Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The power of memory

Yesterday I gave a lecture on the amazing Jesuit who brought Western science to China in the early 17th century, Matteo Ricci.  One of the most dazzling of his achievements was his prodigious memory. He found the Chinese language perfectly adapted to his system, called a memory palace, of associating letters or words with images.

As a result, he could memorize an entire Chinese text and recite it to the Mandarin scholars in Beijing, then recite the whole thing backwards, to everyone's amazement. This was part of his being accepted in an alien culture hostile to foreigners. Jonathan Spence, in "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci," explains the complex process by which he did so.

In today's New York Times, I happened to see an article by Benedict Carey about an international Extreme Memory Tournament in which contestants do much the same thing as Ricci and his Jesuit colleagues did in the Renaissance.  Ricci's name is (surprisingly) not mentioned, even though the term "memory palace," popularized by Spence's book, should have made Ricci  familiar enough to warrant a mention.

At any event, as I told my audience yesterday, in earlier, oral cultures, with fewer texts available, the memory skills of people were stretched in ways that we can barely imagine.  Ricci, thirty years after finishing his education in classics in Italy, could recall entire passages of poetry or prose from his youth and quote them verbatim, before translating them into Chinese, in the many books he wrote during his 27 years in the Middle Kingdom, where he is still honored as a cultural ambassador.

In today's world of memory athletes, neuroscientists are interested in testing how contestants from Germany, a leader in such work, and other countries can associate words or numbers already memorized with places, such as with scenes from a movie. Or the rooms in a house or palace.

It takes them many, many hours of concentrated effort to achieve what Ricci and his contemporaries 400 years ago were able to do with seemingly effortless ease.  Perhaps one day we will understand how they did so as we learn more and more about the brain and the human memory.

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