A century ago, the typical Catholic school boy could recite sizable chunks of the Catechism verbatim. A millennia ago, scholars such as Thomas Aquinas could commit entire books to heart. And in the Golden Age of Classical Greece, philosophers kept libraries of verse tucked inside their laurel-covered heads.
And today? Well, today most of us are lucky if we can remember our mother’s birthday, let alone important dates from history, favorite lines of poetry, or even catechetical basics like the Ten Commandments.
What’s behind the change? Is there anything we can do to reverse course and learn to hold on to the knowledge we don’t want to forget?
Search engine culture
In answer to the first question, a study released last year by Columbia University offers a one-word explanation: Google.
According to a research team led by Betsy Sparrow, Google (and its like) are changing human memories. Today, rather than remembering actual knowledge — the stats for the Steelers last season, the name of the 33rd president, the poems of T.S. Eliot — we instead tend to remember where we can find that knowledge.
As Sparrow summarized in her report: “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”
It’s not just Google, however, that’s getting in the way of us forgetting our online banking password. It’s also the reams of information coming at us each day, not to mention the pace at which we have to process that information.
“We are so flooded with facts that it’s easy to be distracted by trivial bits of information,” said psychologist and memory researcher Kevin Vost. “We don’t slow down and think about what’s worth focusing on.”
A shift in thinking
Then there’s the issue of pedagogy.
“About 20 or 30 years ago, memorization stopped being a part of primary and secondary schooling,” said Sarah Wear, a professor of Classics at Franciscan University. “Instead, schools started stressing critical thinking and creativity. Which is good up to a point, but you also have to know information in order to think about it.”
Vost agreed, noting that there is a marked difference between a person who knows something and a person who simply knows how to find out about something.
“It’s hard to think deeply about what you can’t remember,” he said. “Having information stored in your mind allows you to contemplate it and make connections.”
The ability to memorize information, as opposed to searching for information, is also linked to the capacity for new learning, as well as systematic rational thinking, two things Vost says researchers fear may be in jeopardy as our minds hold on to less of what we read, hear and experience.
The loci method
The consequences of such a loss, for both the culture and the Faith, are immense. But all hope is not lost.
“It’s not like our brains are structurally damaged or different from those of our ancestors,” Vost said. “They just need to be trained to memorize information. We can memorize as much as the medievals if we train our memories right.”
The way to do that, he continued, is by using the same method employed by St. Thomas Aquinas and scholars far more ancient: loci.
Developed in ancient Greece, the loci method capitalizes on our minds’ ability to hold on to what we see by helping us associate information we want to commit to memory with unusual and powerful mental images.
“What affects us visually we tend to remember,” said Vost, whose book “How to Memorize the Faith (And Most Anything Else)” (Sophia, $20) outlines the method. “The more vivid the image, the more the brain holds on to it. It’s how we’re wired.”
Using loci, Aquinas, Cicero, Aristotle and nearly every other great scholar or rhetorician for more than two millennia trained their minds to remember vast quantities of information.
Today the method is still commonly used by “mind-gamers” — the mental athletes who compete in memory competitions — to memorize hundreds of playing cards, complex number sequences or pages of poetry, all in a matter of minutes.
The method itself starts with creating a visual space in your imagination: a room, a house, a church. Next, you fill that room with vivid images, each connected to something you’re trying to remember. In effect that room becomes your storage space for that information. You learn its contents, and when you want to recall them, you take a walk back through the room.
For example, in Vost’s book, the room that houses the Seven Deadly Sins features a pride of lions at the very center. To the right, a window overlooks a tree growing dollar bills. To the left, a green faced monster sits upon a couch. In front of him is a coffee table with a broken Christmas wreath placed on top. In the corner is a TV with images of bikini clad women flashing past. In the fireplace, a boar roasts on a stick, and in front of another doorway stands a sloth. So, in order: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, sloth.
That combination of startling images and word plays (a “pride” of lions, “wreath”/”wrath”) creates an unforgettable tableau, locking the details in one’s memory for future recall. The occasional “walk” back through the room, cements the memory firmly.
Training your mind
Jennifer Fulwiler, author of The Conversion Diary blog, swears by the method. Fulwiler began using loci after reading Vost’s book.
“The prayers of the Church are so useful for the times you can’t find the right words — when you’re frustrated or in a spiritual dry spell,” she explained. “During those times, we can be tempted to just not pray. When we know these great prayers though, the words are always there.”
Fulwiler, however, uses loci for more than just learning her prayers.
“As a busy mom, there are plenty of times I have my hands full with the kids, and think of three things I have to do by the end of the day, but don’t have a pen and paper handy. So I use it to get those three things in my mind. It’s like I’ve put the information away in a drawer, and can come back to it when I have time.”
All of which sounds great. But don’t such efforts actually demand more of our memories — needing to recall, rooms, images and associations, as well as the actual facts we’re trying to remember? According to Vost: yes and no.
“Training our memories is like training our muscles,” he explained. “It can be a lot of work at first, but the more you practice, the easier and more automatic it becomes.
“Anyone can do this,” he concluded. “All it takes is the desire to get your memory into top shape and the willingness to practice.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.