Ancient Assistance for Memory in the Modern Mind

Many feel as though they could become wise if they only could remember things more exactly. But how? The ancients wondered the same thing.

Virtue is excellence. We all want excellence, even if we don’t realize it, because it is the only path to happiness. If memory is a part of the virtue of prudence, how can you develop this faculty?

There are several books on memory and I’m sure that many of them are pretty good.

Historically, memory training has always been important.

This is why epics were in meter as well as why wisdom traditions often used dialogs or pithy proverbs.

In the martial arts, kata training was used to encapsulate whole fighting systems in brief dance-like movements.

Thomas Aquinas actually outlined four key aspects to memory training that have worked in my own experience, but which have also been backed up by significant research.

Here they are[1]:

  1. Ridiculous illustrations
    Aquinas observed that using “unwont” or unusual illustrations gives you a higher change that the object of your study will impress upon your imagination or emotions. He notes that children have such good memories for this very reason: everything is new or unusual to them.
  1. Understand what you memorize in terms of other things that you know
    This is crucial. Memorizing dates in history is boring and difficult. But it is easy when I understand the lives of the people involved and the context of the alleged events. When learning a new language new words are so difficult until you know hundreds of words and then when you see a new word and discern its meaning by context clues it’s stuck in your mind.
  1. Remember to repeat
    When you do learn a new fact, Aquinas observes that it is important to “be anxious and earnest” about that which we intend to remember because “the more a thing is impressed upon the mind, the less it is liable to slip out of it.” When you comes to understand the meaning of a new fact/concept/skill repeat it over and over and over.
  1. Repeat to remember
    Then, and this is crucial for long term use of knowledge, “we should often reflect upon the things which we mean to remember.” In difficult math classes I often was frustrated that the material for the previous semester final (the hardest material that we did last and learned the least well) was always the material we needed to begin a new semester. What this usually meant was that I had no idea what was going on. Had I studied over summer break, this sort of thing wouldn’t be a problem. The same goes for almost any concept, fact, or skill except for certain motor skills like riding a bicycle or throwing a ball, although even those skill perish without use.

Over all, I think that Aquinas’ scheme is very helpful and even exhaustive. Any memory scheme in modern flashcard programs or language software is still just a variation of these four aspects of memorizing material.

I do know some helpful tools for combining some or all of these aspects of memory that I think could be very helpful.

What helps you to memorize difficult or vast material in a short time?

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.), “There are four things whereby a man perfects his memory. First, when a man wishes to remember a thing, he should take some suitable yet somewhat unwonted illustration of it, since the unwonted strikes us more, and so makes a greater and stronger impression on the mind; and this explains why we remember better what we saw when we were children. Now the reason for the necessity of finding these illustrations or images, is that simple and spiritual impressions easily slip from the mind, unless they be tied as it were to some corporeal image, because human knowledge has a greater hold on sensible objects. For this reason memory is assigned to the sensitive part of the soul. Secondly, whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider and set in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another. Hence the Philosopher says (De Mem. et Rem. ii.): Sometimes a place brings memories back to us: the reason being that we pass quickly from the one to the other. Thirdly, we must be anxious and earnest about the things we wish to remember, because the more a thing is impressed on the mind, the less it is liable to slip out of it. Wherefore Tully says in his Rhetoric* that anxiety preserves the figures of images entire. Fourthly, we should often reflect on the things we wish to remember. Hence the Philosopher says (De Memoria i.) that reflexion preserves memories, because as he remarks (ibid. ii.) custom is a second nature: wherefore when we reflect on a thing frequently, we quickly call it to mind, through passing from one thing to another by a kind of natural order.


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