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How To Develop A Good Memory

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE boy who defined the memory as "the thing you forget with" fairly described the degree of usefulness which the memory has with most people. Yet there is hardly an intellectual charm which is so fruitful, which yields such pleasure, or gives such satisfactions, as a well trained memory. And what is of more importance is that there is hardly a normal person who with a little care cannot develop a good memory. With children the thing is fairly simple, if the method be pursued with persistence and devotion.

Memory rests upon clear impressions. When people say "I forget," or "I know that but I forget," what they mean is, that they have a hazy, imperfect view or recollection, which indicates that the matter is not new or strange, but simply is in the borderland between what we call clear and confused knowledge. This distinction between clear knowledge, and confused knowledge, is a very important one, because it reaches so very far that it has become one of the distinctions of logic.

Clear knowledge rests upon a distinct and unclouded impression upon the mind reinforced by an act of will. For example, you see a picture, and see it clearly, but you fail to complete the process by looking at it with a view to recalling it ; the result is that you fail to recall much but the faintest outlines of it. You remember a picture, possibly of some leading figure, possibly of the drama, but not the picture itself. The knowledge was fairly clear, but it was not reinforced.

On another occasion, you see an object in connection with other objects. You are sure you saw it, because you did; but you saw it in connection with others ; but whether before, or after, or among, and in this way, or that way, or here, or there, you cannot tell; there you have a clear illustration of confused knowledge. You cannot swear that you have not seen the object, but that is about all you can tell. Most of the testimony in courts is of this character, and that is the reason why a lawyer can so readily overturn the testimony of the witness.

But these same relations, when noted and reinforced by an act of will, may make the clearest kind of knowledge, as, for example, when by act of will you note that there are three objects, that one is white, one green, and the third blue ; that it was the blue object which you noted as the object in question; that it was larger than the rest, that it was between the other two ; here you see every detail in relation to the other two makes the original knowledge clearer, but you also see that each such notation involves a distinct act of will.

Clear knowledge does not, therefore, come simply by saying a thing, or seeing a thing, or hearing a thing, though these methods must be employed. They must all be accompanied by a distinct effort of will at the time which gives them a permanent place and causes a notch, so to speak, to be cut in the memory stick, at which that impression will catch again when you want that fact..

Many people cherish the illusion that simply saying things over and over again has something to do with the memory, but this is pure nonsense. The important thing is the willing to remember and associating an act of will with the fact, the object, or the purpose, to be remembered. The reason why people used to tie a string to the finger was not that the string recalled any-thing, but that when it was tied an act of remembrance was filed on the memory notch-stick. That is what made the string recall the purpose, not the string itself.

Of course, when a thing has thus once been recorded, frequent calling it up tends to make it more and more easy to recall. That is the reason why most stories improve on frequent telling, because the essential fact remains, but becoming more familiar there is time and freedom given for embroidering it and embellishing it so that the story, though an old one, gains with the telling. Many of the old legends grew in just this way, because each generation added something, then the story grew and developed with each telling. It was a perfectly natural process. You can see the process going on among children and adults today.

Memory is developed by vigorous contrasts or associations.

For instance, if you met a man coming down the street in a red suit, you would not soon forget it, because of the violence of the contrast. You secure concentrated attention, and that of course helps the memory, because memory and concentration are first cousins, though memory is possible without concentration, though you rarely have concentration without memory. In a similar way one gets a good memory by having the initial impression one of force and power. You have noticed in voices how some have a penetration which others have not, so that there are per-sons whom you will hear in a room, though twenty or thirty are speaking. This is not because they are shrieking, or because there is anything peculiar about them, but because the voice has a quality which carries, which arrests the ear, and compels listening.

Now if any fact is forced upon you, so to speak, by competition with another idea so that the will is called into play to choose which to take, the one chosen gets the place in the notch-stick, and that is the one recalled. But this is because the competition was sharp enough to cause choice, and that choice was an act of the will. For it must not be forgotten that memory is an act of the will always, first, last, and all the time. There is no such thing as merely impressing things and then remembering them without effort. When this seems to be the case, it is merely seeming. Behind everything remembered that is consciously recalled there is an act of will which is performed overórepeated, and so getting the first result a second time. Of course, constant contact does this, without seeming to do so, like becoming so familiar with your room, that you can find anything in the dark. You do not seem to be acting consciously, because you do it so easily, but really it is the will acting over what it has acted many times before.

