Living · Teaching

Memory, the Mother of the Arts

The Greek goddess Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She is the mother of the Muses. So memory gives us the arts.

The Muses are the goddesses of inspiration who bless mortals with the gifts of song, dance, and contemplation. There are muses of epic poetry (Calliope), of lyric poetry (Euterpe), of love songs (Erato), of songs to the gods (Polyhymnia), of history (Clio), of chorus and dance (Terpsichore), of tragedy and comedy (Melpomene and Thalia), and of astronomy (Urania).
All of these arts rely on memory. Creating and performing these works means holding lines of verse, tunes, and motions in your head, keeping them in order, delivering them with the grace of a goddess. If we don’t have good memories, we can’t be good artists.
For all its miracles, Google is not helping us in the memory department. Don’t get me wrong; Google is amazing and powerful. I once employed its virtuosic search engine to identify a particularly nasty bug in my bathroom. I typed “big-ass bug with too many legs” in the glowing bar, and it delivered image after image of exactly the thing: a house centipede. So I know its phenomenal capabilities.
What I worry about is how much people are coming to rely on it. Sometimes I feel like my students have very little impetus (beyond the fear of failing quizzes) to remember anything; they’ll just Google it. My partner teaches chemistry. He has seen students who know the molecular weights of elements Google the weight of a compound instead of simply adding the weights together.
This seems small, I suppose, but I think it’s probably… not small.
When we stop calculating, we slowly lose the ability to check Google’s responses. When we stop memorizing things, we forget how to. When we don’t have stories and details and random facts that we find cool stored in our heads, we have nothing from which to create new worlds and solve the problems of this one. Memory is the mother of creativity.
It behooves us, then, to increase our memory. We need to go to the mental gym, not just the muscle gym. Those things that help us remember things? They’re called mnemonics, from Mnemosyne. Here are a few that always work.
 
Tell a story. If you want to remember a fact or a lesson, give it a narrative. We love stories (as evidenced by the fact that squarely seven and a half of those muses work in words). If you want to teach children to stay away from strangers, you tell them “Little Red Riding Hood.” If you want to teach them multiplication tables, it works there too. (There’s a video called Times Tales that animates numbers with narratives and helps kids memorize even math facts with stories).
 
Make a list. When we group things together that are similar, we visualize them together and see how they connect to each other. We have a tremendous ability to remember lists, whether we make up jingles for them or see them in our mind’s eye. Thinking of things’ similarities helps us remember them.
 
Visit your Mind Palace. Long before the BBC Sherlock visualized his Mind Palace to recall things, medieval folks imagined mental cathedrals, slotting facts or story blocks or shopping lists in to the stained glass windows of a cathedral and imagining themselves walking through it, seeing the items in order.
There are many more. When I have my students create journals for my Myth as Literature class, I give them complete freedom to use whatever tricks they can to help them remember the stories. Some make elaborate family trees. Some draw comics of their favorite scenes. Some write Tinder biographies of all the gods. Some theme their whole journal around what drink a god or hero would order at Starbucks and why it’s appropriate.
We need to do more of this, not less. We need to figure out what method works for us individually and what has a good track record on the whole, and we need to start employing these tricks. I’m heartened by the resurgence in Commonplace Books and Art and Bullet Journaling;  there does seem to be a trend currently to write things down that we want to remember.
Whatever we do, we need to combat the tendency to offload all our knowledge in to data files and websites. Otherwise we risk not only losing our ability to be creative, but also our own stories, our own lives, in the waters of Lethe, the River of Oblivion.

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