We’ve often heard someone’s memory described as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’. But with the majority of psychological memory models drawing on information processing analogies with terms like ‘storage’, ‘retrieval’, and ‘input’, where did the idea of memory’s strength come from?
In a recent article published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Alan Collins of Lancaster University reviewed British and American texts dating between 1860 and 1910 that focused on improving human memory. By extending his analysis to include those texts aimed at popular audiences as well as those intended more specifically for academics, Collins noticed a trend during this period in which the importance of enhancing natural memory was emphasised over the creation of artificial memory systems.
The idea of ‘artificial’ memory was used to describe systems created with the intention of supporting or improving one’s memory capabilities – be they mnemonics or some other form of memory aid. The criticism of such systems at the time was that they require too much mental effort and have only limited value in the practical sense. ‘Natural’ memory, conversely, was used generally to describe our innate memory systems.
Collins explains that the increasing tendency towards discussions of natural memory in the latter decades of the 19th century paralleled a wider emphasis on understanding everything as being a part of nature and therefore subject to natural laws. Guidebooks of the period connected all aspects of one’s life to their general health: a healthy diet, good (moral) habits, pure air, and both a strong mind and a strong body were key to a good character. Natural memory became wrapped up in these recommendations, often described as similar to our bodily functions, especially our muscles. The argument put forth contended that just as our muscles require exercise, training, and discipline, so too does our memory.
But just how does one ‘exercise’; their memory? In short: repeated practice. The memory improvement texts examined by Collins advised readers to block out a period of time each day to actively exercise their memories. This time could be spent learning lists, reciting poetry, or recounting the events of the previous day. Focused attention on the chosen task was considered to be an especially critical component.
As Collins highlights in his conclusion, today we no longer draw on the muscle metaphor explicitly in discussions of memory, but the concept of ‘strength’ has remained. However, if we think about the advent of computer games and apps intended to strengthen (or, dare I say ‘exercise’?) the mind, perhaps the idea of working out one’s memory is not quite as foreign as it may seem. Besides, learning a verse of poetry sounds a great deal more appealing than hitting the treadmill.
Collins AF (2014). Advice for improving memory: exercising, strengthening, and cultivating natural memory, 1860-1910. Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences, 50 (1), 37-57 PMID: 24272820
Post written for the BPS Research Digest by guest host Jennifer Bazar, who is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto/Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care and an Occasional Contributor to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog.