Monday, October 27, 2008

Stop Forgetting

This book fell into my lap at the Wellington Downtown Community Ministry book last year. It's a book about memory, one of the first complete modern memory systems in fact. Think Mega Memory, but without the insufferable infomercials and the tapes. It is the work of a Dr. Bruno Furst, although it is quite possible that he was a doctor of law, rather than medicine or psychology - what little information one can find about him is rather sketchy on that point. We know that he used to lecture law in Czechoslovakia before the second world war and that he is credited as founder and director School of the Memory and Concentration, an international organisation devoted to the improvement of memory "with some twenty branches in the U.S.A., Great Britain and many other English-speaking countries" as of 1949, the date of publication of the book. At least one of these branches still operates at a place called Bowden Hall College, in the United Kingdom, and retains the publishing rights of Furst's courses.

A forerunner of the self-help books that infest our shops, Stop Forgetting is nonetheless in many respects a fascinating and sympathetic book. I might be inclined to quibble with the title - and I will - but I find nothing wrong whatsoever with the overarching goal, which is to help readers improve their capacity to remember stuff. To this end Furst develops a system that leverages the mind's ability to associate and categorise. Part of this system involves translating numbers into words - for instance 91 into the word bat, 92 into bean and 93 into beam - then associates these word-number pairs with pictures, and makes the keyword table thus created the springboard for memorising more complex words and sentences: anything that can be expressed through language, in fact. One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the testimonials of people from several walks of life - the musician, the theological student, the film critic - applying the system in order to memorise information specific to their particular field. And then there are the passages that would make a more contemporary reader smile, such as when we are invited to study and remember a series of magazine ads (aren't we supposed to forget those?), or some fantastic photographic galleries of post-war faces; but those too are part of the colour and the appeal: it is a book of its time, meant to be of practical use, and again I find its broad objectives entirely laudable.

As to whether or not the system works, I have little doubt that it does. It is well thought out and designed, not afraid to incorporate favourite aspects of previous systems and besides, the history of culture is punctuated with similar attempts to improve memory and most of them work because in the end it might just be the (systematic) thought that counts: making a conscious effort to associate and categorise, deploying an ingenious array of mental tricks, running through lists, populating palaces of memory in one's head. It all focuses the mind, it all helps.

But... why do we do it? And I mean especially why nowadays, when so many technologies and gadgets vie for the privilege of helping us to remember stuff, freeing up the mind from the clutter of names and addresses and lists of Academy Award-winning directors so that it can finally attend to some higher level thinking? I think the answer is reasonably complex, but in marketing the book Furst seems to have anticipated in 1949 the reasons that the purveyors of memory books and courses invariably go through today, most often by putting them in the mouth of exasperated punters wishing that they could put names to faces, remember their appointments, study more effectively. In other words, the aspirations of the prospective reader are always perceived to be as follows, and pretty much always in this order: to function better in social situations, to be better at one's work, and to improve oneself beyond memory alone, through memory. The infomercials and the testimonials will bear me out.

Whether this tells the whole story, I'm not so sure. Without aiming to over-analyse a book cover that urges us to stop forgetting a mere four years after the most destructive and genocidal conflict in the history of humanity, the will to protect and improve one's memory has to be seated a little deeper than the wish to avoid social embarrassment ("Frank, so good to see you, have you met... thingy?") or to be more efficient at work. Memory is, quite simply, the glue that holds the self together. Lose that, you lose yourself, as those of us who have had the misfortune of seeing a loved one fall prey to Alzheimer's disease know all too well. Which explains I think why holding on to one's own memory is seen by most as crucial to one's identity. What matters is not just what is remembered - much of which could be externalised in any number of forms and media - but also, and in fact primarily, that you yourself remember it. It is your life story, it is who you are: not a sum of photos and recorded conversations and written documents, but a narrative infused with personal meaning.

The technologist retorts: we can remember it for you wholesale. But the supplement is no substitute, as I hope to show next week when I turn to the film Memento. It is Plato's lesson some twenty-four centuries later, and a struggle that is replayed incessantly in literature and the arts, reflecting a defining trope of our times - that we are in caught in a love/hate relationship with technology - as well as a pervasive unease concerning the ever-increasing mediation and remediation of our lives.

Which leads me to the afore-hinted at quibble with Furst's title. The injunction to Stop Forgetting is at the very crest of our zeitgeist, a defining aspect of the information age and of Internet culture especially, and one deserving of some serious critique. As I suggested a few posts back, working towards an ecology of memory involves reclaiming the very economy of expression that digital technology has made obsolete, and rescuing forgetting from the rhetoric of those who regard loss of information as the ultimate sin of our age. But perhaps Furst anticipated this, and in the opening of the book he abandons the attention-grabbing imperative mood of the cover in favour of a softer, gentler declarative: You Can Remember. In the space between those two phrases lies the work that I hope to accomplish with this blog.

Bruno Furst. Stop Forgetting: How to Develop Your Memory and Put it to Practical Use. New York: Greenberg, 1949. Reprinted in the UK by Psychology Publishing Ltd., 1963.


stephen said...

I would like to know what you think of computer programs that aid memorization.

For example SuperMemo is a sort of enhanced flashcard system which uses superduper statistical techniques to jog your memory at just the right time. The author is an obsessive self-improver, but he certainly has a point with his insistence that mastery of rote facts is essential to a sound grasp of many subjects.

Giovanni said...

I invite you to find it ironic that I had bookmarked the link to that Wired article but never ended up reading it, so thanks for jolting it back!

