The Man Who Memorized 60,000 Words of Milton’s “Paradise Lost
This is the feat of memory performed by the actor, John Basinger, who memorized all twelve books of the epic poem.
How many times have tried to memorize a few words, unsuccessfully? A grocery list perhaps? Imagine a shopping list of even some 20 or 30 words. How about memorizing a list of some 60,000?
This is the feat of memory performed by the actor, John Basinger, who memorized all twelve books of Paradise Lost. An epic poem by John Milton, it first published in 1667, and the theme is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, with Satan’s playing the central figure in the plot.
In 1992, at age 58, Basinger decided to memorize small fragments of the poem while doing his workout at the gym. He did this as mere entertainment. Reading verse by verse and then book by book, it’s estimated that Basinger spent about 3,000 hours (nine years) memorizing the full text. In 2001, Basinger recited the entire text, for three days. After this, he offered shorter recitals. One was at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where Basinger came into contact with the psychologist, John Seamon. Seamon approached him to propose a study of his memory under laboratory conditions.
In 2008, then at age 74, Basinger was put into the hands of psychologists who put him through a series of tests. They read a couple of successive lines, and Basinger was asked to recite the ten following lines. His success rate was 88%. This, though, increased to 98% when he was asked to recite from the beginning of each book.
Though the feat is remarkable, Seamon and his colleagues don’t believe that Basinger’s memory is very different from those of the rest of us. “His memory for everyday tasks appears entirely normal for someone his age,” Seamon remarked of the findings published in a 2010 issue of the journal, Memory. “He still forgets where he puts his keys which indicate that exceptional memorizers are made, not born.”
But what made it possible for Basinger to memorize such a complex poem written in language sometimes cryptic and sometimes lyrical? According to Basinger, “during the incessant repetition of Milton’s words, I really began to listen to them, and every now and then as the whole poem began to take shape in my mind, an insight would come, an understanding, a delicious possibility.” This even took the form of physical space, like “a cathedral I carry around in my mind, a place that I can enter and walk around at will.”
In more clinical terms, the researchers attribute the achievement to “deep encoding,” a strategy professional actors use to not only to memorize words, but to serve in the phrasing, musicality, and emotion contained within them, as meanings. According to David Thomson, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, deep encoding is required to make “complex semantic judgments” during the memorization process.
As in the French expression, “connaître par coeur,” that is, “to know by heart,” Basinger’s memorization involved an emotional internalization of the text, and not merely the specific words. Rather it was their latent sense, an understanding of Milton’s emotional temperature which could be expressed before an audience. This was based not only on the voice but in the body expression and emotional response, in addition to a semantic analysis: they’re operations capable of carrying the earthly memory to celestial paradises and to wisdom.
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