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 élève. 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 active.
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 critical moment. 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 uneconomical. 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 economical. 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 be made.
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 familiar. 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.
READINGS AND EXERCISES Readings: Adams (1) Chapter III. Seashore (16) Chapter II. Swift (20) Chapter VII. Watt (21).
Exercise I. Cite examples from your own experience showing the effects of the following faults in making impressions. a. First impression not clear. b.
Insufficient number of repetitions. c. Use of rote method instead of method of logical association. d. Impressions not distributed. e. Improper use of "part" method.
Exercise 2. After experimentation, state what is your most effective sense avenue for the impression of foreign words, facts in history, the pronunciation of English words.
Exercise 3. Make a preliminary draft of your next theme; lay it aside for a day or two; then write another on the same subject; combine the two, using the best parts of each; lay this aside for a day or two; then read it aloud, making such changes as are prompted by the auditory presentation. Can you find elements of worth in this method, which will warrant you in adopting it, at least, in par.
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