Pounding the treadmill in 1993, John Basinger, aged 58, decided to complement his physical exercise by memorising the 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000 words that comprise the Second Edition of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Nine years later he achieved his goal, performing the poem from memory over a three-day period, and since then he has recited the poem publicly on numerous occasions. When the psychologist John Seamon of Wesleyan University witnessed one of those performances in December 2008, he saw an irresistible research opportunity.
Seamon and his colleagues tested Basinger’s memory systematically in the lab. They provided two lines as a cue and then ‘JB’ (as they refer to him in their report) had to reproduce the next ten. With the exception of books VII, his least favourite, and XI, JB’s performance was uniformly exceptional – regardless of whether the researchers revealed which book and book section the cue lines were from or not, and regardless of whether they tested portions of the poem in sequence or picked them randomly, JB displayed an accuracy of around 88 per cent in terms of correctly recalled words. When mistakes were made, they tended to be omissions rather than altered or added words. The researchers also tested JB’s everyday memory and found that in all non-Milton respects it was age-typical.
Seamon and his co-workers claim JB’s feat shows that ‘cognitive expertise in memorisation remains possible even in later adulthood, a time period in which cognitive researchers have typically focused on decline.’
Just how did JB manage to pull off this incredible feat? He studied for about one hour per day, reciting verses in seven-line chunks, consistent with Miller’s magic number seven – the capacity of short-term, working memory. Added together, JB estimates that he devoted between 3000 to 4000 hours to learning the poem. Seamon’s team interpret this commitment in terms of Ericsson’s ‘deliberate practice theory’, in which thousands of hours of perfectionist, self-critical practice are required to achieve true expertise.
JB didn’t use the mnemonic techniques favoured by memory champions, but neither, the researchers say, should we see his achievement as a ‘demonstration of brute force, rote memorisation’. Rather it was clear that JB was ‘deeply cognitively involved’ in learning Milton’s poem. JB explained:
‘During the incessant repetition of Milton’s words, I really began to listen to them, 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. … I think of the poem in various ways. As a cathedral I carry around in my mind, a place that I can enter and walk around at will. … Whenever I finish a “Paradise Lost” performance I raise the poem and have it take a bow.’
Seamon, J., Punjabi, P., & Busch, E. (2010). Memorising Milton’s Paradise Lost: A study of a septuagenarian exceptional memoriser. Memory, 18 (5), 498-503 DOI: 10.1080/09658211003781522