YMB #24 A New/Old Look at Memory Work: A Conversation with Kevin Vost

In this episode of Your Morning Basket we talk with Dr. Kevin Vost about the virtue of studiousness and the value of memorization. In this fascinating conversation, we are introduced to memory methods taught by church fathers that can help us today.

In the fast paced, information overloaded world we live in today we sometimes loose sight of the value of holding information in our own heads. Dr. Vost encourages us to work our memories because it is our past memories that guide our future behaviors.

Links and resources from today’s show:

Memorize the Reasons!: Defending the Faith with the Catholic Art of MemoryPinMemorize the Reasons!: Defending the Faith with the Catholic Art of MemoryMemorize the Mass!PinMemorize the Mass!


Pam: This is Your Morning Basket where we help you bring Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to your homeschool day. Hi everyone, and welcome to episode 24 of the Your Morning Basket podcast. I’m Pam Barnhill, your host, and I’m so happy you’re joining me here today. Well, I am so excited to bring you today’s guest. It is Dr. Kevin Vost. Now, Dr. Vost is the author of the book Memorize the Faith and in Memorize the Faith he lays out for us some ancient and medieval memory techniques that people have used for a very long time to memorize information. It’s really fascinating. The conversation we had focuses on memory, in general, and how it works but also these fun and different techniques you could use to help your kids memorize or even memorize things yourself. I think you’re really going to enjoy this episode of the podcast. Kevin Vost holds a Doctorate in Psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and has taught both psychology and gerontology at the college level. He is the author of numerous books on subjects ranging from philosophy to apologetics and even physical fitness. And, he has a special research interest in memory and memory strategies. In his book Memorize the Faith Dr. Vost explains how to use the memory method taught by Thomas Aquinas more than seven centuries ago to memorize almost anything, including important truths of the church. He joins us on this episode to discuss how memory strategies can be applied in Morning Time. Dr. Vost, welcome to the program.

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Dr. Vost: Thanks for having me on, Pam.
Pam: Well, in an age where information can be accessed so quickly and easily why do you think it’s important to memorize?
Dr. Vost: That’s a great question. And there’s been a variation of that question around for actually over 2,000 years. If I could explain, in one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates tells a story of a king of ancient Egypt, a person comes up to him and presents this new invention. And this new invention was the art of writing. And the king was concerned that if we had this ability to write things down our memories would deteriorate. We would lose our capacity to remember for memorization. Now, of course, that didn’t really happy so many years ago but now it’s like this question is back at us in a way like never before in our age where information can be accessed so quickly. Now, of course, we have the internet, we can get almost any kind of information almost instantly. Yes, so why would we want to still have this capacity to memorize? Now, I would argue that it is still very, very important to memorize because although the internet is a wonderful tool to get at information there can be a world of difference between information you could just access and knowledge that you actually possess within your own mind. If I could give a real extreme example here, just think, if you had to undergo a surgery, a medical surgery, now who would you rather have operated on- the world’s greatest IT expert who can look up any medical information in a fraction of a second or maybe a trained medical surgeon who doesn’t know everything about medicine but he has a lot of that knowledge inside his own head. So, I would say in our time there’s a big difference between being able to get at information and actually knowing it. When you actually know it, it builds your knowledge base in that we learn and understand new things based partly on what we’ve already learned, what’s familiar to us, and if you train your memory and you grow your knowledge base it becomes much more easy to pick up new information and to learn it deeply and to hold onto it. So for the things that are really most important in your life it is important to actually have the capacity to memorize.
Pam: Oh, that’s such a great answer. The analogy you give there really drives it home. Well, do you think there’s virtue in the practice of memorization?
Dr. Vost: Yes, and I’ll say in two ways. The topic we just talked about, in our information age. One of the great blessings is that we can access so much vital information – the internet searches are a God-send to me, but also we become at risk at being overly distracted. Our attention is just pulled this way and that way, all the links and all the information out there, so there’s an ancient distinction in terms of virtue and vice that Saint Thomas Aquinas talked about. He talked about a vice of curiosity which meant being distracted and focusing on things that don’t matter versus a virtue of studiousness, being able to focus over time on the things that truly matter. So training ourselves to memorize really does help that virtue of studiousness but there’s also another link there that Saint Thomas and Saint Albert the Great, his teacher, wrote about. When they wrote about the practice of memorization, how to improve your memory, they did it in the context of describing the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom, because they said to achieve virtuous goals in the future we’re going to act now in the present guided by the lessons we’ve learned in the past. So they said in some ways memory is the most important aspect of practical wisdom because our past memories guide our future behaviors and not vice-versa. So I’d say there are very important links in the memory capacity between that virtue of being studious and also prudence- practical wisdom.
