Memorizing Milton

When a study contains the words “memory” and “aging” it’s almost never good news. The steady degradation of our mental faculties as we age has been documented in depressing detail. If you’re over 30, you’re losing it—the only question is how fast.

So it’s nice when a study comes along suggesting that people post-50 are capable of remarkable mental feats. Take 74-year-old John Basinger. When he was 58, he decided on a lark to see if he could memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost. The whole thing. All 60,000-plus words. It took him nine years, but he pulled it off and has even recited it in public.

That takes three days. It’s a long poem.

Researchers wanted to discover Basinger’s secret and also how well he really knew the poem. Turns out, he memorized the poem in small segments—about seven lines a day (this is consistent with other research on what the immediate memory can hold). And it wasn’t just rote memorization: Basinger was attempting to comprehend the motivations of the characters, to gain a “deep, conceptual understanding of the poem.” He tried to connect with it emotionally.

The researchers tested his accuracy by prompting him with two lines from the poem and asking him to recite the next ten. They found that he made few errors and, when he did, they were usually errors of omission.

He’s not some memory superhero, though. Basinger has the same memory troubles that annoy most seniors (and plenty of us non-seniors, too). He forgets names, can’t find his keys, etc.  He’s pretty much normal for his age, except for the memorizing-all-of-Paradise-Lost thing.

From the paper:

When viewed in the context of deliberate practice theory, we believe that our findings are in agreement with other research on world-class memory performers, which indicates that exceptional memorisers are made, not born.

You can go here to watch Basinger recite “Death Addresses Satan” from Book I. It’s spooky.

(Here’s the abstract for paper, titled “Memorising Milton’s Paradise Lost: A study of a septuagenarian exceptional memoriser.” The authors are John G. Seamon, Paawan V. Punjabi, and—wait, who’s the third author? Oh that’s right—Emily A. Busch.)


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