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You know how you’re so proud of yourself because you you can still recite a few lines from Desiderata or a poem by Rod McKuen?  Yeah, well, that’s nothing. John Basinger has memorized all 10,565 lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost :

Pounding the treadmill in 1993, John Basinger, aged 58, decided to complement his physical exercise by memorising the 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000 words that comprise the Second Edition of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost . Nine years later he achieved his goal, performing the poem from memory over a three-day period, and since then he has recited the poem publicly on numerous occasions . . . .

Just how did JB manage to pull off this incredible feat? He studied for about one hour per day, reciting verses in seven-line chunks, consistent with Miller’s magic number seven - the capacity of short-term, working memory. Added together, JB estimates that he devoted between 3000 to 4000 hours to learning the poem.

JB didn’t use the mnemonic techniques favoured by memory champions, but neither, the researchers say, should we see his achievement as a ‘demonstration of brute force, rote memorisation’. Rather it was clear that JB was ‘deeply cognitively involved’ in learning Milton’s poem. JB explained:

‘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. . . . I think of the poem in various ways. As a cathedral I carry around in my mind, a place that I can enter and walk around at will. . . . Whenever I finish a “Paradise Lost” performance I raise the poem and have it take a bow.’

What have you spent 3,000 hours learning? That’s what I thought. Now go back to watching Jersey Shore , you slacker.

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