The Mystery of Memory
Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors
The Mystery of MemoryLet poetry unlock your healing power.
While an ancient Greek would tell you that your memories live in your beating heart and an early Buddhist could read to you from scriptures written on his bones, a modern scientist can’t tell you much with certainty about what memory is or how it works. It is quite remarkable that with all the information we humans have accrued by studying our own bodies, no one has conclusively cracked the mystery of memory. Of course, there are throngs of techniques and even surgical procedures—not to mention medications, vitamins, herbal concoctions, and foods—whose purpose it is to enhance memory. But no one can tell you for sure its size or shape or capacity or exactly why it behaves the way it does.
Though they may not have found a way to measure the capacity of your memory, scientists have discovered in recent years that exercising it can be as important as exercising the body. It turns out that memory exercises stave off dementia and other forms of memory loss. Books, flash cards, and classes in the field of “Neurobics” have flooded the market with do-it-yourself memory workout programs for the aging brain.
You may be muttering under your breath by now that this is all well and good for some people, the ones who actually have an innate proclivity for memory, but you are not one of them, never have been, and never will be. I have heard this, or versions of it, from a startlingly high percentage of people. When I do, I feel the kind of heartbreak that a singing teacher must feel when, once again, she encounters a music lover who was told in sixth grade, as I was, to “just mouth the words.” I spent three decades believing I couldn’t sing—until Chloe Goodchild, a vocalist whose work on CD is appropriately called Your Naked Voice, unlocked the cage of my history and set my voice flying up into the present moment. Now I’ll blurt, bellow, and serenade at the least provocation. And, though I’m not always singing the expected note, it turns out I am definitely not tone-deaf.
Anyone can learn a poem by heart. Perhaps your natural capacity is obscured by memories of painful attempts in your past and projected failures in your future. But I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t eventually learn poems with ease. Whatever beliefs you hold about the limitations of your own memory, I urge you to question them. As scientists and mystics will concur, memory is a great mystery and whatever you believe to be true about it could as easily be fiction. Who knows how vast your memory is or what it can hold? Science’s latest theory is that a memory is a pattern of synaptic connections in the brain. There are about a thousand trillion such connections possible. That means there is the potential for 30 times as much to be stored in your brain as is stored in the entire Library of Congress.
Throughout history people have memorized gargantuan amounts of information by using all manner of memory tricks. You can associate words with colors or visualize them in specific locations or connect them with random images or make acronyms of their first letters. There are even annual World Memory Championships in which people win recognition and lots of money by remembering unbelievably long lists of numbers or names by way of one technique or another.
Learning a poem by heart is different. Just as you need no technique to remember a really great kiss, a list of your favorite foods, or a mystical experience, you need no tricks of memory to recall a poem you love. It happens through allowing yourself to be touched and changed by the creative relationship. As Plato might say, when the words on the page are connected with the wisdom of the soul, memory happens.
I invite you to learn a poem by heart. Write it on your bones, plant it in your synapses, give it a home in your memory palace. The question of exactly what memory is and why it behaves as it does can remain unanswered, swathed in the wonder that the ancient Greeks may have felt when they worshipped it as a goddess: Mnemosyne, the great mother of the Muses.