Paradise learnt

The journal Memory has a remarkable case study of a man who began memorising the whole of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost at the age of 58. The researchers tested him at age 74 and found they could pick any part of the 10,565 line poem and he could successfully remember the next 10 lines.

JB is an active, articulate septuagenarian who began memorising Paradise Lost at the age of 58 in 1993 as a form of mental activity to accompany his physical exercise at the gym. Although he had memorised various poems in earlier years, he never attempted anything of this magnitude. JB stated that he wanted to do something special to commemorate the then-upcoming millennium. ‚ÄúWhy not something really challenging like, oh, ‘Paradise Lost’?‚Äù he said. He began by walking on a treadmill one day while trying to memorise the opening lines of the poem. After those lines were committed to memory, he extended the task over successive sessions to see how far he could go. JB, who regards himself as a theatre person, reflected on this process this way:

“The real challenge was just not to memorise it, but to know it deeply enough to really tell Milton’s story. As I finished each book, I began to perform it and keep it alive in repertory while committing the next one to memory. ‚Ķ The goal eventually became not just a series of performances, but to do all twelve books on the same occasion.”

Nine years later, JB achieved his goal. He recited Paradise Lost in its entirety over a 3-day weekend. Since that 2001 performance JB has given numerous public recitations, although for many of these performances, due to the time it takes to recite the poem (approximately 3 hours for Books I and II), he limits his performance to several books, rather than all of the books in their entirety. Typically, he moves and expresses emotion during a performance to help signify changes in characters, and he gives copies of the poem to the audience so that they can follow his memorised recitation.

Psychologist John Seamon discovered JB after attending one of his performances where he recited the whole of Books I and II from memory.

Seamon and his team asked JB to take part in tests regarding the epic work where they cued him with two lines selected from anywhere in the poem and asked him to recall the following 10 lines. In one part they picked out lines as they went through the books in order, in another they just chose books at random.

He seemed to stumble on a couple of books when they were tackled sequentially, but generally his verbatim recall was generally above 90% and seemed more consistent when the books were picked out randomly. The team also video-taped one of his live performances and found his average accuracy was between 97% and 98%.

Although not formally tested, JB’s everyday memory is apparently normal for his age, with his exceptional memory for Milton’s poem apparently arising from his relentless practice and dedication.

This is a common pattern in mental practice or ‘brain training’ style scenarios where we get better at the tasks we repeat but that improvement doesn’t seem to carry over very effectively into other areas of mental life.

If you’re interested in seeing JB in action he has his own webpage, mentioned in the scientific article, where he advertises his performances and where you can watch video of him reciting the poem.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.
Link to JB’s website.

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