My understanding of SuperMemo is that it has a big advantage over non-computer based methods - the ability to test the user and calibrate the menmonic response. Most book-based memory systems give you some tests to perform first, but they're only there to create a rough baseline and show your improvement over time. And it seems likely to me that, were Mr. Furst alive now, he would be using computers in his courses.

The point to me is not, however, where you conduct the memory training, at least not primarily: is whether you feel the need to train your memory at all. You
can make the entirely reasonable point that rote learning is pointless anyway, and that what you need in the current ICT environment is to know how to navigate information. It's a sticky problem, and in memory books you pretty much always see the means get confused with the end at some point or other. Furst writes for instance:

Let us suppose that you are going to give a party tonight and that you have to buy twenty items for this party. Of course, it would be easy to write them down; but, apart from the danger of losing the slip, we wish to train and use our memory. (p. 75)

Surely the reason to train one's memory cannot be in order to remember things that we could easily write down. There has to be some added value. One of them, as you point out, is learning, which is not quite the same thing as committing to memory: learning a language is a major case in point - it's not just about memorising a vocabulary but also about learning procedures and forming habits of mind. And the creator of SuperMemo seems to have had that in mind, along with his amateur psychologist's interest in the Ebbinghaus experiments.

Than there is the social functioning aspect. In Russell's blog entry I linked to he spoke of his frustration with not being able to put names to faces. But this is the same guy who has a prodigious ability to navigate and collate information found on and off the Web. I don't know that you could say that his memory is defective, much less that he is socially deficient, but it highlights at the very least that there are different types of memory and that training them has a place for those who see the need.

merc said...

Love is short, forgetting is so long.

harvestbird said...

Liberace had a system for names:
little did his hostesses know
that they were tightly tied to objects

keeping instead this feeling that they were known by him
(Liberace, for it was he)
that trap-tight mind, that holding of the gaze

that face whose giant frescoed double
beamed down, radiant and empty
from the ceiling of a closetless bathroom

stop, stop, stop forgetting

Giovanni said...

Love is short, forgetting is so long.

Merc: it's even more suggestive in Spanish: es tan largo el olvido, so long is the forgetting, a noun, not something that is actively engaged in but something that happens, that unravels, like time. Because to forget is impossible, in verb form: you can train your memory but not your forgetfulness.

Or is it? Of course I don't know, much as I'm fascinated by that possibility. But I keep going back to the (possibly romanticised) image of the mnemonist Shereshevsky - I mentioned it here - burning pieces of paper inscribed with the things he wished he could forget.

And Harvest Bird: I'm going to have to thank you each time, lest it becomes a taken for granted thing: so thank you.

merc said...

Brilliante! The poet's muse is apparently Mneme, that is, memory. Poet comes from the word "make".
In order to live as a poet I have found my attempts to unmake memory, futile.
I hope one day we meet!

Giovanni said...

Yes, some know her as Mnemosyne, and in spite of her job description she was a total babe - but I cannot find the particular statue I'm thinking of, the Google Images results are swamped with anime soft porn (go figure) and Wikipedia goes for the Rossetti version (meh).

But the idea I think is that for the early Greek lyricists and the Homeric bards poetry was something that primarily had to be remembered, not created in a fixed form (and much less "written", of course). And even for Plato, truth wasn't so much deduced as brought back to mind, unforgotten. I have several dozen blog posts on this - it's going to be riveting. Riveting, I tell you!

I hope one day we meet!

I'm so sedentary these days, the only way to meet me would be to become my meter reader. When I don't go all out and skip to Italy - I must find a half measure!

Taramoc said...

I have a friend who used a similar method to the one in the book to learn to count card in a local casino playing Blackjack. It worked very well for him, to the point that the casino banned him. Since they can't technically prove that he was counting card, unless they employ mind readers, they use their sweeping rule that allows them to deny access to the premises to anybody, no question asked.

This is the only illegal and hence negative use of similar techniques to improve memory that I can think of, and even this one can easily be justified morally. Casinos hardly play fair in their dealings.

In terms of positives, as a fellow emigrant from old Europe to a newer country (Canada in my case), I did notice a different perception of memory in the two continents. In North America, often memory is seen as intelligence. You know a lot of things equal you are smart. I didn’t find that was the case as much in Italy. Knowledge is all good, of course, but problem solving and reasoning define much more a smart person there.

I’ve been trying to figure out the reason of this distinction for quite some time, and the only thing I can think of is the difference between school curricula, much more centered on memorization in Italy than in North America (at least from what I remember and have been told by the locals). Is this a difference between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures (the book is published in Great Britain after all) perhaps? I’m curious to know if anybody else had the same perception.

Aside from the origin of such distinction (assuming that there is one and it’s not just me), I can see how Furst’s book assumes an even greater meaning in that context, and in how can improve your social status even further: it makes you smarter.

By the way, don’t worry about my friend, he is fine, made a chunk of cash on the Blackjack and now is making a handsome living playing Texas Hold’em on the Internet.

Giovanni said...

Your friend should be careful he doesn't get banned from the Internet.

I'd be delighted to be proven wrong, but I don't think that a lot of work has bene done in the field of the comparative ethnography of memory. Something here and there, yes, but no broad studies and not a lot of data.

For what it's worth, my impression is consistent with yours: here in New Zealand the education system appears to be more process-based and less rote learning-based than in Italy, certainly in the humanities at the very least. Whether that leads people overall to feel that those who remember more stuff are smarter, however, I honestly don't know. And, judging by how easily I've been able to borrow the only copy of Mega-Memory held at the local library on numerous occasions, supercharging one's memory may not be as popular a concept as it is in North America. But that's all anecdotal and vague. As I pointed out to Merc, I don't go out much...