Imagining Is a New Skill

Thinking takes work. For most of us, imagining is a new skill, and that means effort.

Our default response to reading is the easy route — identification. This is why we forget most of what we read. Identification is the great hazard of memorizing.

For instance, we read the first verse of the Christmas story in Luke:

And it came to pass
   that in those days
there went out a decree
   from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world
   should be enrolled.

And we think, “Oh, right, the decree. I know what decrees are. And Caesar Augustus. And the world. And that famous census. Identified. Done. What’s next? I’ve heard this story so many times. I wish something new and interesting would happen.”

This ordinary reading happens on a superficial level. We don’t imagine anything. We don’t think much at all, unless something happens to strike us.

And that’s fine. Ordinary reading is quite useful for ordinary purposes. It’s like walking through the forest — you don’t need to be aware of the unique contours of every tree. You just need to keep an eye out for berries (and bears).

Our minds are fantastically equipped to be constantly awash in seas of information, and attract only the essential bits. We excel at this. If we didn’t, we would starve to death trying to make breakfast.

Most of what you read doesn’t matter. Your mind plucks the essentials, and forgets the rest.

Now, however, you’re suddenly asking your mind to remember every word. This is a new skill.

You’re an aspiring artist. You’ve hauled your easel out into the forest, and you have to learn to look.

Like any new skill, deliberate imagining takes practice. You need to slow down and think. Branch out. What can these words lead you to? What can they connect to?

Imagining Is Connecting

Look again through my list of ways to think about the verses. Notice how they’re all connections.

You imagine the Magi gold by connecting this idea to the sensations of cool, heavy, gleaming metal.

You imagine the surprise and fear of the shepherds when the sky explodes into angels by connecting to your memories of your own emotions. You can actually feel those emotions, just by thinking like this.

We often think of memorizing as a special, arcane skill. But memorizing, like imagining, is ultimately connecting. You think, “I want to tell the story of when the angels visit the shepherds,” and that concept connects to both the actual words of the story and the vivid thoughts you’ve crafted.

Why do you forget things? Because you lose connections. The data doesn’t get erased, as if you’re a hard drive. The data gets lost. It sinks into the murky seas of your subconscious. That’s why you can forget someone’s name, but as soon as you hear it, you remember it. The name was in your head, but you couldn’t find it.

This leads to a powerful idea. When you connect the words of the verses to vivid thoughts like scenes, places, memories, and feelings, those connections don’t only help you experience the verses. They help you remember them.

Imagining is connecting.

Memorizing is also connecting.

What do you connect to? Your own experiences. You connect new material to what you already know.