Some years ago I wrote a piece in the Catholic Herald on revision. I think it worked – if an email I received from a reader is anything to go by. Here’s what he wrote.

“I just wanted to let you know that I passed this on immediately to my undergraduate son, verbatim, and to all the students on the several courses I teach at (Oxford) Brookes in at least precis form. It is the single most useful piece of advice I have seen on how to learn.”

Some of you will remember this because you made supporting contributions. And I do not suppose that all you readers today are students. But you may well have relations or friends who are studying – perhaps for exams this Summer – and indeed all of us need to recall what we have learnt from time to time. So, here goes:


‘White founts falling in the Courts of the sun, and the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run.” I shot the first couplet of Chesterton’s Lepanto at my old friend. And he responded with a word-perfect quatrain. No, we didn’t remember every line, but we made a fair attempt at a poem we had learnt in class well over 60 years ago. Long-term memory.

Revision and recall are topics which make the student of any age sigh with tedium. Out with those notes we made so long ago; out with the textbooks or the internet pages which have faded in our memory. And then the midnight hour when our lucubrations strive to push back into the skull information that has been leaking out from our memories for weeks. And of course it is much too late.

Fortunately scientific investigations have discovered many factors which relieve the difficulties of revision: unfortunately few are taught these – and even fewer put them into practice.

Here is a question. Imagine two groups both of which were taught the same material in a lecture. Group A was tested the same day and group B was tested a day later. Both groups were re-tested to discover the amount of material retained two months later. Which of the two groups have remembered most?

Interestingly, not only did Group A retain about six times as much as Group B but, after 63 days, it retained nearly twice as much as Group B retained on the day following the lecture itself. So revision is less about work than about timing. Yet too many of us are inclined to leave all revision to the very last moment when we could save ourselves trouble and greatly improve our memories by revising at the first moment.

Tony Buzan, whose Use Your Head (BBC) is my bible in such matters, suggests that the most efficient routine is to revise about 10 minutes after the original study, then a day later, a week later and a month later. By that time the learning should be in the long-term memory.

The precise ways in which memories work have not been fully established. But the distinction between short- and long-term memory is useful. I think of short-term memory as a slightly leaky bucket. Its capacity is small – perhaps three to six items – and I have to get these into the reservoir of long-term memory before the items have leaked away or have been replaced by new items of information.

There are simple ways of nudging the items into the long-term memory. The easiest is repetition. Another method is finding an association. I am bad at recalling names but I remember the name of my housekeeper, Marta, (because she is a “martyr” to her work).

But revision, on the sort of schedule Buzan suggests, has little value unless you work with the material you are trying to remember. That is the best means of employing the long-term memory.

Suppose that I am trying to revise some material that I learned about the Church and slavery. No, I don’t look at my notes. What I do first is to scribble down on rough paper what I can remember. In this way I reconstruct knowledge in a way that strongly bolsters recall. So my list might start with “Aristotle, Paul and slavery, Wilberforce, Jesuits in Maryland” and so on. Only then do I look at my notes. I know that re-discovering what I have forgotten or remembered incorrectly will drive the right memories deeper. I am also inclined to give a lecture on any subject I am revising to an imaginary audience, before I look at the notes. But you need to be an egoist like me to do that.

Either way, the experts are clear that continuing to reconstruct the information through frequently attempting to recall it is the most effective technique for successful revision.

Some instructors will administer a brief tick-box questionnaire at the end of a period of instruction. This in itself acts as revision, and so is advantageous. It is enhanced, by the way, by the instructor signalling the test in advance, and so giving the student a motivation for higher attention. A similar effect would be achieved by two friends agreeing to quiz each other about 10 minutes after the instruction.

A further disadvantage of leaving revision until the last moment is that panic leads to long hours of weary work. But, as in all learning, the level of attention is maintained by working for short periods, say 30 minutes, and then having a little break. This aids attention and gives an opportunity for reviewing the revision. And I emphasise again that using different, active, methods of revision beats by a long way re-reading notes until the eyes blur. Remember that good sleep enables the memory to store important information effectively – so long nights studying are counterproductive.

But you may say that you no longer have a need to study like this. Perhaps not, but you almost certainly have a friend or a relative who needs it. Will their instructors have taught them how to revise? Possibly, but when I made a professional audiotape on the issue some years back several teachers told me that they themselves were ignorant of the available research.