Pam: Oh wow. That’s really good, how the memories that we have drive what we will do in the future. I’ve never thought about it like that.
Dr. Vost: It’s right, but we learned about our faith, the experiences that we’ve had over our lifetime those help guide how we’re going to act in the future.
Pam: How did you first become interested in memory?
Dr. Vost: It’s interesting, it was supposedly by chance. I just went to our local Lincoln Library’s annual book sale where they sell books that people don’t read anymore. And I invested about a quarter in this slim little book on memorization. It is the best investment that I ever made! This thin little book gave some basic memory techniques how I can use these practice techniques. It didn’t really give the history or background, it just said, “Here, here’s how these work. Here’s how you can use them.” And I did it. I used it, I discovered this in my late teens. It made the rest of my schooling for my college degrees, bachelor’s, master’s, my psychology license; it made it almost a piece of cake when it came to terms of memorization because I found these were so useful for me that when I did my own master’s thesis in psychology I decided I would do that on the actual scientific research on how our children’s memories aided when they’re taught specialized memory techniques. And then later my doctoral work was at Alzheimer’s center and I worked with people of various kinds of brain damage and we studied memory; how it’s lost to Alzheimer’s disease, what happens to memory through the process of normal aging, through our research on volunteers including sisters of several religious orders. Also, I had the opportunity to work with some patients with brain damage and how to teach them these memory techniques and in certain instances we had really some impressive results. So, since I was in my late teens (what’s that now, over 30-35 years or more) I’ve been really involved in these memory techniques in one way or another.
Pam: So you would be the perfect person to tell us in layman’s terms exactly how memory works?
Dr. Vost: In memory it’s a very grand thing. There are different kinds of memory. We make a visual memory versus verbal memory, short term, long term, and so forth, but to break it down to the basics; we often distinguish between short term memory and long term memory. Short term memory is also sometimes called working memory. It’s basically, what can you hold in your focused awareness at one point in time? And the value that’s usually given is 7 +/- 2 (we can usually hold right on to about seven pieces of information and some of us with a little bit better memories may go up to around nine or so, some of us with a little bit weaker memories may be more like five). And some of the research on this was actually the basis for the creation of telephone numbers in the 1950’s. Most numbers, not including the area code have seven digits because most people can hold that; hear that one time, if they really focus, they can hold that. So our memory starts with this, sort of, a filter, this short term memory, a working memory, but it holds about seven things maybe at once. But the things that we focus on, the things that are important, or that we repeat to ourselves, may then move into the stores of long term memory which for practical purposes almost limitless; what we think about through our lives all the amazing number of things that we can remember. So if we’ve taken the time, used the focus to move things into that long term memory, it’s almost limitless. And as an aside, typically, with Dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, the brain structures that are involved in moving that information from the short term memory to the long term memory tend to be the ones that are damaged most. That’s why they have these problems retaining new information, memories of new things that happened to them, though they may be able to tell you things that happened to them long, long ago, earlier on in their lives.
Pam: Oh, that’s so interesting that that’s where everything breaks down in people who are suffering from those afflictions.
Dr. Vost: Brain structures, the hippocampus and the temporal lobe on the sides of the brain seems very crucial in forming these new memories. But once we have those long term memories they seem to be more dispersed throughout the brain in a much more resilient and much less likely to be lost.
Pam: Interesting.
You told us that the capacity of human memory, the long term memory, is pretty much limitless. So, how much of memorization is discipline and how much is natural ability?
Dr. Vost: That’s a great distinction. The early people who wrote about these memory techniques, ancient Greeks and Romans, often distinguished between what they call natural memory and artificial memory. Natural memory is just how we remember things by nature, artificial is [**inaudible 9:58**] art or specialized techniques. And some people will, by nature, have very good memories with some stronger than others but with these artificial techniques we can greatly expand our capacity. When I used to teach college courses one little example I would do for my students would be in a couple of minutes I would memorize a 50-digit number for them and that they would generate. In fact, we all would try to do this. But I would memorize a 50-digit number and then also give it back to them backwards, and they could call out any number between 1 and 50 and say “38” and I would tell them what that number is because when you use these artificial memory techniques, you’re using your reasoning abilities to exceed the limits of normal natural memory, but being blessed as human beings with intellectual souls with the ability to reason, we can greatly enhance even our memory abilities. I will say one other thing on this regards I find it very interesting. At times they’ve done research on people who have naturally very powerful memories comparing them to people who have trained their memories and advanced specialized techniques and typically the people with more normal memories who have been trained in the techniques do outperform the people with naturally powerful memories.
