanding. It demands association before it will respond to association. It demands repetition before it will repeat. The memory is a splendid instrument, but it stands on its dignity and asserts its rights. It belongs to the old dispensation–it demands compensation and believes in giving only in equal measure to what it receives. Our advice is to get acquainted with your memory, and make friends with it. Treat it well and it will serve you well. But neglect it, and it will turn its back on you.

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