Memory and Character

I have long been interested in finding ways to improve my memory. I think I generally have quite a poor memory, especially for names, numbers and other ‘details’. Our current technologies are not exactly helping as is discussed in the aptly titled “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” by Franklin Foer. I have always had a feeling that this is undesirable.

If there is more information which we can immediately draw upon when working on something, I think it should allow us to be more effective at whatever we put our mind towards. For instance, when writing, we can use information we have memorised to enrich our prose with facts, figures and names.

However, I recently came across the article Secrets of a Mind-Gamer which gives another dimension to the benefits of memory; one which is very important indeed. This quote comes from an article which portrays memory artists – men and women able to memorise vast amounts of seemingly random information. It is further discussed in the article that the art of memorising originates from antique times and that generally the ability to memorise was appreciated more in times past. The following quote from the article illustrates this:

Today we have books, photographs, computers and an entire superstructure of external devices to help us store our memories outside our brains, but it wasn’t so long ago that culture depended on individual memories. A trained memory was not just a handy tool but also a fundamental facet of any worldly mind. It was considered a form of character-building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas be incorporated into your psyche and their values absorbed.

What really struck me here was the idea that the ability to memorise can be understood as a way to build character. This was never really something that I have thought about but I think it makes some degree of sense. Our character is undoubtedly shaped by our genes and what has happened to us; but the latter here is modulated by how we perceive what has happened to us. We can attenuate some experiences and emphasise others; with the hope that those we emphasise will leave a more lasting impression on our character.

I always had a strict aversion against rote-learning. In school, we had to learn poems by heart and I found this a particularity dull exercise. However, I’ve come to the realisation that I might have been mistaken. Of course, memorising something without reflection and understanding is not very useful (apart from training our general cognitive abilities). But if what we memorise what we can comprehend, then it surely should provide some additional use for us; especially if it is content which helps us to become better, stronger and more enlightened beings.

Picture credit: Comfreak