Feats of memory

Learn seven lines a day. . .

The steady degradation of our mental faculties as we age has been documented in depressing detail. If you’re over 30, you’re losing it—the only question is how fast.

So it’s nice when a study comes along suggesting that people post-50 are capable of remarkable mental feats. Take 74-year-old John Basinger. When he was 58, he decided on a lark to see if he could memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost. The whole thing. All 60,000-plus words. It took him nine years, but he pulled it off and has even recited it in public.

That takes three days. It’s a long poem.

Researchers wanted to discover Basinger’s secret and also how well he really knew the poem. Turns out, he memorized the poem in small segments—about seven lines a day (this is consistent with other research on what the immediate memory can hold). And it wasn’t just rote memorization: Basinger was attempting to comprehend the motivations of the characters, to gain a “deep, conceptual understanding of the poem.” He tried to connect with it emotionally.

The researchers tested his accuracy by prompting him with two lines from the poem and asking him to recite the next ten. They found that he made few errors and, when he did, they were usually errors of omission.

He’s not some memory superhero, though. Basinger has the same memory troubles that annoy most seniors (and plenty of us non-seniors, too). He forgets names, can’t find his keys, etc.  He’s pretty much normal for his age, except for the memorizing-all-of-Paradise-Lost thing.

via Memorizing Milton – Percolator – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Sandra Rhein

    The persistence to spend nine years memorizing something is also remarkable. I wonder how many hours a day he spent repeating the lines to keep them from slipping back out of his brain. This is encouraging!

  • Sandra Rhein

    The persistence to spend nine years memorizing something is also remarkable. I wonder how many hours a day he spent repeating the lines to keep them from slipping back out of his brain. This is encouraging!

  • Winston Smith

    It’s true. When your brain is young, it’s like soft clay, and making a lasting impression is easy. The older you get, the more your brain resists anything making an impression. Living in the internet age with information saturating your brain does not help.

    I would like to know a lot more Scripture from memory than I do now. As Mr. Basinger found, the key is doing it in small bites.

  • Winston Smith

    It’s true. When your brain is young, it’s like soft clay, and making a lasting impression is easy. The older you get, the more your brain resists anything making an impression. Living in the internet age with information saturating your brain does not help.

    I would like to know a lot more Scripture from memory than I do now. As Mr. Basinger found, the key is doing it in small bites.

  • http://RoseFremer@yahoo.com Rose

    Another option–”Sing the Faith”, the Small Catechism set to song.
    For samples, see http://www.amazon.com/Sing-Faith-Small-Catechism-Music/dp/B00258NFSY
    Or for VBS children, see: http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=11670

  • http://RoseFremer@yahoo.com Rose

    Another option–”Sing the Faith”, the Small Catechism set to song.
    For samples, see http://www.amazon.com/Sing-Faith-Small-Catechism-Music/dp/B00258NFSY
    Or for VBS children, see: http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=11670

  • Orianna Laun

    And yet, all the education specialists say that rote memorization is pointless.
    Nine years, huh? Whew! What a feat. Now if only the middle schoolers would spend nine days on the prepositions, I’d be content with that.

  • Orianna Laun

    And yet, all the education specialists say that rote memorization is pointless.
    Nine years, huh? Whew! What a feat. Now if only the middle schoolers would spend nine days on the prepositions, I’d be content with that.

  • http://www.rayfowler.org/ Ray Fowler

    Wow, that is quite the achievement. For those of you who are interested in memorizing longer passages of Scripture, I just released a new tool this week which I hope will be a help to people. You can check it out here: The Bible Memory Version

  • http://www.rayfowler.org/ Ray Fowler

    Wow, that is quite the achievement. For those of you who are interested in memorizing longer passages of Scripture, I just released a new tool this week which I hope will be a help to people. You can check it out here: The Bible Memory Version

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Mr. Basinger is awesome! This reminds me of my Greek and Latin professor in college. Prof. Froehlich. We were all convinced that he had the whole Bible memorized in 3 languages and he was certainly elderly then when he was my prof. But he was the best prof. ever! He knew his stuff and he made his students know their stuff, with lots and lots of memorization. He had us memorize the Nicene Creed in Greek once. Memorization is an amazing tool for “inwardly” digesting the Word of God. I will save this story for my adult Bible Class.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Mr. Basinger is awesome! This reminds me of my Greek and Latin professor in college. Prof. Froehlich. We were all convinced that he had the whole Bible memorized in 3 languages and he was certainly elderly then when he was my prof. But he was the best prof. ever! He knew his stuff and he made his students know their stuff, with lots and lots of memorization. He had us memorize the Nicene Creed in Greek once. Memorization is an amazing tool for “inwardly” digesting the Word of God. I will save this story for my adult Bible Class.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I would add that Milton’s poetry is good to memorize. (The Bible, above all, of course, but Milton’s verse has special power.) I never tried to memorize “Paradise Lost,” but I’ve read it and taught it enough that parts of it stay in my mind. Different experiences and reflections will cause lines to come up into my consciousness

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I would add that Milton’s poetry is good to memorize. (The Bible, above all, of course, but Milton’s verse has special power.) I never tried to memorize “Paradise Lost,” but I’ve read it and taught it enough that parts of it stay in my mind. Different experiences and reflections will cause lines to come up into my consciousness

  • J

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Veith; it’s very encouraging.

    @6 You’re so right about the effects of memorizing scripture.

  • J

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Veith; it’s very encouraging.

    @6 You’re so right about the effects of memorizing scripture.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    .. and I thought I was amazed at how well my kids were memorizing their verses for the National Bible Bee…

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    .. and I thought I was amazed at how well my kids were memorizing their verses for the National Bible Bee…

  • EGK

    I had a great comment to make, but I forgot what it was . . .

  • EGK

    I had a great comment to make, but I forgot what it was . . .

  • Tom Hering

    How do you remember the names of 1,000 men? (The last line of this story is hilarious.)

  • Tom Hering

    How do you remember the names of 1,000 men? (The last line of this story is hilarious.)


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