First Aids to Memory:
Of all the mental operations
employed by the student, memory is probably the one in which the greatest
inefficiency is manifested. Though we often fail to realize it, much of our life
is taken up with memorizing. Every time we make use of past experience, we rely
upon this function of the mind, but in no occupation is it quite so practically
important as in study.
We shall begin our
investigation of memory by dividing it into four phases or stages—Impression,
Retention, Recall and Recognition. Any act of memory involves them all. There is
first a stage when the material is being impressed; second, a stage when it is
being retained so that it may be revived in the future; third, a stage of recall
when the retained material is revived to meet present needs; fourth, a feeling
of recognition, through which the material is recognized as having previously
been in the mind.
Impression is accomplished
through the sense organs; and in the foregoing chapter we laid down the rule:
Guard the avenues of impression and admit only such things as you wish to
retain. This necessitates that you go slowly at first. This is a principle of
all habit formation, but is especially important in habits of memorizing. Much
of the poor memory that people complain about is due to the fact that they make
first impressions carelessly. One reason why people fail to remember names is
that they do not get a clear impression of the name at the start.
They are introduced in a
hurry or the introducer mumbles; consequently no clear impression is secured.
Under such circumstances how could one expect to retain and recall the name? Go
slowly, then, in impressing material for the first time. As you look up the
words of a foreign language in the lexicon, trying to memorize their English
equivalents, take plenty of time. Obtain a clear impression of the sound and
appearance of the words.
Inasmuch as impressions may
be made through any of the sense organs, one problem in the improvement of
memory concerns the choice of sense avenues. As an infant you used all senses
impartially in your eager search after information. You voraciously put things
into your mouth and discovered that some things were sweet, some sour. You
bumped your head against things and learned that some were hard and some soft.
In your insatiable curiosity you pulled things apart and peered into them; in
short, utilized all the sense organs. In adult life, however, and in education
as it takes place through the agency of books and instructors, most learning
depends upon the eye and ear.
Even yet, however, you learn
many things through the sense of touch and through muscle movement, though you
may be unaware of it. You probably have better success retaining impressions
made upon one sense than another. The majority of people retain better things
that are visually impressed. Such persons think often in terms of visual
images. When thinking of water running from a faucet, they can see the water
fall, see it splash, but have no trace of the sound. The whole event is
noiseless in memory. When they think of their instructor, they can see him
standing at his desk but cannot imagine the sound of his voice. When striving to
think of the causes leading to the Civil War, they picture them as they are
listed on the page of the text-book or note-book.
Other people have not this
ability to recall in visual terms, but depend to greater extent upon sounds.
When asked to think about their instructor, they do it in terms of his voice.
When asked to conjugate a French verb, they hear it pronounced mentally but do
not see it on the page.
These are extremes of
imagery type, but they illustrate preferences as they are found in many persons.
Some persons use all senses with ease; others unconsciously work out
combinations, preferring one sense for some kinds of material and another for
other kinds. For example, one might prefer visual impression for remembering
dates in history but auditory impression for conjugating French verbs. You will
find it profitable to examine yourself and discover your preferences. If you
find that you have greater difficulty in remembering material impressed through
the ear than through the eye, reduce things to visual terms as much as possible.
Make your lecture notes more
complete or tabulate things that you wish to remember, thus securing impression
from the written form. The writer has difficulty in remembering names that are
only heard. So he asks that the name be spelled, then projects the letters on an
imaginary background, thus forming visual stuff which can easily be recalled.
If, on the contrary, you remember best the things that you hear, you may find it
a good plan to read your lessons aloud.
Many a student, upon the
discovery of such a preference, has increased his memory ability many fold by
adopting the simple expedient of reading his lessons aloud. It might be pointed
out that while you are reading aloud, you are making more than auditory
impressions. By the use of the vocal organs you are making muscular impressions,
which also aid in learning, as will be pointed out in Chapter X.
After this discussion do not
jump to the conclusion that just because you find some difficulty in using one
sense avenue for impression, it is therefore impossible to develop it. Facility
in using particular senses can be gained by practice. To improve ability to form
visual images of things, practise calling up visions of things. Try to picture a
page of your history textbook. Can you see the headlines of the sections and the
paragraphs? To develop auditory imagery, practise calling up sounds.