Pam: Oh, that is interesting. So, you’re saying that you’re using reasoning skills to improve your memory technique and I know that one of the tensions, sometimes in the educational world, is we shouldn’t spend all of our time memorizing we should spend our time doing critical thinking or reasoning. But, really you’re saying that you’re strengthening both when you’re using these memory techniques because you’re using these reasoning skills to remember more.
Dr. Vost: Yes, there was a Russian developmental psychologist (I’m going to sum this up in a [**inaudible 11:36**] way, he said that for the young child to think is to remember. When you ask an opinion they’re going to regurgitate what they’ve learned from someone older, but for the adolescent to remember is to think. By the time we reach our teenage years we have those abilities, we can harness our own abilities and remember and think better. Yes, by using those reasoning skills. I will say, sometimes a memory has gotten a wrap, and it may be deservedly so, but when we stick to what’s called a rote memorization where you can just parrot back words without comprehending the meaning behind them, so these techniques are not there, that’s not what they are, you’re memorizing key words so then you can ponder them and think deeply about important meanings.
Pam: And we’re going to talk a little bit more about that, but first, what I want you to do is can you describe for the audience the method for memorizing that you talk about in Memorize the Faith? What are the historical roots of this and how does it work?
Dr. Vost: Sure. I’ve also found this fascinating. Discovered by the ancient Greeks around the 5th century BC by this orator named Symonette, it was passed on to the west through the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a great Roman who lived in the time of Julius Caesar, had a history being used by public speakers. I just mentioned today using myself as public speaking it allows you to memorize the key points in any talk you want to make, and to have them in their exact order. So we have these methods that we use for public speaking that were based on the use of visual imagery. Things that we can see, particularly if they’re in a certain arrangement or even just imagine that we’ve seen in a particular arrangement are much more memorable. So the technique is often called the method of loci or locations where you build this imaginary system like a memory house within your head, and then anything you want to remember you convert into images. Maybe I’ll give you a demo in just a minute to show how that’s done. But I will say that Saint Thomas Aquinas actually played a big role in the history of these techniques in the 13th century. And right smack dab in the middle of The Summa Theologiæ he actually talks about these techniques. He says there are four main things that a person does to perfect their memory. In two of these we already know. If you really want to remember something you’re going to repeat it, you know, rehearse it. Also, you’re going to focus or pay attention. But these two additional elements to this memory technique are we create an image, something we can picture, even if the information that we’re trying to remember is something spiritual or abstract and then also we have an ordering or organization system. And that’s what we do in the memory mansion, the memory house that I use in the book Memorize the Faith.
Pam: OK, and so could you walk us through a brief or simple example of this, step by step, of how this would work?
Dr. Vost: Sure. I’ll give you something brief here and we’ll see if we have time to elaborate. So, we’re actually going to demonstrate this method. First, I’m not going to tell the listeners what it is that we’re memorizing but maybe they can figure it out. So, I want you to imagine you’re visiting me in central Illinois, you’re coming to my house, it’s a ranch house surrounded by mature maples and oaks. You knock on my front door (that’s location number one, the first location). The door opens and you are blinded by this blinding light and you hear this horrible resounding crash. OK, so do we have that? Number one, the front door opens, this brilliant light, we hear a crash. Now, number two, we take a step inside my house on the doormat, and this is the most unusual doormat you have ever come across, because it’s actually speaking to you. Not only is it speaking but it’s cursing, it’s cussing. So much that you, kind of, put your feet over its mouth to muffle it, but how strange? You have this cursing doormat in the second location. Now, I’ll go through five locations. The third- you are imagining that you’re still standing there in my entranceway. Now, you look out this glass panel next to the front door and you see out into my front yard. And you say, “Wow, that is just like the most beautiful day I’ve ever seen out there.” So, just imagine the scene of this glorious day out in this front yard. OK, two more. You’re back in the foyer. On the wall next to that front door is a portrait there. And you’re shocked to see within my house it’s a portrait of your own parents. Imagine that, your parents. What’s Dr. Vost doing with these in his house but there they are; fourth location, a portrait of your parents. We’ll do just one more. The fifth location, now you’re still in the foyer and on another adjoining wall is a gun rack and the gun rack has a giant padlock on it. So there’s our fifth image- the gun rack with a padlock. Now, these memory methods are designed to help you learn things in order, literally backwards and forwards. And if we were called it repetition is also a key component, in fact, it’s also called the mother of memory. Let me go one more time in reverse real quick. That fifth location was the padlock gun rack on the wall. The fourth location on the wall next to the door was a portrait of your own parents. The third location was our view through the glass panel out in the front yard, the most glorious day we’ve ever seen. The second