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James Beattie,

Of Memory and Imagination

Excerpts from a Digitized Text  at Google Books.

This excerpt describes

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"Methods of Improving Memory, Attention, Recollection, Writing, Conversation, Etc."

To talk upon a subject, makes the mind attentive to it, and promotes facility of remembrance. And, in this way, we may improve ourselves by instructing the ignorant, as well as by conversing with those who are superiour to us in wisdom, or equal. Every man, who can speak, thinks in some one language or other: but, if our words only pass internally through the mind, we shall not so well remember them, as if we had given them vocal utterance. Conversation, too, makes recollection, and something of arrangement, necessary; and obliges the speaker to express himself so as to be understood by others; which is sometimes not easily done, even by those who think they very well understand their own meaning. By all these exercises, attention is fixed, and our thoughts are set in a variety of lights; and, therefore, we become more thoroughly acquainted with them, and more exactly retain them. For, in silent meditation, the mind is apt to be indolent; to quit a subject before it has obtained a clear view of it; to escape from thoughts that seem to be attended with any perplexity; and to follow every amusing idea that may present itself, without caring how far it may lead from the present purpose. Of such meditations the memory retains little or nothing. But when we speak aloud, or converse, our thoughts become more stationary, and are better connected, and more perfectly understood; and impressions are made on the ear, as well as on the mind.

Memory may be made both susceptible and tenacious, and the understanding greatly improved, by writing. . . . Our thoughts are fleeting, and the greater part of our words are forgotten as soon as uttered: but, by writing, we may give permanency to both; and keep them in view, till by comparing one with another, we make all consistent, and supply what is wanting, and amend what is erroneous. Thus attention is fixed; judgment is exercised; clear ideas are conveyed to the understanding; and the memory is prepared for receiving a deep impression. Let us, therefore, often write down, not only the sentiments we learn from books, and teachers, and conversation; but also those that are peculiarly our own, of which a considerable number may arise in the minds of most men every day. And, though many of these might, no doubt, be forgotten without loss, yet some may be found worthy of a lasting remembrance.

And here let me caution my young reader against the practice of writing confusedly, inaccurately, or on loose papers. It is as easy, and far more advantageous, to write correctly and legibly, with durable ink, and in notebooks provided for the purpose, and carefully preserved. And when a volume is finished, it will be an amusement, and a profitable one too, to read it over; to make an index to it; and to write upon the cover such a title, or summary of contents, as may serve for a direction .  . . .

This practice of writing is much recommended by Cicero and Quintilian. The advantages of it are manifold. It not only makes us think, and remember with accuracy, but also tends to form the style, and to give us a command of words, and a pure and easy elocution; which in every state of life is a most useful talent, and highly ornamental; and which, when accompanied with a sound judgment and good address, seldom fails to advance a man in the world. This practice also gives stability to our thoughts, and puts it in our power to review and rectify them, as we grow wiser, and to mark our progress in style and literature. In this way, too, we learn to think for ourselves, and acquire in time a stock of knowledge that is properly of our own growth: which is a proof, that our minds are really cultivated, and serves as an encouragement to persist in making further acquisitions. -- To a person grown old in the pursuits of learning, and in the study of human nature, such a record, as is here proposed, of the progress of the understanding in his early years, would be inexpressibly amusing, and very profitable. And, though one should not devote one’s self to letters, nor live to be old, such a record would be of great use in the improvement of one's mind and memory, and would amply compensate the labour of carrying it on.

Frequent recapitulations of what we learn, often to converse about it, (where that can be done conveniently), and as often as we can to reduce it to practice, are almost the only further means that can be proposed, for rendering memory tenacious. . . .

As to quickness of recollection; it depends chiefly on exercise, and, on our being often in circumstances, in which it may be necessary for us . to call to mind, and make use of, our learning. When these opportunities are wanting, let us, however, habitually revise, and meditate upon, such parts of knowledge as we wish to have always at command. Persons, who frequently join in general conversation, or whose profession obliges them to speak in public, have, for the most part, a facility of recollection, that surprises the recluse student; who perhaps knows more than they; but who, for want of practice, cannot call to mind the thoughts he is in quest of, till the opportunity of applying them be lost. This is a great misfortune. Remembrance, with a tardy recollection, is little better than forgetfulness. It is like those weapons, mentioned in the proverb, which are never at hand in the hour of danger; or like those friends, who are always ready to help you, except when you have occasion for them. To those who labour under this infirmity, it is, therefore, of great importance, to exercise themselves frequently in recollection; to cultivate a social and communicative temper; to engage in the active scenes of life; and sometimes, when alone, to make speeches extempore, on any occasional subject. Thus they will acquire that self command in speaking, and that presence of mind in company, without which one is rather incumbered, than assisted, by one's learning.

A methodical course of study, a love of order, and a habit of distributing our knowledge into classes, and referring every new acquisition to its proper head, will also be of use in promoting a ready recollection. . . . Students . . . should often revise their knowledge, or at least the more useful branches of it; renew those impressions on the memory, which had begun to decay through length of time; and be particularly careful to retain the plan, or general arrangement, of every part of erudition.

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