Try to image your French
instructor’s voice in saying Ă©lĂ¨ve. The development of these sense fields
is a slow and laborious process and one questions whether it is worth while for
a student to undertake the labor involved when another sense is already very
efficient. Probably it is most economical to Arrange impressions so as to favor
the sense that is already well developed and reliable.
Another important condition
of impression is repetition. It is well known that material which is repeated
several times is remembered more easily than that impressed but once. If two
repetitions induce a given liability to recall, four or eight will secure still
greater liability of recall. Your knowledge of brain action makes this rule
intelligible, because you know the pathway is deepened every time the nervous
current passes over it.
Experiments in the
psychological laboratory have shown that it is best in making impressions to
make more than enough impressions to insure recall. “If material is to be
retained for any length of time, a simple mastery of it for immediate recall is
not sufficient. It should be learned far beyond the point of immediate
reproduction if time and energy are to be saved.” This principle of learning
points out the fact that there are two kinds of memory—immediate and deferred.
The first kind involves recall immediately after impression is made; the second
involves recall at some later time.
It is a well-known fact that
things learned a long time before they are to be recalled fade away. If you are
not going to recall material until a long time after the impression, store up
enough impressions so that you can afford to lose a few and still retain enough
until time for recall. Another reason for “overlearning” is that when the time
comes for recall you are likely to be disturbed. If it is a time of public
performance, you may be embarrassed; or you may be hurried or under
distractions. Accordingly you should have the material exceedingly well
memorized so that these distractions will not prove detrimental.
The mere statement made
above, that repetition is necessary in impression, is not sufficient. It is
important to know how to distribute the repetitions. Suppose you are memorizing
“Psalm of Life” to be recited a month from to-day, and that you require thirty
repetitions of the poem to learn it. Shall you make these thirty repetitions at
one sitting? Or shall you distribute them among several sittings? In general, it
is better to spread the repetitions over a period of time.
The question then arises,
what is the most effective distribution? Various combinations are possible. You
might rehearse the poem once a day during the month, or twice a day for the
first fifteen days, or the last fifteen days, four times every fourth day, ad
infinitum. In the face of these possibilities is there anything that will
guide us in distributing the repetitions? We shall get some light on the
question from an examination of the curve of forgetting—a curve that has been
plotted showing the rate at which the mind tends to forget. Forgetting proceeds
according to law, the curve descending rapidly at first and then more slowly.
“The larger proportion of
the material learned is forgotten the first day or so. After that a constantly
decreasing amount is forgotten on each succeeding day for perhaps a week, when
the amount remains practically stationary.” This gives us some indication that
the early repetitions should be closer together than those at the end of the
period. So long as you are forgetting rapidly you will need more repetitions in
order to counterbalance the tendency to forget.
You might well make five
repetitions; then rest. In about an hour, five more; within the next
twenty-four hours, five more. By this time you should have the poem memorized,
and all within two days. You would still have fifteen repetitions of the thirty,
and these might be used in keeping the poem fresh in the mind by a repetition
every other day.
As intimated above, one
important principle in memorizing is to make the first impressions as early as
possible, for older impressions have many chances of being retained. This is
evidenced by the vividness of childhood scenes in the minds of our grandparents.
An old soldier recalls with great vividness events that happened during the
Civil War, but forgets events of yesterday.
There is involved here a
principle of nervous action that you have already encountered; namely, that
impressions are more easily made and retained in youth. It should also be
observed that pathways made early have more chances of being used than those
made recently. Still another peculiarity of nervous action is revealed in these
extended periods of memorizing. It has been discovered that if a rest is taken
between impressions, the impressions become more firmly fixed. This points to
the presence of a surprising power, by which we are able to learn, as it were,
while we sleep. We shall understand this better if we try to imagine what is
happening in the nervous system.
Processes of nutrition are
constantly going on. The blood brings in particles to repair the nerve cells,
rebuilding them according to the pattern left by the last impression. Indeed,
the entrance of this new material makes the impression even more fixed. The
nutritional processes seem to set the impression much as a hypo bath fixes or
sets an impression on a photographic plate. This peculiarity of memory led
Professor James to suggest, paradoxically, that we learn to skate in summer and
to swim in winter.
