building strong memory
Almost all the scientific studies and experiments on memory conclude that we can improve our memory only by learning our material thoroughly in the first place. It all comes back to the primary law of laying down a clear, crisp, strong neural trace at the time of original learning; without a neural trace, there is nothing to remember. William James made this point by saying, “All improvement in memory consists in the improvement of one’s habitual methods of recording facts.” Before going on to specific techniques for building a strong memory, however, let’s look at some of the
forgetting processes that the memory techniques are designed to overcome.
1. The moment learning ends, forgetting begins immediately.
2. The greatest amount of forgetting is caused by interference; that is, what we learn today weakens
the memory of what we learned yesterday.
3. Failure to use our learning precludes the practice or rehearsal of it. All this weakens the memory
4. The bulk of forgetting occurs within a short time after learning ends. After the initial onslaught,
forgetting is more gradual and at a decelerating pace.
EIGHT LEARNING PRINCIPLES
There are ways to combat every one of these processes. By applying the principles described in this chapter, you can
learn to remember.
1. The Principle of Motivated Interest Psychologists agree that to learn something thoroughly, one must have interest in the material being studied. It is almost impossible to remember anything that does not interest us in the first place. Some experiences, even though they occur but once, are so clear that we tend to remember them for the rest of our lives. Other things, learned without interest, tend to be forgotten rapidly. Previously, we’ve talked about how interest in learning could be stimulated by a little academic success. We’ve also mentioned a few specific techniques for building interest in a distasteful subject. Here we simply point out the power of motivated interest.
I once interviewed a feeble-minded man who had been committed to an institution because he cou1d not earn a 1iving or function satisfactorily in the community. This man had a remarkable memory in one small area of knowledge. He could tell the day of the week for any date within a period of about twenty-five years. We could trace this ability back to an occasion when, as a boy, he had surprised his teacher by telling her that Lincoln’s birthday would come on a Thursday. She praised him, and it was a rare thing for him to be praised for any mental accomplishment. He began to study the calendar, and soon he was able to amaze his classmates with day-and-date stunts. He continued to develop this ability, devoting all his spare time to it. In the institution he was regarded as a mental magician and was given the 1ess unpleasant jobs for that reason. There was nothing miraculous about his ability; it was based on memory developed by intensive and prolonged effort-because he had a highly motivated interest in the feelings of success that his efforts brought him.
The wizard of batting averages. In my hometown, a young man achieved a town-wide reputation for remembering every
baseball player’s batting average on a day-by-day basis in both the American and National leagues. Motivated interest: he
was continually the center of enjoyable light-hearted attention.
8000 names. Charles Schwab, when general manager of the Homestead Mill of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, knew
by name all his 8000 employees. Motivated interest: he believed in the dignity of the common working man; consequently
he showed his respect by learning and using each man’s name.
A college president. Charles W. Eliot, who was president of Harvard for forty years, year by year knew the names of all
the students and faculty. Motivated interest: at one time he was so embarrassed by his inability to remember the name of
one of his colleagues that he determined never to suffer the embarrassment again.