The importance of memory today

Sherlock Holmes—brilliant and unique—is a copycat. You should be, too.

The BBC’s Sherlock showcased a fascinating skill in its third season, where the sleuth is shown retreating into his “mind palace.” Sherlock’s imagined mansion allows him to link memories and facts with objects and rooms, so that he can daydream down corridors, turn into the right room, and pick up the memories that he had stored there by association with its contents.

It turns out that this isn’t a trick only possible to the genius of the Great Detective. The show’s writers took the idea from the classical, and once commonplace, “memory palace.” Ever wonder how Greek bards could memorize and recite the entire Iliad and Odyssey, or how hermits learned the entire Bible by heart? They didn’t just sit down with the text and read it out loud again and again and again.

Rather, Cicero in De Oratore teaches rhetoricians to think of the memory as a “universal treasure-house,” in which ideas are associated with visual symbols for safekeeping. The method’s usefulness struck St. Thomas Aquinas so strongly that he endorses it in the Summa (II.II 49.1) as a critical part of the virtue of prudence, and offers four steps to “perfect [one’s] memory.” And Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci so impressed his Chinese hosts with the wealth of information he stored in his mind that he was asked to teach the method to those studying for civil service exams; the result was his Treatise on Mnemonics.

Having a memory palace isn’t just useful for acing the MCAT. St. Thomas emphasized memory’s role in prudence because we can’t know how to act rightly in varying circumstances unless we can remember lessons taught by experience, both others’ and our own, and then learn how to draw appropriate analogies to the current situation. Arguably, we need this prudent memory more than the ancients and medievals did. Paul Connerton, in How Modernity Forgets, warns us of the danger of just uploading everything to the Cloud:

“Information technology, by projecting ‘memory’ outside persons, divests personal memory of many of its former assimilative roles; by directing the attention of those addicted to its immense capacities of storage and material, and to a rapid succession of micro-events, it generates a culturally induced mental habit which makes it increasingly difficult to envision even the short-term past as ‘real’; both the velocity and the disconnectedness of the items of information conveyed shape a habit of forgetting even the most recent past.”

The “assimilative roles” of memory refers to the way that memory undergirds integrity—a unified self-understanding as a person with a narrative history—in a cultural context. It’s partly for this reason that St. John Paul II titled his last book Memory and Identity. To understand who we (individuals and even societies) are, we need to be able to remember.

None of us, students mid-semester, are likely to start memorizing the Bible. And some of us are just innately terrible at forming mental images, regardless of how much we practice. It’s called “aphantasia,” and I can assure you firsthand that it’s a bummer. So even if you’re not inclined to go off and start building a palace in your mind, there’s a simpler starting-point I can offer.

Pythagoras (whose theorem you learned in middle-school math) believed that by sitting down each night to recall the moments of the day, he could gain insight into his soul, and eventually discover who he had been in previous incarnations. St. Ignatius taught a rather more useful form of the daily review. It’s called the Examen. Many Rover readers will be familiar with examining one’s conscience to seek and root out one’s sins. St. Ignatius wants you to go to confession, of course, but that’s not the focus of the Examen: in it, you seek out God’s grace more than your failings, learning to “find God in all things.”

When I am faithful to its daily practice, I not only learn from my mistakes and learn to accept forgiveness for them; I see how I’m spending my time, and catch a glimpse of how God sees it, which makes me better off both in my career as an academic and my vocation as a husband and father. The five movements of it are outlined below, and I encourage you to give it a try before bed or first thing in the morning. It will sharpen your memory, organize your priorities, and help you get (or stay) on the path where God calls you. I would say there’s no app for that … except there is: Reimagining the Examen.

Guidelines for Praying The Ignatian Examen

(Adapted, by Georgetown University Campus Ministry, from The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien, S.J.)

1. Opening Myself to God’s Presence and Praying for Help
Begin by recognizing that you are in the presence of God. Ask God to help you to be grateful and honest as you look back on the past twenty-four hours. Ask for assistance to be attentive to how the Spirit was working in and through you, others, and creation. Let yourself see your day as God sees it, with loving compassion.

2. Praying in Gratitude
Look back at the day and name the blessings, from the most significant and obvious to the more common and ordinary. As you take stock, honor the gifts of others in your life, and do not forget to recognize the gifts in you, for they, too, are God-given. Savor whatever gifts God shows you, helping your mind and spirit center on the goodness and generosity of God.

3. Reviewing the Day
Recall the events of your day and notice what Ignatius called your “interior movements” —your feelings, emotions, desires, attractions, repulsions, and moods. As you reflect on the day, you may notice some strong feelings arise. They may be painful or pleasing: for example, joy, peace, sadness, anxiety, confusion, hope, compassion, regret, anger, confidence, jealousy, self-doubt, boredom, or excitement. Pick one or two strong feelings or movements and pray about them. Ask God to help you to understand what caused those feelings and where they led you:

– Consolation: Did they draw you closer to God? Did they help you grow in faith, hope, and love? Did they make you more generous with your time and talent? Did they make you feel more alive, whole, and human? Did they lead you to feel more connected to others or challenge you to life-giving growth?

– Desolation: Did the feelings lead you away from God, making you less faithful, hopeful, and loving? Did they cause you to become more self-centered or anxious? Did they lure you into doubt and confusion? Did they lead to the breakdown of relationship?

4. Responding
Rejoice in those times that you were brought closer to God, and ask forgiveness for those times when you resisted God’s presence in your life. Praise God for the grace of awareness given to you during this time of prayer, even if you became aware of things you are not proud of. This awareness is the beginning of healing and conversion.

5. Resolutions and Hope for the Future
Just as God is with you today, God will be with you tomorrow. Invite God to be part of your future. What do you need God’s help with? Ask God to give you the particular grace you need—for example, courage, confidence, wisdom, patience, determination, or peace. Close by speaking to God from your heart with a prayer that is familiar to you, such as the Our Father.

Brian Boyd is a Triple Domer in the making, after having lived in England and D.C. and realizing that there’s nothing quite like an Indiana winter. He’s earning a Ph.D. in Moral Theology, and needs to confess that this piece shamelessly cribs from Fr. Kevin Grove’s “Memory and Desire” course. He was also once Executive Editor for the Rover. Contact him at