And, indeed, one usually
finds, in beginning the skating season, that after the initial stiffness of
muscles wears off, one glides along with surprising agility. You see then that
if you plan things rightly, Nature will do much of your learning for you. It
might be suggested that perhaps things impressed just before going to sleep have
a better chance to “set” than things impressed at other times for the reason
that sleep is the time when the reparative processes of the body are most
Since the brain pattern
requires time to “set,” it is important that after the first impression you
refrain from introducing anything immediately into the mind that might disturb
it. After you have impressed the poem you are memorizing, do not immediately
follow it by another poem. Let the brain rest for three or four minutes until
after the first impressions have had a chance to “set.”
Now that we have regarded
this “unconscious memorizing” from the neurological standpoint, let us consider
it from the psychological standpoint. How are the ideas being modified during
the intervals between impressions? Modern psychology has discovered that much
memorizing goes on without our knowing it, paradoxical as that may seem.
The processes may be
described in terms of the doctrine of association, which is that whenever two
things have once been associated together in the mind, there is a tendency
thereafter “if the first of them recurs, for the other to come with it.” After
the poem of our illustration has once been repeated, there is a tendency for
events in everyday experience that are like it to associate themselves with it.
For example, in the course of a day or week many things might arise and recall
to you the line, “Life is real, life is earnest”, and it would become, by that
fact, more firmly fixed in the mind.
This valuable semi-conscious
recall requires that you must make the first impression as early as possible
before the time for ultimate recall. This persistence of ideas in the mind means
“that the process of learning does not cease with the actual work of learning,
but that, if not disturbed, this process runs on of itself for a time, and adds
a little to the result of our labors. It also means that, if it is to our
advantage to stand in readiness with some word or thought, we shall be able to
do so, if only this word or thought recur to us but once, some time before the
So we remember to keep a
promise to pay a call, to make a remark at the proper time, even though we turn
our mind to other work or talk for some hours between. We can do this because,
if not vigorously prevented, ideas and words keep on reappearing in the mind.”
You may utilize this principle in theme-writing to good advantage. As soon as
the instructor announces the subject for a theme, begin to think about it.
Gather together all the
ideas you have about the subject and start your mind to work upon it.
Suppose you take as a
theme-subject The Value of Training in Public Speaking for a Business Man. The
first time this is suggested to you, a few thoughts, at least, will come to you.
Write them down, even though they are disconnected and heterogeneous. Then as
you go about your other work you will find a number of occasions that will
arouse ideas bearing upon this subject.
You may read in a newspaper
of a brilliant speech made before the Chamber of Commerce by a leading business
man, which will serve as an illustration to support your affirmative position;
or you may attend a banquet where a prominent business man disappoints his
audience with a wretched speech. Such experiences, and many others, bearing more
or less directly upon the subject, will come to you, and will call up the
theme-subject, with which they will unite themselves.
Write down these ideas as
they occur, and you will find that when you start to compose the theme formally,
it almost writes itself, requiring for the most part only expansion and
arrangement of ideas. While thus organizing the theme you will reap even more
benefits from your early start, for, as you are composing it, you will find new
ideas crowding in upon you which you did not know you possessed, but which had
been associating themselves in your mind with this topic even when you were
unaware of the fact.
In writing themes, the
principle of distribution of time may also be profitably employed. After you
have once written a theme, lay it aside for a while—perhaps a week. Then when
you take it up, read it in a detached manner and you will note many places where
it may be improved. These benefits are to be enjoyed only when a theme is
planned a long time ahead. Hence the rule to start as early as possible.
Before leaving the subject
of theme-writing, which was called up by the discussion of unconscious memory,
another suggestion will be given that may be of service to you. When correcting
a theme, employ more than one sense avenue. Do not simply glance over it with
your eye. Read it aloud, either to yourself or, better still, to someone else.
When you do this you will be
amazed to discover how different it sounds and what a new view you secure of it.
When you thus change your method of composition, you will find a new group of
ideas thronging into your mind. In the auditory rendition of a theme you will
discover faults of syntax which escaped you in silent reading. You will note
duplication of words, split infinitives, mixed tenses, poorly balanced
sentences. Moreover, if your mind has certain peculiarities, you may find even
more advantages accruing from such a practice.
The author, for example, has
a slightly different set of ideas at his disposal according to the medium of
expression employed. When writing with a pencil, one set of ideas comes to mind;
with a typewriter slightly different ideas arise; when talking to an audience,
still different ideas. Three sets of ideas and three vocabularies are thus
available for use on any subject.
In adopting this device of
composing through several mediums, you should combine with it the principle of
distributing time already discussed in connection with repetition of
impressions. Write a theme one day, then lay it aside for a few days and go back
to it with a fresh mind. The rests will be found very beneficial in helping you
to get a new viewpoint of the subject.