I have confined this column to a few key points. But I trust that many of you have experience of teaching and instruction. So do share your ideas with us here. You may well be helping someone pass an exam they might otherwise have failed. (Ends)

PS You can of course see the original when it came out by using Search on this page. But I have made one small change. Can you spot it? Looking for it will be an aid to memory. Who will find it first? The clue is: promotion.

Posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries | 3 Comments

Millennials leave the Church

Many of my Catholic friends have children in their twenties – these are called millennials, I understand. The issue is the high proportion of these who no longer practise their religion or perhaps are effectively agnostics or atheists. What, we ask ourselves, did we do wrong or what did the Church do wrong? It is not that they lack a moral sense – in many respects they have high moral beliefs and actions even if those are sometimes focussed on objectives that may seem odd to us. Generally they act in line with the Ten Commandments but it might be better not to mention this in case they drop them as a result.

Naturally the sexual area looms large and it appears that the routine is sexual activity (perhaps started at university) beginning early on, developing into living together for years rather months, then finally – sometimes pregnant — into marriage. They listen politely to the statistics which show that this is not a good route irrespective of religion but they ultimately continue on the same path.

Perhaps advanced methods of contraception provide a needed facility, perhaps the Church’s prohibition on sex outside marriage conflicts with their circumstances. And perhaps the imperatives of Catholic morality run counter to their ways of thinking. It may be that the rate of marriage breakdown is another factor which influences them. This is my guesswork and you may have different ideas.

Tell me whether you agree with my view of the situation. And just as importantly what should we do to keep our young inside the Church. Or perhaps the problem lies with the Church’s approach. The last time I published my thoughts on how the Church might approach the young by taking them seriously all I got was the Holy Office on my tail

Apologies for posting this late.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 65 Comments

Poetry and the human heart

As we move out from Lent and into the joys of Easter I started to think about poetry. The immediate trigger was Wendy Cope’s new collection: Anecdotal Evidence (Faber & Faber). You will know her as a fine and witty poet with the gift of making us think. She asks, in her eight line introductory poem what the use of poetry may be. She answers: “It’s anecdotal evidence/About the human heart.”

I am not in Cope’s league but it inspired me to look at some of my short poems written over the years. So I thought I would indulge myself by writing about some of them this week.

We have all experienced, whether male or female, occasions when an incident hits us so hard emotionally that we find the tears rising in our eyes, so this poem reminds me of my late wife.


She had seen many pictures on that day;
They were all good, and certainly very costly.
Some had even made her catch her breath.
Then she turned a final corner –
Feet swollen, ankles aching –
To see four snow scenes painted by Monet.
She stood there and cried for beauty.
She had not meant to cry and was ashamed.

My next poem, British Surgeon Lebanon ‘87, also concerns a woman but this is a British surgeon who took huge personal risks attending to the damaged and wounded in Lebanon (1987). It struck me that we can do dangerous and courageous things simply because we were there at the crucial moment. It is a great tribute to human nature.

Do you do it for love? I asked.
No, she said.
Why do you do it? I asked.
It came to my hand, she said.

While she was working, I saw some very unpleasant scenes. And I tried to sum them up in 3 lines which described an incident I saw.

The bullet entered under her nose;
Her skull plates heaved
And brought up brain.

Many years ago we had a French lodger. She was so beautiful that she triggered in me what we might call impure thoughts. She had no interest in me other than friendship. In the end it became so unbearable that I had to ask my wife to move her on.. But it was not before I wrote a little rhyme.

Long-stemmed she rose
Her voice cut glass
She’s my mistress
I’m her class.

Some hopes! So let’s move to something more intellectual. I hope you know Wagner’s Ring.

In Wagner’s Ring
Power is king.
With the world in tatters,
Nothung matters

But of course we must end with something religious. This one was called The Bible.

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

I am sure that some of you use poetry as a way to express your anecdotal evidence about the human heart. If you do, or even if not, tell us whether you enjoy reading poems which seem to hit the button.

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Unnatural behaviour

This is, I take it, the best known passage on Natural Law. It’s only a couple of thousand years old.