This matter of choice is of the supremest importance because it tends to make the choices which lie at the root of character, which is also a series of choices, and at the formation of the power of the will itself, which actually is nothing else than character. Of this we shall speak more in a later section. But the element of choice plays so large a part in all the particular functions of the mind, that it should be accentuated in every one. The will to do, and the will to think, and the will to remember are all phases of the intellectual development which cannot be exercised too much or too often.

Memory finds strength in proper associations. Here we must remember that associations are not merely jumbles of things that happen to be together. A donkey may be trampling on an overcoat, but that does not make a donkey suggest an overcoat, or an overcoat a donkey. But a collar and a tie do suggest each other, and when a man is looking for his collar, he is very likely to find his tie near it. Hence when one is lost, the other, if it has a regular place, may suggest it. One shoe does suggest another shoe. But one shirt does not suggest another shirt. One is a collective association, dual in character, while the other has only its individual quality, because one shirt is white, another pink, another blue, and the like. It is a very interesting thing to make these inquiries as to association. Take any object, and ask yourself what that suggests, and you will get the natural reactions of association that will show you the pathway along which memory, with reference to that thing, lies.

We often develop a good memory by remembering the object or the fact through its parts. Often in language we make a part stand for the whole, or a whole for the part. That is a figure of speech called synecdoche. Thus we say a factory has so many "hands." What we mean is so many men. When we say a government is "on its last legs," we mean that it is tottering to its fall. So often the exaggeration of a part brings the whole into vivid relief. Epithets often do this, and become descriptive of the people to whom they are applied.. The term "Methodist" first meant derision, and finally became a term of honor and distinction. The same is true of "Quakers," which means the Society of Friends. Here the epithet stuck, and gave a new name to the people to whom it was applied and the name became an honorable title of distinction.

The possession of a good memory is one of the best possessions in life, because when eyes fail and often hearing goes, and infirmity creeps upon us, the pleasures of memory are choice and comforting delights. How graceful and beautiful to hear an apt quotation, or a passage giving distinction and emphasis to some utterance brought into the foreground of a conversation ! How full of power it is to hear someone bring forth a decisive quotation or testimonial, in the exact words in which it was spoken at a time of crisis ! This holds people in check, or it gives them courage, or it comforts them in stress, and does wonders for the mind and the soul. How contemptible the human mind seems when people falter, "I knew that but I forget," or "You must excuse me, I have such a poor memory," or when you see some strong man or beautiful woman falter at an impressive moment because the memory has failed!

Yet there is this to keep steadily before the mind. The mind is a rather aristocratic institution. People say it is easier to remember nonsense, and on the surface this is true, but it is only an illusion. What is true is that the silly stuff is more easily repeated, and so gets the more practice and so seems more readily recalled. It is the repetition, not the silliness, that does it. But the real mind, of real and serious people, takes much more readily to things of quality. That is why the passages from Shakespeare, and the Bible, and Milton have gone into the language and thousands of people are quoting these great authorities almost every day and do not know it. It is because they struck bottom in the human brain, and linked themselves with some-thing fundamental which was worth recalling because it had to do with something vital to the human race or its experience.

The cultivation of the memory is too important and too useful to waste it on trivial or unimportant matters. If you must exercise your memory, put your will behind something that has lasting power. That means you must go to it as you do to the work of gardening, or any other productive work. Take it steadily, and note your result, and then see that it is checked up with exactitude. Do not be satisfied with something "fairly good," but demand of your mind exactness, and promptitude, and by and by your mind will get accustomed to giving you what you demand of it, because you have taken the care and made the effort to give the mind what it needed in order to have something to give back when you asked it to. No memory can give what it has not in it. No memory will have in it what is not carefully placed there, either by design and effort, or by continuity of contact, which amounts to the same thing. Therefore if you want a good memory, the rule is simple, both for yourself and for your children. Make one ! Patience in detail, clearness of vision, utterance and expression, vividness of contrast, and variety and distinction in association, all these help. But the great agent is the will.



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