Memorizing the Great American Novel

“Homework! Oh, homework!
I hate you! You stink!
I wish I could wash you
away in the sink,
if only a bomb
would explode you to bits.
Homework! Oh homework!
You’re giving me fits.”

So begins a Jack Prelutsky poem my third grade class memorized and recited throughout the school year. I can still recite all three stanzas. And the last five lines of “The New Colossus” (memorized for eighth grade social studies class). And the prologue to Romeo and Juliet (ninth grade English). And the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V (ninth grade history).

Yet I can only remember the gist of the notes I studied before tests and the literature I read as an English major, if I’m lucky.

Now I understand why, thanks to a Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art last night featuring Neuroscientist John Kubie and actor Scott Shepherd.

Shepherd plays narrator Nick Carraway in Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service’s word-for-word enactment of The Great Gatsby.  While he has the book in front of him throughout the performance, he has memorized all 47,097 of Fitzgerald’s words.  After two months of rehearsals, said Shepherd, “I realized I don’t really need the book now.”

When Shepherd learns lines for plays, he reads them out loud, moves the script farther away, says the lines again, and checks if he’s right. “When memorizing, I’m not in character. It’s better for me to memorize without bias. I will have a more sophisticated idea about the character later—I want to memorize clean.” It’s also easier for Shepherd to learn lines during rehearsal, when he can associate them with movement and furniture.

As Kubie explained, Shepherd likely makes use of two types of memory when memorizing lines: procedural learning and spatial learning.

Our brains use procedural learning to acquire skills, like riding a bike. When we first get the hang of these skills, “we have to think hard,” said Kubie. “Over time, they become automatic processes,” overseen by the basal ganglia and neocortex.

The hippocampus plays a role in spatial learning. In rats, each neuron in the hippocampus responds to a specific place in the environment, making a map-like representation of the outside world. Rats with hippocampal damage are spatially blind. Humans with hippocampal damage cannot make new memories. Many scientists suspect the human hippocampus encodes memories using a map-like system. A memory might be present, but someone with hippocampal damage cannot access it.

Shepherd likely uses both types of memory in learning lines—when the focus is on making the words second-nature, procedural learning plays a role. When Shepherd builds associations and makes meaning out of words, his hippocampus is hard at work. His auditory cortex is likely also involved.

So why can Shepherd recite The Great Gatsby but forget appointments and names? And why do I still have poems learned in childhood running through my brain while forgetting other, perhaps more useful, information?

Kubie used the example of John Dean, Nixon’s lawyer during the Watergate trial. “During weeks of testimony, Dean would describe word-for-word conversations,” said Kubie. “Later, recordings of these meetings were discovered. Dean was wrong about everything, except the gist of the conversations.”

We may believe we can remember events exactly, but our memories are full of confabulations—we recall the basic outline of something, and we recreate the details to fill in the rest. In addition, the act of recalling memory changes memory.

So, Kubie speculated, when we learn something by rote, focusing mainly on the words, our procedural memory takes over, making the recollection automatic. But when we focus primarily on meaning, filing an event away in our hippocampus, the words themselves can become lost.

The Rubin Museum, a new Brain Awareness Week partner, will present many more Brainwave events from now through April. Visit www.rmanyc.org/brainwave for a full schedule and to purchase tickets.

–Johanna Goldberg

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