location was that strange image of that doormat that was cursing, and the first location was the front door when you open it you saw this great light and heard this resounding crash. So what was all that? When I was young my mom used to say something unusual or outlandish she’d say, “Now, what did that have to do with the price of beans?” because we live in soybean/corn country here. So, it’s a fair enough question- what do we really memorize in that simple little example? Well, what’s our first image? The front door, the great light, the crash - that’s just a simple reminder for the first commandment - to honor God alone and that bright light is going to be our symbol for the great and likeness of God. That crash we threw in was the fall of strange gods, false idols. OK, so that first silly image was just your reminder of the first commandment. I think listeners will find the second one even more direct. The cursing doormat, it’s cursing. The simple reminder that the second commandment, not to use the Lord’s name in vain. Now we see all these have the simple connections like this. We’re taking something profound and using a striking image to remember it. The third location was the scene out the front door, the glorious day; pretty straight forward reminder to honor the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath Day. The fourth would maybe be the easiest of them all, the portrait of your own parents was there at the fourth location to remind us of the fourth commandment which is to honor our fathers and mothers. And finally, that fifth location, probably another fairly easy one- we had the gun rack with a huge padlock on it to remind us of the fifth commandment which is, of course, thou shalt not kill. So in a system like that, in the first chapter of Memorize the Faith I go through 10 locations in that foyer. In the five more spots each one with a very simple reminder of what these commandments are. They can be so simple, for example, that the image for the seventh commandment, thou shalt not steal, is up on a chandelier. We just imagine that it’s made out of solid steel. So, just a sound alike word even is enough to trigger the meaning. So, that’s one simple example of how we could use this easy technique to memorize something as important as The Ten Commandments and to know them in order literally backwards and forwards after just a few minutes.
Pam: Right, because once you have those visual images in your mind you simply walk back through the room in reverse order and you’re able to say them backwards as well.
Dr. Vost: That’s right. So anything that’s really worth remembering, by doing them backwards, it’s an advanced form of rehearsal, so you really, really know them well. I’ve even had times to prepare for mission with the main goal of helping all the students there, the young children, to learn The Ten Commandments, and it’s usually pretty effective. I’ll say if I do these demonstrations I’ll see hands raised up in the audience from young children who show that after we’ve done this full demo that they can do it. So almost everyone has the capacity to do this if they put their mind to it.
Pam: Alright. Then when you’re talking about repetition, you’re actually talking about repetition of the technique not necessarily repeating The Ten Commandments to yourself over and over again but repeating walking through that room and pulling up those visual images again and again, that’s the kind of repetition, right?
Dr. Vost: That’s right. You’d practice that but then each time that image is going to trigger what it actually means.
Pam: OK.
Dr. Vost: So if you’re out somewhere thinking about The Ten Commandments, if you can do that memory tour, you know The Ten Commandments themselves also. But yes, the more fluent you are with practicing, the more instant it will become. For The Ten Commandments and for anything else because those locations, the front door, the doormat, and so on, become like a mental notepad, that once you know those well you can use them again and again and again for different sets of information. You could even use them for things like your grocery list. You open your front door and you’re hit on the head by a giant banana or something and you go your way through there, but things that are not important (you don’t need the same grocery list next week) you won’t repeat therefore you’ll lose those but the location system itself you’ll keep and things that are important, for example The Ten Commandments, again and again you’ll keep them over long periods of time.
Pam: So let me ask you a couple of practical questions about the technique. You’re using the location of your house and you actually use it throughout the entire book, you use several different rooms but you use the same location a number of times to store different bits of information, does the material ever get jumbled up?
Dr. Vost: It can. There are different kinds of memory interference, proactive and retroactive are things you’ve learned before make it harder to learn new material and vice-versa, so it’s possible the more practice you do the easier it is to keep them separate. Also, once you thoroughly learn something, they kind of hang together. The images trigger each other. Just for a real quick example: those same first five locations that we used for The Ten Commandments, later in the book I imagine the front door opens and there’s your friend, Jennifer and her sister, because we’re talking about Genesis. That doormat there says Exit on it to remind us of Exodus. Out in the front yard you see this giant pair of Levi jeans for Leviticus. So we use the same locations with different images so once you thoroughly learn those chains and how they go together; other example like giving the books of the Old Testament. It tends to be less confusing that you might think. But again, repetition is the mother of memory and practice makes perfect. The more your practice these techniques, the more fluent you’ll become and less likely you are to become confused by it.