Reverting to our discussion
of memory, we come upon another question: In memorizing material like the poem
of our example, should one impress the entire poem at once, or break it up into
parts, impressing a stanza each day? Most people would respond, without
thought, the latter, and, as a matter of fact, most memorizing takes place in
this way. Experimental psychology, however, has discovered that this is
The selection, if of
moderate length, should be impressed as a whole. If too long for this, it should
be broken up as little as possible. In order to see the necessity for this let
us examine your experiences with the memorization of poems in your early school
days. You probably proceeded as follows:
After school one day, you
learned the first stanza, then went out to play. The next day you learned the
second one, and so on. You thought at the end of a week that you had memorized
it because, at the end of each day’s sitting, you were able to recite perfectly
the stanza learned that day. On “speaking day” you started out bravely and
recited the first stanza without mishap. When you started to think of the second
one, however, it would not come.
The memory balked. Now what
was the matter? How can we explain this distressing
blank? In psychological terms,
we ascribe the difficulty to the failure to make proper associations between
stanzas. Association was made effectively between the lines of the single
stanzas, but not between the separate stanzas. After you finished impressing the
first stanza, you went about something else; playing ball, perhaps. When you
approached the poem the next day you started in with the second stanza. There
was then no bridge between the two. There was nothing to link the last line of
the first stanza,
“And things are not what
they seem,” with the first line of the next stanza, “Life is real, life is
earnest.” This makes clear the necessity of impressing the poem as a whole
instead of by parts.
According to another
classification, there are two ways of memorizing—by rote and by logical
associations. Rote memorizing involves the repetition of material just as it
stands, and usually requires such long and laborious drill that it is seldom
True, some matter must be
memorized this way; such as the days of the week and the names of the months;
but there is another and gentler method which is usually more effective and
economical than that of brutal repetition. That is the method of logical
association, by which one links up a new fact with something already in the
mind. If, for example, you wish to remember the date of the World’s Fair in
Chicago, you might proceed as follows: Ask yourself, What did the Fair
commemorate? The discovery of America in 1492, the four hundredth anniversary
occurring in 1892. The Fair could not be made ready in that year, however, so
was postponed a year.
Such a process of memorizing
the date is less laborious than the method of rote memory, and is usually more
likely to lead to ready recall. The old fact already in mind acts as a magnet
which at some later time may call up other facts that had once been associated
with it. You can easily see that this new fact might have been associated with
several old facts, thus securing more chances of being called up.
From this it may be inferred
that the more facts you have in your mind about a subject the more chances you
have of retaining new facts. It is sometimes thought that if a person stores so
much in his memory it will soon be so full that he cannot memorize any more.
This is a false notion, involving a conception of the brain as a hopper into
which impressions are poured until it runs over. On the contrary, it should be
regarded as an interlacing of fibers with infinite possibilities of
inter-connection, and no one ever exhausts the number of associations that can
The method of logical
association may be employed with telling effect in the study of foreign
languages. When you meet a new word scrutinize it carefully for some trace of a
word already familiar to you either in that language or in another. This
independent discovery of meanings is a very great aid in saving time and in
fixing the meaning of new words.
Opportunities for this
method are especially frequent in the German language, since so many German
words are formed by compounding other words. “Rathausmarkt” is a long and
apparently difficult German word, and one’s first temptation is to look it up in
the lexicon and promptly forget it. Let us analyze it, however, and we shall see
that it is only a compound of already familiar words. “_Rat_” is already
familiar as the word for counsel (“_raten”_ to give advice); “_haus_” is equally
So we see that the first
part of the word means council-house; the council-house of a city is called a
city hall. “_Markt_” is equally familiar as market-square, so the significance
of the entire word stands, city-hall-square. By such a method of utilizing facts
already known, you may make yourself much more independent of the lexicon and
may make your memory for foreign words much more tenacious.
We approach a phase of
impression the importance of which is often unsuspected; namely, the intention
with which memorizing is done. The fidelity of memory is greatly affected by the
intention. If, at the time of impression, you intend to retain only until the
time of recall, the material tends to slip away after that time. If, however,
you impress with the intention to retain permanently the material stays by you
better. Students make a great mistake when they study for the purpose merely of
retaining until after examination time. Intend to retain facts permanently, and
there will be greater likelihood of their permanence.