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What Constitutes A Good Memory

Let us next inquire what are the qualities which enter into what we call

a good memory. The merchant or politician will say, Ability to remember

well people's faces and names; the teacher of history, The ability to

recall readily dates and events; the teacher of mathematics, The power

to recall mathematical formulae; the hotel waiter, The ability to keep

in mind half-a-dozen orders at a time; the manager of a corporation,

/> The ability to recall all the necessary details connected with the

running of the concern. While these answers are very divergent, yet

they may all be true for the particular person testifying; for out of

them all there emerges this common truth, that the best memory is the

one which best serves its possessor. That is, one's memory not only

must be ready and exact, but must produce the right kind of material; it

must bring to us what we need in our thinking. A very easy corollary at

once grows out of this fact; namely, that in order to have the memory

return to us the right kind of matter, we must store it with the right

kind of images and ideas, for the memory cannot give back to us anything

which we have not first given into its keeping.

A GOOD MEMORY SELECTS ITS MATERIAL.--The best memory is not necessarily

the one which impartially repeats the largest number of facts of past

experience. Everyone has many experiences which he never needs to have

reproduced in memory; useful enough they may have been at the time, but

wholly useless and irrelevant later. They have served their purpose, and

should henceforth slumber in oblivion. They would be but so much rubbish

and lumber if they could be recalled. Everyone has surely met that

particular type of bore whose memory is so faithful to details that no

incident in the story he tells, no matter however trivial, is ever

omitted in the recounting. His associations work in such a tireless

round of minute succession, without ever being able to take a jump or a

short cut, that he is powerless to separate the wheat from the chaff; so

he dumps the whole indiscriminate mass into our long-suffering ears.

Dr. Carpenter tells of a member of Parliament who could repeat long

legal documents and acts of Parliament after one reading. When he was

congratulated on his remarkable gift, he replied that, instead of being

an advantage to him, it was often a source of great inconvenience,

because when he wished to recollect anything in a document he had read,

he could do it only by repeating the whole from the beginning up to the

point which he wished to recall. Maudsley says that the kind of memory

which enables a person to read a photographic copy of former

impressions with his mind's eye is not, indeed, commonly associated with

high intellectual power, and gives as a reason that such a mind is

hindered by the very wealth of material furnished by the memory from

discerning the relations between separate facts upon which judgment and

reasoning depend. It is likewise a common source of surprise among

teachers that many of the pupils who could outstrip their classmates in

learning and memory do not turn out to be able men. But this, says

Whately, is as reasonable as to wonder that a cistern if filled should

not be a perpetual fountain. It is possible for one to be so lost in a

tangle of trees that he cannot see the woods.


re-presentation of facts that constitutes a good memory. The pupil who

can reproduce a history lesson by the page has not necessarily as good a

memory as the one who remembers fewer facts, but sees the relations

between those remembered, and hence is able to choose what he will

remember. Memory must be discriminative. It must fasten on that which

is important and keep that for us. Therefore we can agree that the art

of remembering is the art of thinking. Discrimination must select the

important out of our mental stream, and these images must be associated

with as many others as possible which are already well fixed in memory,

and hence are sure of recall when needed. In this way the old will

always serve as a cue to call up the new.

MEMORY MUST BE SPECIALIZED.--And not only must memory, if it is to be a

good memory, omit the generally worthless, or trivial, or irrelevant,

and supply the generally useful, significant, and relevant, but it must

in some degree be a specialized memory. It must minister to the

particular needs and requirements of its owner. Small consolation to you

if you are a Latin teacher, and are able to call up the binomial theorem

or the date of the fall of Constantinople when you are in dire need of a

conjugation or a declension which eludes you. It is much better for the

merchant and politician to have a good memory for names and faces than

to be able to repeat the succession of English monarchs from Alfred the

Great to Edward VII and not be able to tell John Smith from Tom Brown.

It is much more desirable for the lawyer to be able to remember the

necessary details of his case than to be able to recall all the various

athletic records of the year; and so on.

In order to be a good memory for us, our memory must be faithful in

dealing with the material which constitutes the needs of our vocations.

Our memory may, and should, bring to us many things outside of our

immediate vocations, else our lives will be narrow; but its chief

concern and most accurate work must be along the path of our everyday

requirements at its hands. And this works out well in connection with

the physiological laws which were stated a little while since, providing

that our vocations are along the line of our interests. For the things

with which we work daily, and in which we are interested, will be often

thought of together, and hence will become well associated. They will be

frequently recalled, and hence more easily remembered; they will be

vividly experienced as the inevitable result of interest, and this goes

far to insure recall.