As humans, we have many remarkable wonders hidden between the span of our foreheads. Seven Wonders of the World? Nay, I say there are Infinite Wonders of the World within our Minds! Don’t believe me yet? Join me on this virtual quest and let’s explore one such wonder ofour Mind today – our Memory.
We will start with a quick stop to my favourite cafe first: Nostalgia Cafe. I want you to close your eyes and picture your favourite food. Is it your dadima’s achaar, or your father’s chai? Or perhaps it is the warm jalebi you secretly ate at the market corner, along with your neighbourhood friends on wintry mornings…
Chances are that whatever food you thought of, an associated memory popped up alongside too. And now, I’ll share a tidbit on why this happened – as we walk over from Nostalgia Cafe to our next stop on this quest.
The Yogis termed this aspect of our mind the Citta, or storehouse of memories. The stronger the emotional attachment, the more vivid the memory…which is why so many of us have warm and fuzzy memories of our childhood that we can recollect, but perhaps not a clue what last month’s grocery list was! I can see you smiling, perhaps you agree too?
Memory is a fascinating aspect of human cognition, which is central to our sense of self and identity. In the Western tradition, memory has been studied and understood through psychological and neuroscientific perspectives, whereas in the Yogic tradition, memory is considered a multidimensional phenomenon that is closely linked to consciousness and spirituality.
So you see, our ability to remember past events accurately helps us make sense of the present and plan for the future. In this manner, Memory becomes a crucial asset for us even in the modern world. This brings us to our second stop on today’s quest: Vantage Point.
Did you know that today, the average person can only hold about 4 or 5 items in their working memory at once?1 This is in sharp contrast to this Jain monk2 who memorised and recalled with 100% accuracy over 5,000 random words and objects…imagine that.
And now, can you imagine men and women with such remarkable memories that they can remember, word-for-word and without the aid of any recording device or even pen and paper, more than 2,000 shlokas in Sanskrit over the course of several days? If this is mind-boggling, hang on to your hats – these men and women are not just masters of memory, they are creative geniuses who have composed those very verses – and that too, in Sanskrit!
This rare group is called Avadhanis, practitioners of an ancient Indian art form called Avadhanakala. Here from Vantage Point, I think you can see the view clearly too now…the secret to preserving our Memory and expanding our Consciousness beyond what the modern world calls “mental constraints” lies in exploring the lives and practices of such Avadhanis – who are living proof of our Mind’s most vital assets. Today, we will explore Memory further..
Why does Memory matter?
Memory is a critical aspect of human cognition, which plays a vital role in shaping our identity and sense of self. In this regard, Western and Yogic perspectives offer different insights into the nature of memory and its relationship to consciousness and spirituality.
The Western perspective on memory distinguishes between different types of memory, such as sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Sensory memory is the immediate and brief memory of sensory stimuli, while short-term memory refers to the temporary storage of information that is actively being processed, and long-term memory refers to the relatively permanent storage of information that can be retrieved later.
On the other hand, the Yogic perspective on memory is multidimensional and is closely linked to consciousness and spirituality. The Upanishads provide valuable insights into the nature of memory and its relationship to consciousness and spirituality. For example, this quote from the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.1.1) tells us:
[satyam jnanam anantam brahma] 3
Or “Truth, knowledge, and infinity constitute Brahman (the ultimate reality).” This suggests that memory and mind are manifestations of the infinite Brahman, and therefore, they have a deep connection to the ultimate reality. Such thoughts are yet to be empirically proved by the material world, but the fact that memory is not simply a passive mechanism for storing information but in fact, an active process that shapes our perception of reality, gives us more inspiration to explore this aspect of our Mind.
By recognizing the interconnectedness of consciousness and memory, we can gain a deeper understanding of our own selves and the world around us. With this view before our eyes, one can only wonder and become more curious about these Avadhanis…who are they and how can they achieve such remarkable mental feats? To find out more, stay tuned for our next Quest. We will continue our journey through the Mind’s terrain, only this time – we will be led by an Avadhani!
Signing off for now…
Your trek guide,
About this series: Set in a conversational tone, the author wishes to embark on a journey with the readers, gradually discovering different aspects of the Mind in context of the Avadhanakala and Consciousness Studies project at the Centre for Human Sciences. If you wish to learn more about what Avadhanakala is, please explore our webpage: https://rishihood.edu.in/researchprojects-avadhankala/
About the author: Damini is a Research Associate at the Centre for Human Sciences. An avid reader, yoga asana and dhyana practitioner, Damini finds solace in Mother Nature. As part of the Rishihood family, she will be working to uncover unique aspects of the ancient Vedic art of Avadhānakalā or multiple concentration.
1. The concept of limited working memory capacity was first proposed by George A. Miller in his influential paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”, published in the journal Psychological Review in 1956. In this paper, Miller suggested that the human working memory capacity is limited to about seven (plus or minus two) chunks of information.
Since then, several studies have confirmed that the average working memory capacity is closer to 4 or 5 chunks of information, rather than 7. One such study was published in the journal Memory & Cognition in 2001, titled “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity” by Nelson Cowan.
If you are keen to explore this aspect further, type the phrase “working memory capacity” in online databases.
2. “A Master of Memory in India Credits Meditation for His Brainy Feats” https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/18/world/asia/prodigy-in-india-credits-feats-of-memory-to-meditation-and-jainism.html
3. The quote “Satyam Jnanam Anantam Brahma” is from the Taittiriya Upanishad, which is a part of the Krishna Yajurveda. The verse appears in the second half of the Upanishad, in the section known as the Bhrigu Valli or Anandavalli, which is the seventh and final chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad.The verse is found in the first section of the Bhrigu Valli, and it is the third anuvaka (section) of that section. The written reference for the verse is Taittiriya Upanishad 2.1.1.
– Damini Roy, Research Associates, Avadhānakalā and Consciousness Studies, Centre for Human Science, Rishihood University,