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Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched


Conceived in literature, tested in psychology
Literally Psyched Home

If we remember more, can we read deeper–and create better? Part I.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Did Homer actually write his masterpieces, or were they a feat of collective memory? Image credit: Creative Commons.

I’m clawing away at the wall of the Rubin Museum of Art (fourth floor). And so are all the people around me. You’d think we were, for some rather strange reason, imitating a group of rabid squirrels as they make their way en masse up some hefty tree trunk. But really, we’re just following orders (sure, that’s what they all say) and have gotten quite into our roles. We are, after all, demigods. And there, on the other side of the wall that we are so effectively clawing, are the gods. We’re mad at them. We, too, want access to their ascent to the top—via the Rubin’s elevator shafts, which they now control.

What we were doing, some weeks back, is far less bizarre than it may sound. As part of the Rubin’s Brainwave series, memory grandmaster Ed Cooke was leading us in an immersive memory workshop. Our squirrel-like maneuverings couldn’t have been more purposeful. We were putting into effect the most extreme method for storing memories: not just a memory palace—where you visualize elements as vividly as possible in a familiar space that you recreate in your mind, and then, to recall them, walk through that space and look at the pictures you’ve put there—but an actual physical embodiment of each idea we were to memorize. And at the moment, we were committing to memory the six realms of existence, according to Buddhism. Gods and demi-gods, as you will doubtless have guessed, are two of these realms.

I knew the technique would work. After all, I’d read Joshua Foer’s wonderful Moonwalking with Einstein and knew all about memory palaces and their effectiveness. (Ed Cooke, our fearless leader that evening, had been Foer’s coach in his successful quest to win the U.S. memory championship.) As for our vigorous role-playing, as Ed later told me, “memory is always reliant on the external environment to usher it along, whether that environment is another person’s conversation, a space, the rhythm of one’s body mid-dance move.” What better way to cue recall than by physical movement.

So, the effectiveness of the approach as such wasn’t at issue. (Hell; hungry ghosts; animals; humans; demi-gods; gods. There. See? A month, to the day, later.) What I was interested in was something far more specific: the application of memory, of these sorts of memory-enhancing techniques, to literature—and, on an even broader scale, to creativity. (A complete side-note: I find it fascinating that embodiment has the same effects on creativity as it does on memory. Just as it’s easier for me to remember the realms of existence because I acted each one of them out, so, too, will it be easier for me to think outside the box if I actually have a physical box and act the metaphor out, according to recent research.)

Two things had caught my eye as I read Foer’s book and prepared for my meeting with Ed Cooke. First, the original purpose of these mnemonic techniques, and second, the supposed tie between memory and enhanced creative ability.

***

The art of memorization rose to its peak before the heyday of the written word, at a time when it wasn’t only nice to remember, but essential to do so if one was to transmit any sort of cultural or historic—or any other, for that matter—information on to others. If you couldn’t remember, you couldn’t pass on—and you couldn’t even return to the information for your own personal use. Poetry didn’t originally emerge simply because it was beautiful, but because it was also an effective means of historical and cultural transmission: in poetic form, metered and rhymed, it was far easier to remember.

Foer traces the tradition back to the Rawis in pre-Islamic Arabia, official memorizers who were tied to poets for the sole task of remembering their poetry. The word literally means “reciter” – and that’s what the rawis were. Until the 8th century, when it could at last be written down, they passed the pre-Islamic poetic tradition from one generation to the next, and from one person to a wider audience.

And what of those two masterpieces of classic literature, the Odyssey and Iliad? As early as 1781, Jean-Jacques Rousseau speculated that they were, in a sense, written long before they were written: first, they were “written only in men’s memories,” and only later, “laboriously collected in writing.” In fact, they may have even been structured and formulated as they were with the end of future memorization in mind. Foer points to the 1920 work of Milman Parry, who argued that the Oddysey and Iliad were written precisely to be memorable. And what of more traditional poetic goals? Wasn’t the rationale somewhat connected to that sheer, well, beauty of poetry? Not really, Foer told me. “Those traditions tend to use rhythm, rhyme, meter, and often intricate structure to help make stories more memorable. That’s part of the reason,” says Foer, “that poetry is so much easier to memorize than prose, and that songs are so much easier to memorize than poetry.” Not so much artistic inspiration as historic necessity, then. Prosaic beginnings for what are now much more ambitious ends.

