A poor memory has its origin in inattention. The secret of a good memory is our interest in, and attention to a subject, as we rarely forget what has strongly impressed our minds. It is only indifference that forgets. Love and hate always remember. “The true art of memory is the art of attention.”—Dr. Johnson.
The more strongly we are able to concentrate our minds upon the subject we are learning, the easier will it be to recall it on a future occasion. Strong and fixed attention gives strong and fixed ideas, and these form the very essence and fiber of memorizing. To pin the thought, to fasten the mind, to fix the attention on, and to allow no mind-wandering from the subject, to determine that the mind shall stretch, or spread itself, over the subject under consideration in such a way as to shut out every intruding thought—this is to make the matter of memorizing a possible, interesting and delightful work; yea, it is the secret of success in all memory work.
A good memory is not to be expected until this power of attention is attained. Fixity of thought must become a real thing to the student before he shall be enabled to enjoy the pleasure of being able to recall what he desires at will. Strong impressions come only from strong attention and fixity of mind and purpose.
Says Dr. A. T. Pierson:
A brief glance at your past life will reveal to you the truth of all this. Do you not remember to-day, and can you not most readily recall those things which made the deepest impression on your mind at the time of their occurrence, or of your mind’s reception of them?
1. By taking pleasure in the subject you desire to learn.
Speaking generally, no man ever made a success of that which was displeasing to him, Teachers know well that students fail most in those studies they like least, and do the best work in those studies in which they find delight. We can hardly be said to care to remember that which is displeasing and distasteful to us. Choose for a lesson, therefore, some subject in which you are interested and which pleases you. (See Suggestion 4, Chapter 5., in this connection.)
The advantage in this will be that it will not seem to you like a loss of time. You can thus put enthusiasm into your work. Utility is both an aid and incentive to memory work.
3. Some people think they secure attention better by closing the eyes.
History tells us of one of the old Greek philosophers who deliberately put out his own eyes in order that thereby he might be able to think better. Do we not see people all around us who, when they have any difficult matter to think about, either close, or half close their eyes? And why? Is it not for the same reason for which the old philosopher put out his eyes? It is unquestionably true that the visualizing powers are clearer when the eyes are not distracted by outside matters, just as the visions of sleep are more real because the eyes are closed.
Let it not be inferred from this that clear thinking, attention, and concentration cannot be secured with the eyes open. If we can think as well with the eyes open as we can with them shut, let us, then, keep them open. We have heard of writers and thinkers who, instead of closing their eyes, kept them wide open; indeed, fixed them intently on some particular object in the room—a figure on the wall, for example. People have been known to bring themselves into a state of utter oblivion to their surroundings by such concentrated gaze. It is conceded generally, however, that the majority of people can think better, and with greater powers of concentration, with the eyes shut. Try it for yourself, and see which is most helpful to you.
4. The following list of one hundred words will help you to develop fixity of thought and attention.
You will notice that there is some connection between each pair of words: one suggests, includes, excludes, or is in contrast with the other. This is true of the entire list of words. You should be able, therefore, in a very short time, to repeat the whole list backwards and forwards quite rapidly. In order to do this, however, you will have to concentrate your mind on these words to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, these words will compel you to pay attention. You will find, as you study the first word and then go to the second, that there is some relation between them, the one suggesting the other.
Before, therefore, you can recall the second word you are bound to think of that relation, and thus your mind is being forced to concentrate itself upon the matter in hand. For example: the word fire suggests the word grate, while the word grate (great) suggests its opposite, which is small; and so on throughout the entire list of one hundred words.
To thoroughly master this list, proceed as follows: Take the first ten words; write down on paper the first word; then write beneath it the second word; right opposite the second word, write what, in your estimation, is the relation between the two, so that the one is suggestive of the other. Does the one word include, exclude, or is it contrasted with the other? Is there a similarity in sound or in spelling? Proceed in the same manner with the third word, comparing it with the second; and so on throughout the first ten words.
You may then review these ten words backwards and forwards without looking at the paper. When you have thoroughly mastered the first ten words, you may proceed to the mastery of the second ten, and so on to the end of the list of one hundred words. Be sure to analyze every word and its relation to the one preceding and following it. Repeat this entire list from memory backwards and forwards every day for thirty days.
