Monday, February 14, 2011

Ability to Memorize

Here is something I often think about.

We all know that many early civilizations relied on Oral Traditions. Since it used to be that books were written in a time consuming manner, books were scarce. As a result, society compensated by transmitting information through an oral tradition that was based on memorization.

Today, such a feat is considered remarkable. Take Judaism for example. How could an individual memorize the entire Bible, as well as the Mishna and even the Talmud? We assume that these people have photographic memories and have a super-ability to memorize things accurately and completely. After all, I can only count on my hands the number of people today who I know who have the bible memorized, and they have a unique skill that other simply don't have.

However, I have a different theory. While it is true that there are some individuals who can do have a more acute sense of memorization, the human mind is more remarkable than we allow. In today's world, we are bombarded with so much information that we are constantly trying to find ways to access and store it. With the creation of the internet and digital storage, we have an even greater capability to access greater amounts of information, and a greater ability to store that information with the possibility to retrieve that information on command. I posit that since we have access to more information about the world, we constantly "forget" specific details since we know we can always "remember" those details at any time by looking them up.

Moreover, I also think that we can remember things when they are repeated to us many times. For example, consider music. When we hear songs over and over again, we begin to memorize the lyrics. I wouldn't be suprised if the amount of lyrics we have memorized would be equal to the amount of information contained in the bible. The melodies help us remember the words (consider how easy it is to sing the alphabet in order to figure out what letter follows another. And if you don't sing it, do you at least keep the same melodic rhythm?). Just as there were devices in oral traditions that helped people remember the stories.

When I was talking this idea over with my sister, she pointed out that memorization is also a skill. The more you train that skill, the better you will be able to memorize things. This goes along with my idea above that if we didn't have the ability to "remember" things by looking them up, then we could actually care to develop this skill more.

Therefore, I am less impressed when I think about Oral Traditions. Yes it is true that there are people with photographic memories that can memorize things after seeing things a few times (or even once), but I think anyone can memorize things, even whole books (or lines for a movie/play). We just have to make a conscious effort to memorize and repeat the information over and over again(which is hard because it is easier and less time consuming to just "forget" it and access it later).

What do you think?

5 comments:

cecescully said...

As someone who seems to have everything going for her when it comes to Torah reading:
1. Musical ear
2. Knowledge of Hebrew/comprehension
3. Love of being punctilious

the missing piece is the memorization. I'm impressed by people who can memorize Torah trope and do it quickly. I cannot, and I can't figure out why. I'm also a performer, so memorizing lines and songs usually comes easy to me.

TDB said...

On writing vs. knowing:
In the Phaedrus, Plato gives us the legend of the Egyptian god Theuth, who invented writing. The king of the Egyptians, Thamus, did not approve of writing:

[']If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.'

Gabriel גבריאל said...

Great Post, Hillel, because it's something I think about all of the time, as I am lucky to be able to memorize and recall many different facts and more significant to your point, texts, and especially those in Hebrew. I'm no professional musician, but putting those texts to music (e.g.) Torah reading, along with repeating them many times. As Cece alluded to, there also seem to be different skills for visual, auditory and musical recall. Although not a musician by any means (I have nothing on Jonah Rank), I am lucky to be able to recall tunes pretty well in generally. But when learning a Torah portion, especially where the Tikkun (practice book) often does not match up to the actual Torah scroll which I end up using, I must rely more on the musical and word patterns than the layout of the text.
As Hillel alluded, I was taught in a sociology class about how we have moved from from organizing information, in our minds and drawers, to searching for information, especially through Google. I might be lucky, as one who prays, reads Torah and books regularly, to have honed those skills which may have come more naturally to those in the pre-Google age. There's a lot more I could say on the subject, but I wanted to be make sure I could respond to Hillel's great post (though I hope/imagine I wouldn't forget ;)

Nathan said...

I agree with the conclusion that you make - memorization is no more exciting than good research skills. In fact, I'll take it a step further. If one person has more knowledge but another has more skills to get even more knowledge than that, I think the latter is more impressive.

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg said...

Memorization is a skill that can be taught. The Talmud is full of places where there are devices so that the following passages will be easier to remember. If you look at an old Hertz Humash, at the end of each of the five books there is a Hebrew note with the number of words and letters in the chapter and the word devices that can help you to memorize the numbers. There are people and companies that can teach you to remember better, they can instantly remember every name, in order of a large studio audience or any random sequence of numbers. It is all in how you do the memorizing. It is not a gift but a technique.