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John Basinger forgets his car keys.
He forgets names, is fuzzy on dates and, if he hasn’t got a pad and pen in front of him, is likely to forget the rendezvous to which he’s just committed. His memory, in other words, is entirely normal for a 76-year-old.
Except for one big thing. John Basinger can recite all of John Milton’s 12-book, 100,000 word poem Paradise Lost from memory. It took him eight-and-a-half years, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 hours and several hundred miles on a treadmill, but he has consumed the epic poem so thoroughly that it now wafts from him like a scent.
Since 2001, the Middletown retiree has performed Paradise Lost twice in its entirety—a process that consumes a three-day weekend.
That bewildering ability—part party trick and part solemn wrestling with his own maddeningly erratic faith—might simply have been the first paragraph of Basinger’s obituary, if not for the fact that so many of us are living longer, and falling prey to dementia at alarming rates. One in seven Americans over 70 now suffers from dementia; those in the field view Basinger as an intriguing case.
His feats of memory were enough to make Wesleyan University psychologist John Seamon wonder: Was Basinger a freak of nature, or could anybody with enough brain cells do the same?
After seeing one of Basinger’s public performances of Paradise Lost, Seamon decided to test his memory under clinical conditions. Earlier this year, the journal Memory published the results of his study, “Memorizing Milton’s Paradise Lost: A Study of a Septuagenarian Exceptional Memorizer.” It explores whether great memories are made or can be created. The conclusion: “Cognitive expertise in memorization remains possible even in later adulthood.”
In other words, an old dog can learn new tricks.