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How to remember 60,000 words
In 1993, John Basinger, at the age of 58, decided to memorise John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. I don't know why but it took him nine years to learn the poem. It was no small feat: the poem reaches over 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000 words and took him three days to perform. One of the brave audience members was John Seamon, a psychologist at Wesleyan University, who thought this worth researching.
Basinger agreed to be tested and Seamon found that, apart from his amazing feat, Basinger's memory was age-typical. So how did Basinger remember those 60,000 words? He studied for about an hour each day, reciting verses in seven-line chunks. This plays to the short-term memory principle identified by Miller (1956) where we can think about around seven chunks at one time. He also spent around three to four thousand hours in recital, using Ericsson's 'deliberate practice theory' and the repetition principle to hammer things home. He didn't use any of the various memory methods or other short-cuts to remembering large tracts of text.
So I guess I might have to apologise here to those who got excited by the title of this little article. There's no silver bullet, or at least none found here. Just a rather weird determination to learn a long poem, which is perhaps a rather difficult way of earning your fifteen minutes of fame. But at least he seemed to have enjoyed the process and, although they say you can't teach old dogs new tricks, Basinger showed that the dogs can learn when they really want to, and that cognitive decline with age is not a given. Other evidence generally points to a 'use it or lose it' effect in memory as well as muscle.
Let's give him the final words, where perhaps we can gain an inkling of the force that drove him on:
'During the incessant repetition of Milton's words, I really began to listen to them, and every now and then as the whole poem began to take shape in my mind, an insight would come, an understanding, a delicious possibility. ... I think of the poem in various ways. As a cathedral I carry around in my mind, a place that I can enter and walk around at will. ... Whenever I finish a "Paradise Lost" performance I raise the poem and have it take a bow.'
Miller, G.A. (1956). The magic number seven (plus or minus two): Some limits on our capacity for processing information, Psychological Review, 63, 81-93
Seamon, J., Punjabi, P. and Busch, E. (2010). Memorising Milton's Paradise Lost: A study of a septuagenarian exceptional memoriser. Memory, 18 (5), 498-503