Poetry, the ultimate memory device. Image credit: "Poetry" from the John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial, by CarbonNYC, Creative Commons.

So much for the origins. But what of the present? Could you, I wondered, use mnemonic techniques, not just for the types of competition in which Cooke specializes and Foer trained, but with that original purpose in mind—that is, to memorize writing? And if you could, would you be in any way closer to the material? Or would you, to the contrary, be further from its sense, so busy would you be remembering that you couldn’t be bothered to truly reflect? Something in me rebelled against the absence of the ability to read and reread at leisure, to mark up, jot down notes and thoughts, pause for consideration, move to different sections at leisure—out of order, even, if that’s what struck my fancy. In other words, the ability to really engage and interact with the material. Would memory help understanding, as Socrates would have it, or would it rather hinder it?

My money was on the latter. And to a certain extent, I was right. At first, Cooke told me, it would be difficult indeed to do what I’d described. But for someone adept at memorization, someone more like Cooke himself than like me? In that case, I’d be wrong—but in a very different sense that I’d realized. Cooke describes the process: “Gradually the memory technique gives way—having acted like a scaffold—and you just know the contents. There are other positive things about this: the process of learning forces a depth of pattern perception that means you *truly* engage with the material.”

True engagement, real knowledge, depth of perception. That sounded promising. But what does that mean in practice? Cooke elaborates:

It’s related to the way I once heard that Benjamin Franklin learned to write. He’d take any piece of text that had impressed him, write a summary of it and leave it for a few days. Once he had lost memory of the exact wording, he’d try to reproduce it from his description. He’d find that by comparing what he came up with against the original text, he’d be confronted with subtleties he’d not noticed first time round, and therefore learn how these great writers maneuvered round ideas.

Similarly, when you learn something by heart, your initial failures will be at the ingenious, surprising and unconventional moments in the poetry, and so act as a powerful way of noticing where words are acting with unusual power.

What a fascinating idea. I hadn’t even considered it. In the process of memorization, we might not be reflecting on the text in the same way I had originally meant the term—the same active thought and interaction—but we are reflecting in another, different but no less profound manner.

Memorization, it seems, is another way of forcing our mind to pay attention—to really pay attention. And it can serve to stop us, to force us to think and reconsider, in a more basic fashion that we would were we to choose the stopping (or reflection) points ourselves—because instead, our brain has oddly enough chosen for us in the way it is storing, processing, and recalling information. In the very process of memorizing, remembering—and faltering—we don’t just learn more about what we are reading. We also learn more about how we are reading, how we are reacting to the material—and, in a way (or, at least, after we’ve stopped to ponder our mistakes in the manner Cooke suggests we do) why we are reacting to it as we do.

I’ve long been a strong proponent of memorizing poetry, but this makes me think of it in a whole new light. It opens up cognitive possibilities that don’t in any way supplant or eclipse, but rather supplement the type of active reading I’d had in mind. It’s active reading on a different level entirely.

And what of that second element that had caught my attention in Foer’s writing, the potential tie between memory and creative ability more broadly? To that topic, I will turn to next, in the second part of this piece. In the meantime, I plan to busy myself with poetic memorization—a memorization that, I think, will have an entirely different flavor now that I have an entirely different way of thinking about it.

Many thanks to Ed Cooke and Joshua Foer for their time and assistance with this piece.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. PleonasticAxiom 2:38 pm 06/3/2012

    I love seeing articles like this, because I really hope that understanding concepts like these will revolutionize education and reform teaching theory. However I think you’re missing something. I do not agree with the amount of emphasis you put on the importance of “memorization”. The biggest hard drive in the whole universe will be useless if you cannot efficiently organize the information on it in a meaningful way.

    I am convinced that metaphors are the true language of humans because they allow us to not only see patterns, but those patterns are almost always universally scalable on some level. To understand this you need to know that you will never know the true intention behind a symbol, and therefore must never take one literally. I believe that we “learn” by referencing what we observe against our past observations. Memorization is super inefficient because we brute force synapses to infinitely recall their own observation. If we learned through relation, we would not only have a thorough understanding, the information would also continue to be useful, we wouldn’t forget it after the test, because it can be universally applied with the power of metaphor.

    Schools should be teaching kids how to learn instead of showing them how to cheat the system.

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