Memory and Long Presentations

Classical_edA few kids were having trouble memorizing their parts for our Project Presentation.  I thought I’d introduce them to some techniques to help them more naturally recall a narrative that follows a list of topics they need to cover.

Modern education often devalues or outright ignores memorization, yet for most of recorded history memorization was quite central to education.  Until relatively recently, a good classical education would demand memorization and recitation of great works of poetry.

In antiquity to the middle ages before literacy and printing became ubiquitous, minstrels and bards would memorize a variety of works of literature to recite.  The Greek epic poems of the Iliad (12,000 lines) and the Odyssey (15,000 lines) were memorized for perhaps century before they were ever written down in the Greek written language developed 2,000 years ago.

A popular trend among some home schoolers is to revive some of the better aspects of a rigorous Classical Education including memorization of poetry.  One of the best known books in this vein is “The Well-Trained Mind” by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.  To quote them on the value of memorization and recitation of poetry:

Memorization also builds into children’s minds an ability to understand and use complex English syntax. The student who memorizes poetry will internalize rhythmic, beautiful patterns of English language. These patterns have become part of the student’s “language store,” those wells of language that we all use every day in writing and speaking. Without memorization, the student’s “language store” will contain only those phrases and patterns which he hears over and over again — the language patterns that your family uses every day. But memorization “stocks” the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.

Recitation — learning to speak memorized pieces out loud, with fluency and expression — helps to “set” memorized pieces in the student’s memory. But recitation also develops skills in presentation. When a student learns to stand still (without jiggling, rocking back and forth, picking his nails, rubbing his nose, or twirling his hair) and speak, he’s learning the all-important skills he’ll need for job interviews (not to mention gracious social interaction). When he can stand still even under the gaze of multiple listeners, he’s learned a poise under observation that will serve him in social situations for the rest of his life.

So how does one memorize a long narrative and effortlessly recite it?  For our presentation, I introduced the kids to the ancient technique of the Method of the Loci, also known as the Memory Palace.  Per Wikipedia:

‘the method of loci’, an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally ‘walks’ through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use.[4]



The Method of the Loci activates specific regions of the brain involved in spatial awareness according to MRI studies.  Spatial awareness is probably one of the oldest and most evolved cognitive skills humans possess (eg necessary for our rodent ancestors locate food sources or avoid predators in a dense forest).  Thus, converting abstract and seemingly disconnected ideas into a concrete spatial journey makes memorization of even long and complex narratives simple.

Memorization is not only a valuable skill at the heart of many fields such as medicine and law, is is also a full contact sport:  the World Memory Championship.  “Mental Athletes” are given a limited time to memorize as much as possible of a variety of types of information.  “The 2006 World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house for his world record in “number half marathon”, memorising 1040 random digits in a half hour” – Wikipedia.

For a good read about this hidden word, check out the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.


PS:  There are a number of memorization systems out there.  A High School friend of mine once recited pi to the 100th place for his geometry class for fun.   His teacher and classmates were stunned.  So lost is the art of memorization they had no idea how he accomplished the feat.

PPS:  If poetry memorization and recitation is something that interests you, check out the National Recitation Contest Poetry Out Loud.

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