“There is indeed a true law—right reason—that is in harmony with Nature and present in all things, unchanging and eternal and that guides us to our duty by its commands and deflects us from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. Its commands and prohibitions never fail to prevail with the good but they have no power to influence the wicked. It is not right to legislate against the requirements of this law and it is not permitted to limit its application. It is impossible for it to be repealed in its entirety and we cannot be exempted from this law even by the Roman people or by the Senate. We do not need to seek out a Sextus Aelius to interpret or expound this law nor will there be one law in Rome, another in Athens, one law at one time and a different one some time later. One eternal and unchanging law will govern all peoples at all times and it will be, as it were, the single ruling and commanding god of the whole human race. That god is the creator of the law, its proclaimer and its enforcer. The man who does not obey this law is denying his own nature and, by rejecting his human nature, he will incur the greatest of punishments, even though he will have evaded the other things that are thought of as penalties.” Cicero, De Republica III xxii

And some would also point to Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone upbraids Creon, the ruler, for forbidding her to bury her brother’s body.
“But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly. “

I like to compare Natural Law to a washing machine. If we expect our washing machine to do its job well and to last a long time we need to respect its nature. It should be used according to its design and manufacture. We may be able to suss this out through examination, but we will be much helped by the maker’s handbook. The only difference is that we own the washing machine, so we are free to mishandle or even destroy it, whereas we don’t own our human nature, we receive it from God.

We are fortunate in having the maker’s human handbook: we call it Scripture. And we also have an expert, appointed by God, to give us the detail. We call it the Church. But beyond that, as Cicero and Sophocles suggest, we have a capacity to judge whether our actions are consistent with human natural law, or, like Creon, to act against it.

An example of such judgment is the recognition that human beings flourish in society, so it follows that, for example, stealing is against the law of our nature. The other approach is structural: from considering our physicality we can discern which activities are appropriate and which aren’t. Not surprisingly this has a strong relevance to the uses of human sexuality. Nevertheless the instructions as laid down are not the last word. That comes from our own judgment when we have to make decisions about our own choices of action. This also comes from our human nature, central to which is reason and free will.

We may need to remember this when others criticise us for holding on to moral values in a society which, for a variety of reasons, often strays from natural law. We do not disagree because the Church says otherwise: it is us, in the sight of God, who make the final decisions and are responsible for them.

Posted in Moral judgment | Tagged | 11 Comments

Money, money, money

Look at the date, and subtract it from 5th of April this year. You will know now how many days you have to make a decision which may save you from unnecessarily losing money. Read on.

Fortunately I receive a pension: I worked for 40 years and I have been retired for 21 years. It did not occur to me at that time that for every month I worked I was also paying for half a month of retirement. And I should have known better because my work was very much concerned with arranging pensions for my clients. My imprecations were not popular. I found that few people were enthusiastic about foregoing their immediate needs to provide for a remote future which might not ever happen. Buying a car, getting a house, enjoying a summer holiday were all too pressing – perhaps I should come back in a few years’ time when everything would be easier. The most impressive excuse came from an evangelical Christian who quoted “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” to claim that taking thought for the morrow was sinful. He is, I assume, now praying in a garret.

Such attitudes are not surprising. Two different elements in the brain are working at the same time. One element keeps a watchful eye on the future, close or remote, and nudges us to prepare; the other prompts our enthusiasm for immediate reward. And, for many people, it is the second which wins. We have inherited brains which tell us that if we do not grab now we may not survive to grab in the future.

So let’s look at the problem, using a male aged 65. An annuity of £5000 costs today around £100,000 , so perhaps you need about four times that to buy a modest income for life. (I am only giving a simple example here to show the scale.) To that you will add the state pension – which may well be reduced because the younger generation think it is over generous. They will change their minds too late.

If we assume 30 years to retirement and 3 percent annual growth, the contribution from you or your employer will need to be over £2,000 a year for an annuity of £20,000. But there’s a snag: inflation. Assuming 2 percent (the Bank of England’s target) your modest pension will have substantially lost in value by then. Of course you can postpone your contribution for, say, five years, but the cost each following year will have risen by over a third. No doubt your salary has risen but by now perhaps you have children and one of you works part time. You may have to wait until the children have left home before you find yourself prosperous again – but your retirement date is now that much closer.

This is where the 5th April comes in. One way of bolstering up your future holding is to take out an ISA. The ration for this tax year is up to £20,000. Use it before 6th April, or lose it. While an ISA, unlike a pension, is paid from taxed income or existing savings, the proceeds are tax free. ISAs come in two main forms: a cash ISA– invested in, say, a building society, or an investment ISA– invested in stocks and shares. The first is safer but unexciting; the second is volatile but with higher potential. Which is best for any individual depends on circumstances, and may need professional advice – I can make no recommendation. But I can say that I have bought ISAs, or their predecessors, since they were first available. And I’m jolly glad I did: virtually all my long term savings are in tax free ISAs. A recent facility allows a transfer of ISAs to the survivor of a married couple.

