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Assimilation by Interest

Hunter (1977) told of a Professor Aitken who was known for his extraordinary memory. He amused students by calling out line numbers for poems from Virgil when students read a phrase from any of Virgil's poems. In World War I Aitken achieved fame by providing his company commander with a complete list of men in the company, when the commander lost the sheets containing the company roll. Although Aitken had seen the list only once or twice, he was able to recite each man's name and serial number from memory. In formal tests with psychologists, Aitken remembered lists of words for nearly 30 years with few errors. Yet he had no technique except finding things interesting.

How did Professor Aitken approach memorization? What was his secret?

When given material that was "not too repellent" and asked to memorize it, he did not, as might be expected, go tense in concentration. He went noticeably still and relaxed. When asked about this curious behavior, he explained that he was using a subterfuge ("assimilation by interest") on which, he discovered years ago, he could rely. He was relaxing by way of preparing to find interest in the material or "to let the properties of the material reveal themselves." He felt best able to secure memorization by refraining from deliberate interpretation and organization; rather, he cleared his mind and relinquished the job to his vast cognitive system, allowing it to work largely autonomously and in whatever way came most naturally. He commented as follows.

I discovered that the further I proceeded, the more I needed relaxation, not concentration as ordinarily understood. One must be relaxed, yet possessed, in order to do this well... At first one might have to concentrate, but as soon as possible one should relax. Very few people do that. Unfortunately, it is not taught at school where knowledge is acquired by rote...sometimes against the grain. The thing to do is to learn by heart, not because one has to, but because one loves the thing and is interested in it. Then one has moved away from concentration to relaxation. (p.47)

Is "relaxation" the best word? Certainly relaxation is involved in this unique state of memory enhancement, but there is much more to it than relaxation. Aitken remarked on the trance-like quality of his "relaxation" but also described great clarity of thought during this state. The key seems to be a combination of relaxation, clarity, and interest.


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