How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Some­times, when I can’t sleep, I men­tal­ly revis­it the var­i­ous homes of my child­hood, wan­der­ing from room to room, turn­ing on lights and peer­ing in clos­ets until I conk out.

Turns out these imag­i­nary tours are also handy mnemon­ic tools, as Vox’s Dean Peter­son explains above.

Hey, that’s good news… isn’t the sub­con­scious rumored to do some heavy lift­ing in terms of pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion?

Peter­son con­quered a self-described bad mem­o­ry, at least tem­porar­i­ly, by traips­ing around his apart­ment, deposit­ing vivid sen­tence-by-sen­tence clues that would even­tu­al­ly help him recite by heart one of his favorite chap­ters in Moby Dick.

In truth, he was plant­i­ng these clues in his hip­pocam­pus, the rel­a­tive­ly small struc­ture in the brain that’s a crit­i­cal play­er when it comes to mem­o­ry, includ­ing the spa­tial mem­o­ries that allow us to nav­i­gate famil­iar loca­tions with­out seem­ing to give the mat­ter any thought.

What made it stick was pair­ing his every­day coor­di­nates to extra­or­di­nary visu­als.

Chap­ter 37, for those keep­ing track at home, is a mono­logue for Cap­tain Ahab in which he describes him­self as not just mad but “mad­ness mad­dened.” Here’s the first sen­tence:

I leave a white and tur­bid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail.

Not the eas­i­est text for 21st-cen­tu­ry heads to wrap around, though with a lit­tle effort, most of us get the gist.

Let’s not get hung up on lit­er­ary inter­pre­ta­tion here, though, folks. Hav­ing set­tled on his front stoop as the first stop of his mem­o­ry palace Peter­son refrained from pic­tur­ing frothy spume lap­ping at the low­er­most step. Instead he plunked down a funer­al wreath and direc­tor John Waters, pale of suit and cheek, weep­ing. Get it? White? Wake? Pale cheeks?

After which Peter­son moved on to the next sen­tence.

There are 38 in all, and after sev­er­al days of prac­tice in which he men­tal­ly walked the image-strewn course of his apart­ment-cum-Mem­o­ry Palace, Peter­son was able to regale his cowork­ers with an off-book recita­tion.

The time fac­tor will def­i­nite­ly be a let down for those hop­ing for a low com­mit­ment par­ty trick.

Peter­son spent three-to-four hours a day pac­ing his spa­tial mem­o­ry, admir­ing the odd­i­ties he him­self had placed there.

The incred­u­lous com­ments from those ques­tion­ing the effi­cien­cy of giv­ing up half a day to mem­o­rize a page and a half are bal­anced by tes­ti­mo­ni­als from those who’ve met with suc­cess, using the Mem­o­ry Palace method to retain vast amounts of data pri­or to an exam.

That may, ulti­mate­ly, be a bet­ter use of the Mem­o­ry Palace. Peter­son gets an A for spit­ting out the lines as writ­ten, but his expres­sion is that of an actor audi­tion­ing with mate­r­i­al he has not yet mas­tered. (No shade on Peterson’s act­ing tal­ent or lack thereof—even great actors get this face when their lines are shaky. One friend doesn’t con­sid­er her­self off book until she can get all the way through her mono­logue whilst hop­ping on one foot.)

For more infor­ma­tion on build­ing a Mem­o­ry Palace, refer, as Peter­son did, to author Joshua Foer’s Moon­walk­ing With Ein­stein: The Art and Sci­ence of Remem­ber­ing Every­thing, or to his appear­ance on Adam Grant’s TED Work/Life pod­cast. Stream it here:

If you would like to go whale to whale with Peter­son, below is the text that he installed in his Mem­o­ry Palace, com­pli­ments of Her­man Melville:

I leave a white and tur­bid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envi­ous bil­lows side­long swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.

Yon­der, by ever-brim­ming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The div­er sun- slow dived from noon- goes down; my soul mounts up! she wea­ries with her end­less hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lom­bardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I the wear­er, see not its far flash­ings; but dark­ly feel that I wear that, that daz­zling­ly con­founds. ‘Tis iron- that I know- not gold. ‘Tis split, too- that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the sol­id met­al; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no hel­met in the most brain-bat­ter­ing fight!

Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sun­rise nobly spurred me, so the sun­set soothed. No more. This love­ly light, it lights not me; all love­li­ness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gift­ed with the high per­cep­tion, I lack the low, enjoy­ing pow­er; damned, most sub­tly and most malig­nant­ly! damned in the midst of Par­adise! Good night-good night! (wav­ing his hand, he moves from the win­dow.)

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stub­born, at the least; but my one cogged cir­cle fits into all their var­i­ous wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of pow­der, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire oth­ers, the match itself must needs be wast­ing! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad- Star­buck does; but I’m demo­ni­ac, I am mad­ness mad­dened! That wild mad­ness that’s only calm to com­pre­hend itself! The prophe­cy was that I should be dis­mem­bered; and- Aye! I lost this leg. I now proph­esy that I will dis­mem­ber my dis­mem­ber­er. Now, then, be the prophet and the ful­filler one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye, ye crick­et-play­ers, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes and blind­ed Bendi­goes! I will not say as school­boys do to bul­lies- Take some one of your own size; don’t pom­mel me! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hid­den. Come forth from behind your cot­ton bags! I have no long gun to reach ye. Come, Ahab’s com­pli­ments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye can­not swerve me, else ye swerve your­selves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed pur­pose is laid with iron rails, where­on my soul is grooved to run. Over unsound­ed gorges, through the rifled hearts of moun­tains, under tor­rents’ beds, unerr­ing­ly I rush! Naught’s an obsta­cle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entire­ty by Til­da Swin­ton, Stephen Fry, John Waters & Oth­ers

Play Mark Twain’s “Mem­o­ry-Builder,” His Game for Remem­ber­ing His­tor­i­cal Facts & Dates

How to Prac­tice Effec­tive­ly: Lessons from Neu­ro­science Can Help Us Mas­ter Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in New York City May 13 for the next install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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