"Memory is the mother of all Wisdom" - Aeschylus
Part 1: What is memory and how can we manipulate it to recall what we need?
Memory is often compared to a device like a computer or camera. Our brains are not an artificial device and the whole body is involved with memory, so a reduction to an artificial device can be misleading. With the exception of people who have what is called eidetic memory, most of us have a more complex interaction with our memories. Memories are created when we pause and reflect, associate with previous experiences, concepts or objects, and are aided by all five senses.
Memories are categorized into four tiers: Short-term, Short-term working, Long-term working, and Long-term. Short term memory examples include looking up a phone number (without the internet), using that phone number from memory, and then forgetting it. Long-term memories are usually linked to an event, have specific emotions attached to them and stay with an individual for a very long time.
When you have a memorable experience, you see, hear, feel, smell, and sometimes even taste what is remembered. These senses formed what the English philosopher John Locke called sense impressions, one of the foundational concepts of what we have come to call cognition. In contrast, Rene Descartes, who invented billiards, the Cartesian coordinate system, as well as mechanical fountains for Versailles, put it this way: Cogito Ergo Sum (Co-gee-toe Air-go Soom), I think therefore I am. Both of these notions draw a wedge between the ideas of the mind and a mechanistic view of the body as a machine. While this sort of Dualism is still debated today, with some going so far as to say that there is a universal consciousness that is independent and shared by all, we will not concern our discussion with these questions.
All of your senses do conjure thoughts, these thoughts may be briefly stored, and if given the right stimuli, recalled for later use. However, unless you are born with an eidetic memory, you must train your mind to recall the information you want to memorize. Memory is a tremendous asset and once you understand how to memorize, your knowledge and understanding of any topic can be greatly enhanced. The question is, how do we do it?
Part 2: Memorization Strategies
We can look to the ancient Greeks for wisdom in a number of areas. Memory is no exception. The principle teacher of one of the greatest military strategists and leaders of recorded history, Alexander the Great, was none other than the philosopher Aristotle. While only fragments of some of his works remain in the form of notes for giving lectures at the Lyceum, one of the most well documented passages concerns his lasting work on memory. To Aristotle, memory was about association. How does one object or action link with another? If we have a clear conception of say, a circle, drawing an association with a wheel is not difficult. Memorization through association is strong method of storing useful information, it simply takes a bit a practice.
As an exercise, take two items, let's use a tiger and a towel. Picture the two together, not just side by side, but interacting: Maybe the tiger is wrapped in the towel, or the towel has tiger stripes, or a hand towel in the bathroom that has the whiskers and face of tiger. Think about all the different ways the two can be combined for the next thirty seconds or so.
Now try to visualize only a towel, or only a tiger. Odds are, your mind conjures some form of the other when thinking of only one of these things. This is the power of association. We can use it with ideas, as well as our senses, we will come back to this point in the near future.
Many things we can usefully recall come in the form of lists, like grocery lists, names, dates, and even certain sections of Masonic ritual. Building on association is the 'method of loci' (low-sci), whose creation and development again is credited to Greeks, and perfected by the Romans. Tragic though its supposed origin may be, it is a very powerful technique. Visualize a familiar space, your home, place of business, or lodge. Somewhere you can mentally walk through and in your mind's eye, see every detail, color and locate every object in it. Next, imagine the items in your list as substitutes for these familiar objects, for instance, if you have frozen pizzas on your grocery list, you can imagine a clock on the wall made of pizza. The key is to create images that are unusual, and because of novelty, you will be able to recall the items. After substituting all the items in the list in place of ordinary objects, visualize the space again and walk through it in your mind to recall the items.
The next strategy to use is music. Music is one of a handful of whole brain activities. Logic uses the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas creativity and language are right brain activities. Music makes use of both and is a tremendous asset to memory. Learning your ABCs in school was probably taught to you as a song. I can still sing the song I learned, and the melody is embedded in my mind. Both the bible and epic poetry from ancient Greece and Rome used a lyre to accompany their stories:
Given the extensive reach of the Greeks throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond throughout ancient times, and spread their culture throughout the known western world, its no surprise that the lyre was used extensively by King David. David was a talented musician, and before becoming king, was personal musician for king Saul, who had trouble sleeping. Eventually, Saul lost the favor of God and a guerilla war with David, who later composed many Psalms still sung in churches and synagogues today. The Greeks used the lyre to help memorize as well as entertain audiences for epic poetry recitals. Homer's Illiad and Odyssey are both meant to be recited aloud and accompanied by a lyre.
The words in a poem have a rhythm and meter, music can be created around the words to fit their structure. When you want to memorize something, you can also do the opposite, by fitting words to a familiar song. By associating information with a space or even an emotion, making it outlandish to the point of absurdity, fitting those constructs to music, and repeatedly meditating and reflecting on these mental structures, you can lock in information for easy recall later. While this does not sound easy, you will be surprised by the progress you will make with practice.
Why is ritual work so important in Freemasonry?
Ritual work is a large part of the Masonic experience. It is how we open and close our lodges, initiate and test our candidates, and get certificates for successfully meeting Grand Lodge Standards. Outside of fundraising, charitable activities, community service and fun activities, ritual is defining feature of Freemasonry. Ritual is for some, a chore, for the initiated, a blessing. But why is this? Some use Masonry as an excuse to get out of the house and have some fun with the guys. But in reality, ritual is designed as the cornerstone of Masonic education. Its allegory and symbolism are used to communicate the profound moral and reverential significance that our Order seeks to embed in all its members.
The most often expressed view of seasoned Masons is that they always get something new out of the ritual when they see it. The amount of information contained in ritual work is staggering and as a candidate, seeing it once leaves one's head spinning.