How an Actor Memorized Paradise Lost Says a Lot About How Memory Really Works

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That's a lot of blank verse.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is as epic as it gets: 60,000 words of blank verse detailing wars between angels, the original sin of mankind, and other wholesome Christian themes.

Over eight years, actor John Basinger committed the whole thing — equivalent to a 350-page novel — to memory. And how he did it says a lot about how the human mind encodes and retrieves information, whether it’s a story of damnation or where you left your keys.

The key to Basinger’s remembering, according a study done by Wesleyan University psychologist John G. Seamon, is something called “deep encoding.” Rather than rotely memorizing the lines, Basinger sought out the emotions coursing through the text.

It works: Twice, Basinger has recited the entirety of the poem over three days.

To pull off his memory feat, Basinger — then a recently retired community college theater instructor — studied the text while visiting the gym. He’d learn new lines on the treadmill and review his overall progress while at the weights. Basinger told the Hartford Courant that he’s spent between 3,000 and 4,000 hours committing it to memory.

When Seamon brought Basinger into his lab, the actor recalled lines with 88 percent accuracy, Nautilus reported this week. And when he was given an opening line to one of the poem’s dozen books, his accuracy increased to a 98 percent.

JB has coupled repetition (because verbatim recall is required) with a deep, conceptual understanding of the poem,” Seamon and his colleagues said in their exceptionally well-titled paper, “Memorising Milton’s Paradise Lost: A study of a septuagenarian exceptional memoriser.”

“Interestingly, while testing JB in the lab or watching him in a videotape of a performance, we found that he often became animated and visibly expressed strong emotion as he recalled the lines of the poem,” they said.

The husband-and-wife academics Helga Noice and Tony Noice have studied how actors acquire their knowledge. In a 2006 review, they found that actors “unwittingly employ most of the learning principles identified by cognitive researchers.” They’ve found that rather than drilling the words themselves, the best recall happens when actors find what’s lying underneath a text, then use all of their physical, mental, and emotional resources to communicate that meaning. That’s how you get to that astonishing verbatim recall, rather than just getting the gist.

A strong explanation for why that happens, Noice and Noice say, is offered by embodied cognition, the branch of cognitive science that’s increasingly examining how our physical and emotional lives are a part of our mental lives. Language and memory are based on motor and sensory experience, so understanding the meaning underneath a text — and then acting it out physically — will bolster recall.

The takeaway for those of us who aren’t dramatically inclined would be, whenever we’re trying to recall something, to “deeply encode” it by way of examining and embodying the meaning underlying a piece of information. If you’re trying to learn a colleague’s name, retell it to yourself in a way that’s meaningful to you (with my first name of Drake, I’m sure I conjure up a certain Canadian rapper to many).

For Basinger, the poem has become a place he visits.

“I think of the poem in various ways,” he said. “As a cathedral I carry around in my mind, a place that I can enter and walk around at will. … Whenever I finish a ‘Paradise Lost’ performance I raise the poem and have it take a bow.”