The Rewards of Memorizing a Book of the Bible

You must read this article about an actor who memorized and then performed all of Paradise Lost (over 60,000 words). I say you must because I want to convince you to take up the long-term practice of slowly memorizing short books of the Bible (see two of my past attempts to convince you here and here), and I think the description of how this practice changed his experience and knowledge of the text is both accurate and compelling.

[John] Basinger didn’t just remember the words; it would be a mistake, says Seamon, to interpret Basinger’s performance as “simply a remarkable demonstration of brute force, rote memorisation.”

In order to memorize the epic poem, he spent a lot of time repeatedly analyzing its meaning and structure. Acting researchers emphasize this strategy, Seamon notes: “Deep encoding requires actors to attend to the exact wording of lines, and it is the focus on exact wording to gain an understanding of the characters that yields verbatim memory, instead of merely the retention of gist.” …

Actors like Basinger use deep encoding to give “honest, spontaneous performances, ones that focus on communicating the meanings underlying the literal words,” according to psychologists Helga and Tony Noice…. Basinger, Seamon says, “really got into the story, what Milton was trying to convey.” Noice and Noice suggest that this would aid his recall: “Bodily action and emotional response, in addition to semantic analysis, can enhance human memory.”

Memorizing in order to perform the words from the perspective of the author forced him to work on truly understanding the meaning of what he was reading. From the big picture to the smallest word, it all had to make sense to him.

He beautifully describes what this kind of memorization does to you:

“During the incessant repetition of Milton’s words, I really began to listen to them,”says Basinger, “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.” …

For his part, Basinger says his years of effort have let him explore Paradise Lost as if it were a physical space. “As a cathedral I carry around in my mind,” he says, “a place that I can enter and walk around at will.”

I can’t believe how well he captured the experience with that image. Imagine knowing books of the Bible this way. And you really can do this. There was nothing at all special about the man’s memory:

Nothing in Basinger’s tests suggested that his memory was otherwise irregular or exceptional. “His memory for everyday tasks appears entirely normal for someone his age,” Seamon says. “He still forgets where he puts his keys.” For those of us who struggle to remember to-do lists, it’s encouraging to know: “Our findings are in agreement with other research on world-class memory performers,” Seamon says, “which indicates that exceptional memorizers are made, not born.”

Pick a book of the Bible, and start today with two verses. Add two verses a day. Speak them out loud as if you’re reading a letter (the Epistles) or telling a story (the Gospels). If you don’t understand what you’re memorizing, struggle with it until you do. When that book—from start to finish—becomes “a cathedral you carry around in your mind,” move on to the next book and start again. You may not perfectly remember every word of a particular book a year after you’ve moved on, but the intimate knowledge you will carry of that “cathedral”—its architecture and floor plan, the images on its stained glass windows, its unique sounds and smells—will remain with you. You will forever know it as one who has thoroughly explored all its corners, not merely as one who peeked in its windows.

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Amy K. Hall

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