Memory: Key to Meaning in Life

Memory plays a far more important role in giving depth and meaning in life than we realize.

Music, for example, is only possible through memory. We have to remember the note that was just played, and the sequence before it, for the note we are momentarily hearing to have meaning. Added depth comes from having heard a piece played before, and anticipating (out of our memory) what is coming.

Relationship is possible only possible through memory. Witness the depths to which memorial services move us as we recall a person’s impact through past actions and statements, interactions we have had or hear that others have had. On a sadder note, we see it through the loss of memory through Alzheimer’s—an 83-year-old questions another family member who the “strange woman” is with her husband: it’s the 62-year-old daughter! [We’ve actually seen this happen in our family.]

Enjoyment in reading or listening, as well as learning from books, videos and audios is only possible by retaining what has gone before in the sequencing. Skills are a form of muscle memory and practice through using memory: The statement “You make that look so easy!” reflects that.

Many emotions, both negative and positive, are only possible through memory: anger for remembered hurts; unforgiveness and even the possibility of forgiveness; pride, both positive and negative kinds; even blushing—all require some form of memories unconsciously “re-collected” into our mind’s eye.

So where is this line of thinking taking me? (I’m trying to remember! <g>)

If we accept this as a fact, then we can begin to make memory our servant rather than, as is often the case, our master. It has been shown in tests that “exercising” our memories increases our capacity to remember, and often to think more creatively. So by consciously choosing to apply memory skills we can potentially improve our lives, increase our enjoyment of them, and possibly even maintain a higher quality of life over a longer lifespan.

It goes without saying that what we work on for developing our memory skills is important. Simply memorizing the multiplication tables may be helpful for everyday grocery shopping, but is unlikely to impact meaning in our lives—and memorizing the number π to 986 decimal places is almost certainly futile (as well as extremely difficult). Remembering names and associating with faces a la Dale-Carnegie-style memory systems is probably helpful in business and interpersonal relationships, and can have varying degrees of importance. Learning a foreign language could also prove useful functionally (if carried far enough), as well as beneficial psychologically.

I could try to go on more, but I am quickly getting beyond my level of expertise. I am not a trained psychologist, and I have no extensive training on how memory actually functions and how to get into the best position to maximize its potential.

What I can say, as a personal belief but also from some measure of experience in the area, is that memorizing Scripture is one of the best long-term investments. To date (March 2012) I have memorized the entire book of Philippians in the NIV (over 2,200 words in 100 verses), the first 19 verses of the book of James (also over 100 verses) in THE MESSAGE paraphrase, along with hundreds of other isolated scriptures from various endeavors in my life. At one point, when I led informal home-group-setting-style worship, I counted over 300 scriptures that had been set to music either in whole or in part. Music, by the way, is a great way to mnemonically “cross-train”—it encodes the words into memory synapses in a way that simple memorization does not. I have even set to music a few scriptures I felt impressed with simply for my own memorization pleasure, a technique practiced by many over the years—I even found a link for Johnny Cash Lyrics titled after a scripture: !

Is this for everyone? Probably not on the level I personally have developed. But the Gospel is meant to be enjoyed and benefitted from by all—I like Corrie ten Boom’s analysis (paraphrased) that the Gospel has to be simple enough for a child to grasp, yet complex enough that the most brilliant mind can never fully grasp it. This is true also, I believe, for Scripture memorization: Everyone can benefit from practicing it on a level suited for them, and from striving to increase that level.

Ours is a visual, not an aural/oral culture. Ancient and pre-printing-press cultures depended on transmission of values by memory. Even to this day, Middle Eastern cultures in particular have laid heavy emphasis on the value of memory: Youths in Jesus’ and Paul’s day were taught most if not all of the Torah by heart, and sometimes the entire Tanakh, the Jewish form of the Old Testament. And even today, Muslim fundamentalists extremists have their youths memorize large portions, and sometimes the entirety, of the Quran.

Our society does not value such things, and perhaps never can as a culture. We are a visual culture. That is both our strength and our weakness. At the very least, we can learn to value the things we are not enough to learn from them and add a layer of meaning, in the process coming to appreciate more fully who we are and where we’ve been placed in time and history. We can grow in depth and breadth one or two synapses at a time.


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