5. Take hold of some deep reading, some profound study, something that seems insolvable, for the purpose of concentrating the mind upon it.
Do not be too easily discouraged. Keep this up until you can read one page without a wandering thought. Persevere until you can do this. Take a little to begin with, but be sure to master that little. You must will to fix your thought upon what you read or desire to memorize. Remember, however, that you are not asked to memorize the above suggested selections for reading, but only to read them through without a wandering thought. Continue this practice until you can read page after page without entertaining a thought foreign to the subject in hand. The human mind is a great tramp; cure it of its vagrancy by keeping it at home.
The practice of translating sentences from a foreign language into the English tongue, and vice versa, has been proven to be an invaluable aid in securing fixity of thought.
History tells us that so great was the power of concentration possessed by a great writer who lived in the time of the French Revolution, that, although people were being massacred right under the window of the room in which he was engaged in writing a book, yet, so absorbed was he in his subject, such were his powers of concentration, that he knew nothing of what was happening on the outside until he was told of it afterwards. Very few of us, presumably, will be able to lay claim to the possession of such exceptional powers of mind concentration. The narrative, however, illustrates the degree to which fixity of attention can be cultivated.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like, sat’st brooding on the vast abyss,
And madest it pregnant: what in me is dark,
Illumine; what is low, raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,
Nor the deep tract of hell—say first, what cause
Moved our grand parents, in that happy state,
Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the world besides?
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
The infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind; what time his pride
Had cast him out from heaven, with all his host
Of rebel angels; by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed; and, with ambitious aim,
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in heaven, and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition; there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal: but his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes,
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,
Mixed with obdurate pride, and steadfast hate.
At once, as far as angels’ ken, he views
The dismal situation waste and wild;
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace, flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell; hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven,
As from the centre thrice to the utmost pole.
O, how unlike the place from whence they fell!
There the companions of his fall, overwhelmed
With floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns; and weltering by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and named
Beelzebub. To whom the arch-enemy,
And thence in heaven called Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence, thus began:—
“If thou beest he; but O, how fall’n! how changed
From him who, in the happy realms of light,
Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine
Myriads, though bright! If he, whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the glorious enterprise,
Joined with me once, now misery hath joined
In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest
From what height fall’n, so much the stronger proved
He with his thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire arms? Yet not for those,
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,
And high disdain from sense of injured merit
That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of heaven,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome;
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, deify his power
Who from the terror of this arm so late
Doubted his empire; that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy, and shame beneath
This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of gods,
And this empyreal substance, cannot fail:
Since, through experience of this great event,
In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war,
Irreconcilable to our grand foe,
Who now triumphs, and, in the excess of joy
Sole reigning, holds the tyranny of heaven.”
So spake the apostate angel, though in pain,
Vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair;
And him thus answered soon his bold compeer:
“O prince, O chief of many-throned powers,
That led the embattled seraphim to war
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds
Fearless, endangered heaven’s perpetual King,
And put to proof his high supremacy,
Whether upheld by strength, or chance, or fate;
Too well I see, and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow, and foul defeat,
Hath lost us heaven, and all this mighty host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,
As far as gods and heavenly essences
Can perish: for the mind and spirit remain
Invincible, and vigour soon returns,
Though all our glory extinct, and happy state
Here swallowed up in endless misery.
But what if he our Conqueror (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Than such could have o’erpowered such force as ours)
Have left us this our spirit and strength entire,
Strongly to suffer and support our pains,
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of war, whate’er his business be,
Here in the heart of hell to work in fire,
Or do his errands in the gloomy deep?
What can it then avail, though yet we feel
Strength undiminished, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment?”
Whereto with speedy words the arch-fiend replied:
“Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable,
Doing or suffering; but of this be sure,
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil,
Which ofttimes may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.
But see, the angry Victor hath recalled
His ministers of vengeance and pursuit
Back to the gates of heaven; the sulphurous hail.
Shot after us in storm, o’erblown, hath laid
The fiery surge, that from the precipice
Of heaven received us falling; and the thunder,
Winged with red lightning and impetuous rage,
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless deep.