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Resilience and Reclaiming Your Power of MEMORY

Information Overload and Memory Deficiency

Although our culture today is flooded with shoals of facts, infested with information networks and colonized by so many records that, had we not invented the computer, every tree on Earth would long ago have been rendered pulp, we have perhaps the worst memory of any civilization in history, including past incarnations of our own.

Amid this constant barrage of information, it’s easy for everything to flow in one ear and out the other.  Our educational institutions teach us to memorize factoids just long enough to regurgitate them.  What we have lost is a universe of methods that we will call collectively “memory technique.”

While you can always go back and check a fact, that isn’t all that memory is good for.  There are many kinds of procedural and theoretical knowledge that, depending on your profession, serve you best when committed to memory.  Also, and perhaps more importantly for our purposes here, really committing something to memory is one of the few sure ways of rewiring your own thought processes, something that people seeking resilience must do consciously and consistently. 

Techniques and Technology to Improve (or Sabotage) Your Memory

Memory, like learning, doesn’t only work one way, and there is a great deal to be said for finding the mode that works best for you.  Mega-successful entrepreneur and memory expert Kevin Trudeau advocates writing by hand, manually creating charts and graphs and creating visual representations, and he has a point.  We remember what we find interesting, and interest is directly linked to the creative process.

Beyond this, kinesthetics are a powerful memory tool.  Writing with a pen or a pencil is a far more kinesthetically complex exercise than typing on a keyboard- by computerizing everything (and especially by using portable devices that are kinesthetically even worse than full-sized keyboards), we’re actually sabotaging our own memory.

But none of these methods is the most powerful.  That honour goes to the method that pre-dates all written history and formed the first human cultures: oral recitation.

Learning from the Ancient Masters of Memory

We are one of the first cultures on the planet to have the idea that reading is something done silently.  In most previous eras, what was written was always converted back into speech, and via speech into memory.  When I said we have the worst memory of any culture, I was not being facetious.  Coptic Orthodox novices in Egypt are required to memorize the Psalms, all 150 of them, before they become monks.  Could you recite 150 poems, or 150 pages of prose from memory?  And there is evidence both in the ancient Christian world and in numerous other ancient cultures of far greater feats of memory.

In school, we learn about the Iliad and the Odyssey being memorized and recited as though this were something that happened in dark pre-history.  The truth is that the tradition of memory technique survived right alongside literacy up until very recently.  How recently?

Well, the last of the Gaelic storytellers in Ireland who could recite Iliad-length sagas in Gaelic died six decades ago, and no doubt there are similar traditions still surviving elsewhere.  There was a time when druids in Britain and Ireland studied for twenty years committing their now-lost tradition to memory (and yes, they could have written it down had they wanted to – the Greek alphabet was in use among the Celts for centuries before Caesar). In Buddhism, the Pali Canon was transmitted orally for generations before being written down, and many other key texts and scriptures worldwide have followed a similar course.

How did they do it?  Well, they rigged the game.  The material to be memorized was often in metered verse, and often chanted, intoned or rhythmically accompanied by some means.  This activates the creative, emotional and mathematical faculties all at once, and recitation aloud by itself is already activating both kinesthetic and aural memory- you’re moving your tongue and hearing yourself speak.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition today, anyone attending church on a regular basis for a few years will find it easy to memorize vast amounts of scripture and hymnography, because it is rhythmically sung or intoned.

But you don’t necessarily need music for this function- prose can work just as well under certain conditions.  Looking back at so many of the heavily-quoted writers of the 19th Century, it’s obvious that the prose tradition at the time was not so far separated from poetry that it could not produce memorable material capable of engaging exactly the same faculties as verse and music.

Our culture, unfortunately, is not diligent in packaging its information this way – what was the last book you read where you thought, ‘gee, this author has a real sense of the sound and rhythm of the language’?  However, there is a lot of mindset-relevant information from ancient traditions packaged properly on which we can draw.

There is one final memory trigger to consider, and that is smell.  You’ve probably had moments when an aroma or even the thought of one brought you back to a memory you didn’t know was there.  As far as I know, no one has tried to create a functional system of memory around smell – but it certainly can’t hurt to introduce a memorable smell when you’re reading something you need to remember.

Memory and Your Personal Resilience

I’m giving you this sketch of memory technique for two reasons.  First, if you know what tools are out there, they’re yours to play with and fine-tune for your own uses and circumstances, and perhaps find a new way of thinking about memory, mindset and information.  If the ancient methods don’t fit your circumstances, you can always re-arrange them.  If something is too poorly or densely written to recite, read it and then stand up, walk around, and compose a brief talk on the subject- suddenly, you’re assimilating the information by engaging your creative faculty, your tongue is moving, your ears are hearing, and you’re walking around.  Explore, be creative!

Second, this is serious stuff from a resilience standpoint.  Each of these memory tools is a tool for mind training, and memorization for that reason is a tool taken very seriously by every authentic ancient tradition without exception.

The idea is to get to the point where you become unconsciously competent with you’re trying to assimilate, and especially new information intended to change your habits and your thinking.  And that is why all methods of memory technique, and especially recitation, are such powerful tools – it imprints the information directly onto your procedural memory.  And procedural memory, the kind of memory that lets you tie a shoelace or ride a bike, is the epitome of unconscious competence – it’s there when we need it and we don’t have to think about it.

If you’re over 30 and you’ve started attributing your increasingly feeble memory to the fact that “you’re getting older”, then it’s time for you to WAKE UP.  Yes, age can have an impact on your memory IF you have lifestyle issues degrading it, such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise and more.  However, there is NO REASON for you not to retain an excellent memory throughout your life and there’s lots of historical evidence to prove this can be done.  But memory is just like a physical muscle – unless you USE IT, it will ATROPHY.

The irreplaceable first step is to persuade yourself that you can memorize long passages.  There was a time, of course, when memorization was a large part of English education.  We stop committing old literature to memory and stop teaching grammar and rhetoric, and then we wonder why education is going to hell in a hand basket…

 ~ Dr. Symeon Rodger