Pam: So what about coming up with a mental image for something that might not lend itself easily to this visual depiction? Now, you’ve already given me some really interesting examples because you just said Levis for Leviticus but has there ever been a piece of information where it’s been really difficult to come up with an image to go with it?
Dr. Vost: That’s a great question. I know in some of the ancient literature it criticizes this. So one of the ancient authors says you can’t form images for things like conjunctions like four. Well, sure you can. You picture a golfer saying, “Four!” And that will remind you of that different word four for a conjunction. But some things are hard. I remember going through Memorize the Faith there was one of the sins against the Holy Spirit was final impenitence or unwilling to be pennated, to ask for God’s forgiveness at the end of our life. How am I going to get an image for final impenitence? Now, I ended up with something that was a little bit strange; it was a funnel, ants and pins are coming through that funnel. So, funnel in, pins and ants, final impenitence. And it ended up the illustrator chose that as one of the images, out of the hundreds of images, to illustrate because sometimes the ones that take more work and are more strange actually because of that extra effort become more memorable. So there’s almost nothing that cannot be converted into a memory.
Pam: So, you’re working off similar sounding words. It doesn’t have to be a direct one-to-one correlation. Like that steel chandelier – the commandment’s ‘thou shalt not steal’ but we’re using a different version of the word to trigger that memory of it.
Dr. Vost: That’s right. And the person using these techniques, as you become proficient, when I do the book I use the things that pop into my own head but other people may have their own unique associations that are even more effective. So, for one example, when I cover the seven deadly sins, with the sin of pride (you’re in my memory house and I say, We’ll imagine there’s a statue of me in my living room of myself. My wife certainly wouldn’t tolerate that but if it was there I’d be pretty prideful, right? So that could be a reminder for pride, but you could also imagine there’s a pride of lions or if you know the singer, Charlie Pride, or if you have some unique thing that reminds you of pride you put there, too. Because it doesn’t matter about the image itself as long as it serves as the trigger for the actual content of what you’re trying to memorize.
Pam: You’ve talked about using this a lot with lists of information or bodies of information.
Dr. Vost: Yes.
Pam: You’ve also mentioned that you could use it as a public speaker. Have you ever used it for something like a poem or a piece of Shakespeare or something of that nature where, poetry lends itself well to memorization through repetition of the verbal aspects because it has rhythm, it has rhymes, things of that nature, but could you use this for a poem or Shakespeare?
Dr. Vost: Yes, you can. Now, interestingly, too, this has quite ancient history. The ancients used to distinguish with what they called memory for words and memory for things. And the things were like these ideas, concepts, commandments and so forth where the words would be verbatim memorization. And it would be cumbersome to do this with every word in a passage but for certain words, certain key words you can line them up in the order they appear in the poem and it can help a person who is having some problems memorizing. So my own recommendation would be do it the old fashioned way, make sure you know the exact words, but if you find it’s not working well, if you find you’re getting stuck, then pull out these locations and set some of these key words there in key locations to help you remember what comes next. So they’re very, very adaptable. But again, my own methods, like for public speaking, I would not recommend memorizing the entire talk this way. You could possibly get lost, get tongue-tied, it might sound artificial. What the public speakers do is lay out their key points. I do this myself. If I go do a new talk I may have 20 or 30 or 40 things I want to make sure to talk about in a certain order so I’ll lay out those key points in these locations so I could almost literally deliver that talk backward but I don’t want to have all the words, so I’m free to speak naturally and spontaneously. So there’s another use there on public speaking. I’ll also say, too, it can also be used for information, for things that weren’t like in a system. To give a real simple example when I used to teach psychology of adolescents, when I talked the biology of puberty I used to use a very simple mamonic to start our memory start. I had the class picture a huge hypodermic needle and then an bottomless pit and then an adding machine; so, hypodermic needle, and a bottomless pit, and an adding machine, and I would put them in the location and then what they’d find out later is they just memorized the components of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis because the hypodermic needle stood for the hypothalamis within the brain, the bottomless pit stood for the pituitary gland and the adding machine stood for the adrenal glands, so we can also use these methods to learn things that operate in the system in fields like biology and other fields.
Pam: Oh, that’s interesting. Now, some people might raise an objection that the mental images used in this technique are not necessarily connected to the meaning and they might even be considered silly or bizarre. How do you answer that objection? Are you advocating memorization without understanding?
