The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Good Memory is Overrated

My father had a friend, Bill Hersey, a self-taught memory expert who made a good living teaching others his memory aids and techniques. I still use a few of  them myself, although with my ever-present iPhone -- "There's an app for that!" -- I find myself relying more on the cellphone in my pocket than the cells in my brain. This increased reliance on man-made technology over God-given brainpower will no doubt have its effects over the long haul...well, assuming at my age I have a long haul.

I used to be envious of people who displayed extraordinarily good memories. And when an expert like Bill Hersey would say, "Anyone can have an outstanding memory," I'd usually mutter under my breath, "Yeah, easy for you to say. What else have you got to do? Memory's your business. I don't have the time to devote all my waking hours to learning these silly techniques." Of course, if I had actually studied and practiced those techniques of his, I would have spent far less time relearning things I already knew. At this point in my life, though, I really don't have the need. If I've forgotten something, I just Google it.

But back before Google, and iPhones, and PDAs, before the arrival of the digital computer, people had two choices: they either wrote things down or remembered them. And if they were illiterate, well, that left only one choice. Most experts who study these things believe that the people of the past had much better memories than you and me, a hypothesis that has apparently been successfully tested on primitive tribes that have no written language. Indeed, some of these experts believe that poetry and song, with its rhyme and rhythm, were originally developed as memory aids, as a means to record and pass down the history of families and tribes.

You can test this yourself by asking a stray teenager a series of questions to test his or her memory on the kind of things they would learn in school; questions like these: In what year did Columbus discover the new world? What nation attacked the United States on December 7, 1941? What two countries were involved in the Louisiana Purchase? And then check the music charts and ask them to recite the lyrics of the top three songs. I suspect they'll do a lot better on the latter than the former. Rhyme and rhythm make a difference. Of course, the fact that they may not have been taught any American history in school could have an effect on their answers.

I know that whenever I need to know the last day of the month, I find myself reciting, "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November..." It's just a lot easier than trying to remember a collection of unrelated facts like the number of days in individual months.

Just the other day I witnessed a rather poignant example of the impact of song and rhyme on the memory. The wife of one of our volunteer delivery drivers at the soup kitchen suffers from Alzheimer's. He is her sole caregiver and takes her along every Thursday when he delivers meals to shut-ins. The disease, though, has progressed to the point where she rarely speaks to us, and I'm sure she has no idea who we are. But the other day, some of the women kitchen volunteers began to sing old hymns as they filled the take-out containers with the day's meal. And wouldn't you know it? Donna joined right in and sang along with them. The melody, the words, the rhyme and rhythm were still there.

I noticed something similar some years ago when I would take the Eucharist to the residents of a local nursing home. Each week I would visit the Catholic residents, including those in the Alzheimer's ward. Even if they weren't able to receive Holy Communion, I would still pray with them, and always finished by reciting the Our Father. It was remarkable how many of these patients, who uttered not a word and often had the most blank expressions on their faces, would suddenly light up once they heard those familiar words. And even more surprisingly, most would then join me praying aloud.

These odd thoughts all began some minutes ago when I couldn't remember an acquaintance's last name. It finally came to me, but not before I had recalled two of my favorite quotes, both relating to memory. (I find it especially interesting that I have no trouble remembering these relatively obscure comments by two people I never knew personally, but had to struggle to recall the last name of someone I  was with two days ago. Go figure!)

Anyway, the first comment was made by Maurice Baring, an early 20th-century British writer whose book, A Puppet Show of Memory, is a classic memoir of the age. Regarding memory, Baring's words have provided me with much consolation as my memory power weakens:
"Memory is the greatest of artists, and effaces from your mind what is unnecessary."
Flannery O'Connor, self-portrait
This just reinforces my belief that the things I've forgotten weren't all that important anyway.

The second comment is by one of my heroines, Flannery O'Connor, who wrote:
"Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me."
...and provided me with another reason to rejoice over my poor memory.

By the way, whether or not you're a Flannery O'Connor fan, I recommend reading a collection of her letters, published posthumously under the title, The Habit of Being. It is by far the most enjoyable collection of letters I have ever least I think so, if I remember correctly...

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