Cultivating The Memory

By James Hosmer Penniman

Most of us forget, as Andrew Lang says, "with an ease and readiness only to be acquired by practice," and would agree with Montaigne that "if I be a man of some reading; yet I am a man of no remembering."

To recall what we read we must first of all pay attention to it. Attention has been styled the mother of memory. It is naturally united to interest, we attend best to what we care most about, but we may watch over our minds and force them to return when they wonder and attention may be made habitual by repeated and vigorous efforts of the will.

"There must be continuity of work," says Thomas A. Edison, the inventor, "when you set out to do a certain thing never let anything disturb you from doing that. This power of putting the thought on one particular thing, and keeping it there for hours at time, comes from practice, and it takes a long while to get in the habit. I remember, a long while ago, I could only think ten minutes on a given subject before something else would come to my mind. But after long practice I can now keep my mind for hours on one topic without being distracted with thoughts of other matters."

On the other hand those who find difficulty in focusing the mind for long periods of time may be comforted by the following opinion of Professor William James than whom there is no better authority on matters of this kind: "The total mental efficiency of a man is the resultant of the working together of all his faculties. He is too complex a being for any one of them to have the casting vote. If any one of them do have the casting vote, it is more likely to be the strength of his desire and passion, the strength of the interest he takes in what is proposed; concentration, memory, reasoning power, inventiveness, excellence of the senses, all are subsidiary to this. No matter how scatter-brained the type of a man's successive fields of consciousness may be, if he really care for a subject, he will return to it incessantly from his incessant wanderings, and first, and last do more with it, and get more result from it, than another person whose attention may be more continuous during a given interval, but whose passion for the subject is of a more languid and less permanent sort."

We must have a clear idea of what we read if we wish to retain it. We cannot remember perfectly what we do not understand. We must think about what we read, assimilate it and unite it to the knowledge that we already possess. Every time we go over it in our minds we make the impression clearer.

Professor James lays special stress on the aid to memory that is derived by this association of ideas. "When we wish to fix a new thing in either our own mind or a pupil's, our conscious effort should not be so much to impress and retain it as to connect it with something else already there. The 'secret of a good memory' is thus the secret of forming diverse and multiple associations with every fact we care to retain. But this forming of associations with a fact - what is it but thinking about the fact as much as possible? Briefly, then, of two men with the same outward experiences, the one who thinks over his experiences most, and weaves them into the most systematic relations with each other, will be the one with the best memory."

When we read a number of books on the same subject the memory is helped by the association of ideas, and on the other hand we have high authority for the statement that the memory is weakened by aimless reading. There is perhaps no one pursuit in which so much precious time is wasted, no one in which the energies of mankind are expended to so little purpose, as in such reading. "Nothing, in truth," says Dugald Stewart, "has such a tendency to weaken not only the powers of invention but the intellectual powers in general, as a habit of extensive and various reading without reflection."

The habit of sharing the results of reading is as useful to ourselves as it is to others. The scholar of whom Chaucer wrote "gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche," probably had no difficulty in remembering what he read.

The reproduction of what you have read by conversation or by writing aids the memory while strengthening the mind.

Faraday says, "I hold it as a great point in self-education that the student should be continually engaged in forming exact ideas, and in expressing them clearly by language." Professor James remarks, "a thing merely read or heard, and never verbally reproduced, contracts the weakest possible adhesion in the mind. Verbal recitation or reproduction is thus a highly important kind of re-active behavior on our impressions."

Moreover, while cultivating the memory, the reproduction of ideas from the works of writers like Addison, Newman, and Matthew Arnold is valuable in the formation of a clear and simple style. It was by careful reading of Addison and by afterwards reproducing the thought in his own language that Franklin when a boy formed the habit of elegant and exact expression that made whatever he wrote interesting.