Dr. Vost: Absolutely not. And that objection does come up and it has through the history of these methods, but there’s a strong history there saying why do they need to be that way? When Saint Thomas writes about the image he sees as the word mirahma [??spelling 27:30??] or things that are marvelous that marvel or unusual because we are inundated with so much information every day the things are more routine, slip go in one ear and out the other, it’s the things that are unusual and striking that stick with us. So these memory images do focus on that there because they’re unusual, they tend to be exaggerated or humorous or surprising, those do become more memorable. And also, these memory tricks kind of relate to a story. You’re going through a tour, you’re walking through this house, you’re remembering these things, so you’re taking information that’s kind of rote information and turning it into experiential information, like something that you’ve actually lived through. And that also makes it more memorable. Now, the images themselves don’t have to convey the meaning but when we set them up we want to make sure we do know the meanings and if they can trigger them for us in order. So, if you’re sitting somewhere where you don’t have access to other information with your head recall these images and then start thinking deeply about the things that they represent. And then another thing I say is when people are afraid that somehow contrary to understanding, four of the greatest exponents, the champions of these techniques and four of the most brilliant people in history, including Aristotle, the father of logic, Cicero the great Roman orator and ponscil, St. Albert, the great, the patron saint of scientist wrote explicitly and extensively about these techniques, and also St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of [**inaudible** 28:56].
Pam: So, you’re not advocating that we use these techniques or teach these techniques to our children as a parlor trick but instead that they are able to internalize and carry this information in their heads so they can pull it out on a rainy day, flip through it mentally, and actually contemplate on the truths that are held there.
Dr. Vost: That’s exactly the idea. And we also, through the book, we try to develop, what’s called meta-memory, which is a more, greater awareness of memory. And one of the components of meta-memory can be when do I need to use these techniques and when don’t I? So these could just be one other arrow in your quiver of techniques. You’re not necessarily going to use them all the time. Sometimes your natural memory will be totally adequate, but for certain things where you’re having a difficulty or you have a vast amount of information and you need to know this, very deeply and well, backwards and forwards, then to have access to these techniques can make a really huge difference.
Pam: An example of that would be that you know the Nicene Creed because you repeat it each week in church so that’s not something you’re going to need to use this particular technique on, that comes from the verbal repetition as part of your life, as part of the liturgy.
Dr. Vost: That’s right. These techniques can supplement that; if you’re first learning it. But that’s not the primary goal. It’s for things like information like I gave in Memorize the Faith, which would be things like The Ten Commandments, the order of all the books in the Bible, the Rosary mystery, the names of the Virtues and Deadly Sins, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Things like that. I later wrote a book called Memorize the Reasons for Catholic Answers that uses this technique for apologetics, like for fundamental Catholic beliefs. Where do they come from? Where do we get this idea out of the Bible that there’s something special about Peter and the Pope. So where does that come from the Bible, which church fathers talked about this? These memory techniques can be used for that kind of thing. The last memory book I wrote was called Memorize the Mass and it applies these techniques to the parts and the rights and the order of the Mass so we can know the Mass better. And I’ll just say that I wrote that book because I received a very fascinating email: an air force pilot emailed me asking how to memorize the parts of the Mass, when he heard the story of Admiral Jeremiah Denton who was a POW in Vietnam for more than seven years in the 60’s and early 70’s and he said part of the way he survived years of isolation and torture was that he went through the Mass in his head every day. It stabilized him. I later learned there was a Maryknoll Bishop James Walsh who also mentally repeated the Mass and the Rosary when he was held captive by communists. So, just this idea that so much of what we might not think of to really deeply memorize, like the very structure of a Mass, can be a wonderful thing that can lead us into a deeper love and appreciation for it whether or not we ever find ourselves confined by communists.
Pam: There’s a homeschooling mom, her name is Cindy Rollins, and she started this Morning Time movement and one of the things that she likes to say is she had her kids memorize these poems and these great works because she wanted them to have something in their head for when they were imprisoned and the rats were eating their toes.
Dr. Vost: Oh wow. There’s a history there. Absolutely.
Pam: So they would have something in there to call upon for strength. So you’re saying exactly the same thing.
Your book focuses mainly on applying the memory mansion technique to church teachings. Then you mentioned earlier biology. So we could use this for any kind of academic information we want to learn, too, correct?
