Vedic Reciters/Wisconsin Card Sorting Test

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Mon May 22 23:07:58 UTC 2000

Shailendra Raj Mehta writes:

> Moreover, while several individuals might have phenomenal memories, and
> even normal memories might be cultivated to astonishing degrees, yet, I
> would like to conjecture that, faithful institutional transmittal requires
> the creation of formal "memory palaces" and the like.

This is the main point in dispute. I've nearly exhausted my knowledge
of mnemonics, and I'm sure that everyone is sick of the thread -- I
expect Dominik to pull the plug any minute. So after this post, I
don't anticipate having anything further to add to the discussion. (I
will toss in one new question at the end for others to ponder, however
-- involving Vedic reciters and the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test --
that has some potentially deep historical implications.)

Speaking to your conjecture: In China, as suggested earlier, formal
mnemonics were unknown until Matteo Ricci introduced them at the end
of the 16th century. As Ricci admitted to his superiors in Rome, his
attempts to sell those methods to the Chinese was rather a flop.
Despite the lack of formal mnemonics in China, however, stories of
phenomenal textual memories were just as common there as in premodern
India and the West. Indeed, all scholars entering the state
bureaucracy were expected to know a good cross-section of the
Confucian classics by heart. This evidence appears to argue against
your hypothesis.

Even in the West, rote memorization seemed to be far more important
than the use of "memory palaces" insofar as memorizing textual canons
was concerned. The main use of memory palaces, going back to
Greco-Roman times, was for memorization of speeches and sermons, which
could vary verbally from performance to performance. Great verbatim
memories for individual texts were common, nonetheless. Giovanni Pico
della Mirandola (1463-94), for example, was just one of *many* figures
of his period who according to contemporaries could recite poems
backwards and forwards after a single hearing. (This is also said of
countless Chinese reciters.) So far as I can tell, after many years of
study, Pico's ability arose through much practice in rote
memorization, without recourse to formal memory aids. Many of Pico's
near contemporaries (including Erasmus) disparaged "memory palaces" as
superfluous and too complex to be of practical use -- exactly the
complaint made by Chinese literati studying Ricci's methods. This
provides further evidence against the need for such methods in textual

In premodern universities in Europe, individual works from the
Aristotelian corpus, and sometimes the whole corpus, were regularly
memorized by students -- again without the use of formal memory
training. (To appreciate how difficult a task this was, read through
the _Physics_ or _Metaphysics_ sometime -- these are obscure and
highly stratified texts and hardly memorable verse.) Professors in the
university would recite the text word-for-word in class,
contradictions and all, and then comment on it; if the students could
afford paper, they would write out the text word-for-word and use that
as a memory aid. If they couldn't afford the paper -- and many
couldn't -- they simply memorized it as the teacher crawled along
(often for months) through the text. After endless commentarial
discussion, formal debates on "disputed points" would begin from
memory -- a practice as common in Vedantan or Buddhist scholasticism
as in Latin or Arabic traditions -- that would further help drive the
text deep into memory. Again, no formal mnemonics were used -- only
lots of rote repetition. A single Aristotelian text would typically be
the subject of many months of classwork. Many scholastics claimed to
know the whole of the Aristotelian corpus -- several thousand pages of
small type in modern editions -- by heart.

KA Ericsson's seminal studies showed that memories *become*
extraordinary simply through long practice: you don't need to use
formal memory techniques. In the case of "institutional transmittal"
(to use your words) -- e.g., of the Vedas -- one might argue that
*after* you thoroughly memorize the basic text it becomes relatively
easy to produce the modifications of the text that are conventionally
claimed as mnemonic tools -- Padapatha, Kramapatha, etc. My suggestion
is that the supposed mnemonic cart may come *after* the
rote-memorization horse -- not the reverse (pace Staal et al.).

Returning to "memory palaces": their real function in the West may not
have been to create loci (places) to associate with snippets of text
but simply to prime neural networks for *later* feats of memory.
Random memorization of long chains of just about *anything*, including
thousands of rooms and objects to which you attach verbal labels,
might do the job.

Before dropping out of this thread myself, I'd like to raise a
question that takes the discussion in a very different direction. It
involves a matter that has troubled me for the last decade. Scholars
normally focus on the *positive* aspects of memorizing canonical texts
-- on faithful oral transmittal, etc. But an equally important, but
ignored, question concerns the *negative* neuropsychological and
cultural consequences in premodern societies of intense memorization
of texts. A number of studies of famous memonists suggest that the
construction of extraordinary memories comes at a cost: loss of
creativity. Many memorists (like Luria's famous subject Sherishevskii)
apparently perform subnormally when it comes to generalizing
knowledge, with their deficits arising directly from their continuous
rehearsal of concrete data. Luria, for example, notes that
Sherishevskii had difficulty escaping his concrete memories, "making
it impossible for him to cross that 'accursed' threshold to a higher
level of thought" (1968: 133). Thompson et al. note something similar
about Rajan Srinivasan Mahadevan, who on exams tended to paraphrase
lecturer's words (like thousands of undergraduates I've taught!) and
had great difficulty creating anything new. The implication is that
Rajan was drowning in his concrete memories.

Shifting to the historical level, I've always wondered if the typical
overreliance of scholastic writers on "authority" in general wasn't
*directly* related to the amount of time they spent memorizing texts.
Recent studies of neural conditioning (e.g., Michael Merzenich's
famous experiments involving neural plasticity) would seem to confirm
this view.

It is not often that historians can test ideas in the laboratory, but
this may be an exception. Is there anyone on this List who has access
to virtuoso Vedic reciters (I don't) and is capable of administering
to them standard neuropsychological batteries, including above all the
Wisconsin Card Sorting Test? (The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is a
standard measure of flexibility in thinking; poor performance on it
indicates problems in frontal-lobe functioning.) To end my part in
this thread with a testable prediction: I would predict that anyone
capable of reciting any one of the four Vedas (or any similar canon)
verbatim would do subnormally on tests like these. Verification of
this prediction would have important historical implications, to say
the least, given the fact that the majority of premodern intellectuals
spent an inordinate amount of time memorizing texts. (If anyone gets a
paper out of this into _Science_ or _Nature_ on this, please sneak me
in as 10th author.)

My best,
Steve Farmer

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