Memorization in the MRI Machine

Last Wednesday, I went to the radiologist for an MRI (at the risk of spoilers, I’ll say upfront that the results came back totally clean). The doctor packed cushions around my head so it couldn’t move, squeezed earplugs in my ears to dim the jack-hammer sound of the machine, and then pushed the button and slid me into the narrow plastic tube. As she watched me disappear, she said “This’ll take about 40 minutes.” The sterile throat of the beast swallowed me, and I lay inside the machine.

My heart rate picked up with increasing claustrophobia: the containment, immobility, and, oh, crap, I forgot to ask them what to do if I just wanted to be let out, what do I do if I want out – I can’t move and they can’t hear me, can they? They’re in the other room, and that big, solid door  –

I grabbed hold of the reins of my mind, arresting my panic and launching my mind speedily onto familiar tracks: memorized words. “There is yet faith, but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.” Yes, waiting. More Eliot, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky….” Breathing smoothly again. T.S. Eliot soothed my pulse until he brought up Michelangelo, who marks the end of my memorization.

Then, inside my head, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want;” that one I knew all the way through. I snuck in a few prayers for those I know whose hearts are going through the valley of the shadow of death (now that my mind was calm enough to construct its own sentences), then launched into Psalm 30. I stumbled for the words at the end. However, trying to pick up the pieces and put it all in the right order was no problem; I had the time for it.

My mind wandered, comfortably, from piecing together forgotten endings to musing about memorization. In classes on education, I’ve frequently listened to professors and classmates deride memorization. It’s true: rote knowledge does not constitute complete learning. Besides, they argue, it isn’t necessary – the internet satisfies those needs, anyway. Of course, in the magnetic marvel of medical technology within which I lay, the Psalms and J. Alfred Prufrock were closer to me than Wikipedia and Google. At least for these 40 minutes, I had gone where my MacBook couldn’t follow.

But, in terms of justifying memorization as a good practice, what does that amount to, really? How often does anyone need an MRI? Are there other cases where memorization helps? And, not just memorizing facts for your career for which you need quick and easy access, but even memorizing poetry and scripture and things you don’t urgently need to act upon?

Unless, perhaps, you do need those things urgently, at times. Maybe the sudden, quick decisions of real life rest on what’s already in your mind. Sometimes, a little word will trigger a memory, and your mind – starting from some term like “rest” – performs a quick search and accesses, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” It comes suddenly, when the words are memorized, and lets you make the quick decision about how to react to your circumstance. Having good words and thoughts and beauty constantly within your reach has applications outside that MRI machine.

It didn’t feel like 40 minutes when the machine calmly released me back into the world. The initial panic had lasted 30 seconds, and was the longest part. The doctor returned to free my head and have me sit up.

“How was it?” she asked.

“Kind of relaxing, to be honest.”