Dr. Vost: Absolutely. I’ll give you one real-life example. There was a priest a few years ago who demonstrated to the parishioners that he named off all of our presidents in order. He read Memorize the Faith and used that technique for the U.S. presidents and people started clapping and he said, “Hold on. You aint seen nothing yet.” And he called up this 11 year old boy who then recited the names of all the 265 (at that time) Popes in order because he had used this technique. He had called me and worked with me and we elaborated these memory rooms to incorporate that much information. So it can be used for almost anything and by people of a vast range of ages. This boy who memorized the Popes was 10 years old when he first contacted me and was 11 years old a few months later when he did that. But basically, it can be used for almost any information. Myself years ago when I studied for the psychology licensure exam I used it to memorize the things like the nine symptoms that characterized major depression. I’ve had other people tell me that they used it for them to help them memorize key things for the GRE (the Graduate Record Exams), the BAR exams for lawyers who have contacted me. Some of the research on these methods were also used in learning foreign language vocabulary. It’s going to be very powerful when you form these images that sound like the new word you want to remember but can also convey the meaning. So for almost anything you have to memorize there’s probably a way to adapt these techniques.
Pam: I want to stop you right there. So could you give me an example of whatever foreign language that you’re most proficient in, whether that be Latin or Spanish or Italian, or whatever, could you give me an example of a vocabulary word and how you would do that?
Dr. Vost: Sure, I’ll give you a real simple one from French. The French word for book being livre. So for the image, if you’re trying to remember that – what’s the French word for book? It’s livre. OK, imagine out in your front yard, picture an actual tree you have there somewhere in your hard, but then instead of normal leaves, it’s growing books, it’s just covered with these books that are growing up in the branches. So if you have that image of a tree and it’s got the leaves there and the leaves remind you of the French word livre, but instead of leaves you see books, now you also have the meaning. So you have that connection - the sound of leaves for livre and the images of the books for what it actually means. And you can do that for virtually any vocabulary word in any language.
Pam: OK, good. Interesting. But I do want to point out to everybody that would not be done in isolation. You would not just imagine a tree with leaves, it would be done as part of this memory palace location that we talked about earlier. So maybe as we’re memorizing our French vocabulary when we get to the third step in our doorway we turn and look out that glass pane window and we see that tree with the leaves.
Dr. Vost: Yes, yes. Just a few months ago a co-worker had a 2nd grader who had to learn 40 new vocabulary words. And for young kids new vocabulary words are almost like a foreign language. They don’t know them yet, and she just went through their own apartment and set these locations and created these images for every word and her son memorized all 40. The teacher said it was the first time anyone ever did this on the first try. So, they can be used, they can be powerful tools if you take the time to master the technique and use them as a whole. There really are a variety of these memory techniques, and sometimes they can be combined and used together. For example, I mentioned memorizing 50 digit numbers, and by doing that I use a memory code that turns those numbers into consonant sounds so I then build words out of those random digits. So when I memorize 50 digits I really memorize 25 simple words that I then place on those locations which I know better than the back of my hand. So there are many ways that if we know these different memory techniques they can really transform any task of memory making it far easier.
Pam: OK, so could it be used for math facts because, you know, I’ve got some kids that age?
Dr. Vost: Yes, for certain things that can be a little more challenging in a particular adaptations so that math itself is not something I’ve done great adaptations for, more like memorizing numbers themselves for various reasons if we have to know phone numbers and things like that, but with a little adaptation it sure could be. I know one man who reviewed my book said that it was very helpful to him in learning new pieces on the trumpet. So there’s also been these techniques that have been adapted to learning music. So again, it can apply to almost anything.
Pam: Oh, that’s interesting. You mentioned using it a couple of different times with children. So most of my listeners are homeschoolers, almost exclusively, and we would be using it with children. Is there anything special to keep in mind if you’re trying to introduce this method with younger kids?
Dr. Vost: That’s a great question. My master thesis research that looked at all the research on this, my conclusion was that almost the ideal time to do this is about 5th or 6th grade, 10 or 11 years of age, as the kids are developing those reasoning abilities where they can do this but they’re not likely to be older and grow more skeptical, they’re going to be more open to it. So, usually that age the kids can master these techniques, but I will say some studies show, for example, 2nd graders trained in these techniques were able to outperform 5th graders who weren’t but for the younger of the child the more you need external concrete aids. For example, we’re doing all this through sound. The book itself is illustrated so you would see pictures of these rooms. Also, some of the images are illustrated. So basically the younger the child the more structure you give them. You show them actual pictures or allow them to draw pictures. And the older the child becomes the more they’re going to be able to do this entirely within their own heads. And for me, like I said, it seems that the primo age, the choice age was maybe around 10 or 11/12 years or so.