You may say that this is rather depressing. Perhaps, but there is nothing so depressing as being short of income through the years of old age. We must be aware that crisis awaits us. We are having fewer children. And this is generally true throughout Europe. The inevitable result is that the proportion of taxpayers is reduced in comparison with pensioners – who come from generations of larger families. Contraception, women in careers and, ironically, advances in old age medicine also play their part.

Stanislas de Lestapis, the Jesuit demographer, foresaw, in the late ‘50’s, the severe long term economic problems awaiting the Japanese – as they took enthusiastically to contraception under American influence. It is now the most aged society, facing shortages of labour, medical and social care facilities. The number of people over 85 in the UK is predicted by Age UK to more than double in the next 23 years. I shall thankfully be dead. But you may not be.

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Surely that’s not true

Some years ago, in Toronto, I was part of a conversation in which an ‘intellectual’ lady snapped at her meticulous husband with Emerson’s words *Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I felt she was hard on the poor man so I pointed out that Emerson had said “Foolish consistency…”: which was rather different. Now I was not popular, and I haven’t spoken to the woman since.

I find that truths which turn out to be not so rather fascinating, so let me give you a few examples. Then perhaps you can add some others in your contributions. It will make a break from our serious debates.

The guillotine was not named after its inventor. It was used in Italy for years beforehand, and was introduced to France by a Dr Louis. It was at one stage called a louison. Dr Guillotin persuaded the National Assembly to use it to replace the existing cruel methods of execution.

A miniature, as we all know, is a very small painting. Or do we? In fact the Latin word refers to painting with red lead. Normally once used for illuminated manuscripts it can, etymologically, be of any size.

The minutes of a meeting are not a record related to time but to size. The record customarily used small handwriting.

When Hamlet wished Ophelia to a nunnery he was far from preserving her virtue. In the slang of those days a nunnery was a brothel.

Brides do not walk down the aisle but the nave. The aisles go down the sides.

The human body renews itself every seven years. While bodies are always changing, seven is a fiction. The number seven seems to be significant in our minds.

Galileo never dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate gravity. Or at least he failed to mention it. The story only appeared years later.

Another questionable story concerns Lady Godiva, who happens to be an ancestor of mine. Her bareback ride is not recorded until over 100 years later.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, as many Americans think. For example the British Sir Joseph Swan developed and demonstrated a carbon-filament bulb about a year before Edison’s success.

Now it’s your turn to contribute…

Posted in Quentin queries | 20 Comments

Are you in the race?

How racist are you? Once upon a time I would have claimed not to be racist at all. That was before I had my experience. Several years ago I was coming down a narrow staircase in the London Tube, and a West Indian was coming up. Naturally I moved to the side to give him clear passage. And I went on my way, feeling good about my liberal self. It was only later that I realised that my self satisfaction was racist in itself. I would not have felt it had he been a white person. I learn’t that one can be scrupulous in behaviour and yet retain questionable, but built in, attitudes.

It is of course an ugly quality. I recall walking around Covent Garden with a rather beautiful black lady friend. (change ‘black’ to whatever is the non racist description which is currently acceptable) There I was: clearly an English gentleman but with such a person on my arm. I was really shocked at the plain hatred shown in the expressions of several passers by. It was some 20 years ago. Is it different now?

You may remember the incident of the Washington official who used the word ‘niggardly’ in a speech. His illiterate listeners kicked up so great a fuss at such a racist word that he (as I recall) had to resign.

Of course this is by no means confined to skin colour. It is fortunate for some murky people that they can use the word ‘zionist’ instead of the word ‘jew’. And this is complex because one may, or may not, oppose Zionism on straightforward grounds. It is hard to distinguish rational approaches to such problems from those which are, in fact, racial in their inspiration.

A study was carried out in which the investigators applied for several, advertised, professional jobs. The CVs submitted each gave the same information but in some instances the name of the applicant was clearly Asian. It turned out that those which had an Asian name received significantly fewer invitations to a first interview than those with Anglo Saxon names, despite their equal qualifications. I doubt if the selectors were even aware of their bias.

I am not calling for us to eradicate racism, or indeed our propensity to associate characteristics with identifiable groups. But I am suggesting that, as far as we can, we should identify any elements of racism which we harbour. They may be conscious, semi conscious or even, as we think more deeply, unconscious. We may not be able to change the world but we can change ourselves.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 30 Comments