Pam: So it is kind of like with almost anything, back to the math example again, the younger the child the more concrete it needs to be and the older they get the more abstract you can make it.
Dr. Vost: Exactly. When psychologists like Jean Piaget talked about the different reasoning abilities that develop with age, he’s a higher stage of formal operations typically start around age 11 or so. So it illustrates again that these memory techniques really are reasoning techniques because you have to have that reasoning capacity to really be able to fully utilize them.
Pam: So, in teaching a younger child, say a 1st or 2nd grader the technique, would it be helpful to actually walk through your house?
Dr. Vost: Yes! Exactly, you’ve got it there. You make it more concrete, you actually walk through the house so that they can see the front door, they have that concrete experiential memory, so the more concrete the better. Something else to keep in mind with younger kids, and I’ve talked about 7 +/- 2 for how many pieces of information that we can hold at one time. We tend to hit that 7 around 12 or 13, the early teens so younger kids can’t hold as much as once. So, you also want to not overload them and do fewer items the younger the child is, fewer items at one time.
Pam: So break that Ten Commandments up into five and five and internalize the first five through repetition for a few days and then when you think they have that then move on and add the second five?
Dr. Vost: Yes, that’s right. And then by the time a person is an adult, it’s amazing. I saw one reviewer said in two 45 minute sessions here was able to memorize all the books in both the Old and New Testament using these techniques. So, the more practice we are and our brains are fully mature, we can really go to town with these but for people, though who to learn these techniques when they are children I think it’s intriguing to think what they might be able to perform if they use these throughout their lives. Like, myself, I found these techniques in my late teens and I have found them very, very beneficial throughout my life.
Pam: So the more you use them the better you get at them.
Dr. Vost: Yes, exactly. It’s like in our faith we know that grace perfects nature with the use of these techniques practice perfects nature.
Pam: Awesome. Well, this has been absolutely fascinating and I just want to remind everybody that the book is Memorize the Faith and that’s the first one. There’s a couple more after that. And do you have somewhere that people can find you online?
Dr. Vost: Sure. My own website is DrVost.com. My books are all shown there, I don’t sell them myself but I link to sellers. And there is also a comment box if people like to comment or ask me a question they can feel free to contact me through that. So, DrVost.com.
Pam: Alright, well thank you so much for joining me here today. This was absolutely fascinating. I really appreciate it.
Dr. Vost: Well thanks. The questions were great and it was really my pleasure, Pam, thank you.
Pam: And there you have it. Now, if you would like information on any of the resources or books that Dr. Vost and I talked about today including his own books, you can find links to those in the Show Notes for this episode. And those are at PamBarnhill.com/YMB24. The Basket Bonus for today’s episode is a memory work tracker for you and your family. We have this lovely printable Your Morning Basket memory work tracker that you can print out and slip right into your Morning Time Binder to keep track of all of the things that you’ve memorized. We will be back again in another couple of weeks with another fun interview. Until then, keep seeking Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in your homeschool day.

Key Ideas about Memorization in Morning Time

  • Mobile technology and the internet make massive amounts of information readily available to us at any time. There is a difference, however, between the knowledge we can access and the knowledge we actually possess. Ancient and medieval thinkers placed a high value on memorization as a way to grow in both knowledge and virtue.
  • When we train our memories, we build our knowledge base and make it easier to assimilate new information and ideas. By memorizing, we are able to learn material deeply and understand it, as well as retain it long-term.
  • Time-tested techniques, such as the memory palace, in which information is ordered and paired with visual images, boost our natural abilities for memorization. These techniques are effective for memory work in a wide variety of subject areas, including science, history, foreign language, and theology. As with any discipline, the more we practice the techniques, the more skilled we become.

Find what you want to hear:

  • [2:05] why memorize?
  • [4:23] the vice of curiosity vs. the virtue of studiousness
  • [4:48] memory and prudence/practical wisdom
  • [5:44] Dr. Vost’s background
  • [7:20] how memory works
  • [9:46] natural ability vs. artificial techniques
  • [12:37] memorizing information by ordering it and creating images
  • [14:17] 10 Commandments example
  • [18:50] being able to recall something forwards and backwards
  • [20:45] reusing the same memory palace locations
  • [22:08] when coming up with images is difficult
  • [24:50] memory for words vs. memory for things
  • [29:20] knowing when to use which techniques
  • [31:00] memorizing the mass examples
  • [32:25] memorizing material from science, history, foreign language, etc.
  • [34:10] French vocabulary example
  • [37:15] helps for using the technique with younger kids

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