We need a term for superfluous smart phone trivia Googling. After all, with the vast archive of factoids on the interwebs who needs to remember anything anymore? But what do we miss by externalizing all of our memories into an electronic form. What about those bards of the past who could recite thousands of lines of poetry, or the Greek rhetoricians who could speak for hours at a time without notes? Thankfully the basics of the lost art of memory can be mastered in an evening. And it’s all in a short section of a 2,100 year old document called the Rhetorica ad Herennium.
Here’s the memory trick the ad Herennium describes in two easy steps. Step one. Say, for example, you want to memorize the following shopping list: goat milk, goat milk yogurt, two blocks of tofu, olive oil, sunflower seeds and cat food (tuna). Take these items and imagine them in some memorable way. Think crazy, surreal, obscene etc. As the ad Herennium puts it,
When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvellous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonourable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable, or laughable, that we are likely to remember a long time.
Step two. place the images you’ve imagined into a physical space that you know well, say your house, your childhood home, office etc. You are, as the ancients would say, creating a “memory palace”. For my shopping list I used our house and imagined a goat in one bay of the garage (goat milk), a goat operating a soft serve yogurt machine in the other bay (goat milk yogurt), two giant cubes of tofu jumping up and down in the living room, Olive Oyl from Popeye in the kitchen (olive oil), Mrs. Homegrown munching sunflower seeds in the hallway (sunflower seeds) and cats dancing around a fish in the bathroom (cat food). When I used my memory palace at the store I was able to recall all but one (olive oil). Later I realized why. I was never really into Popeye and, as a result, using Olive Oyl was not sufficiently memorable. I later came up with a much more graphic way to remember the olive oil later, but this is a family friendly blog so I’ll forgo the description. Even though this banal shopping list is almost a week old I was able to remember it for this blog post. And one of the great features of a memory palace is that you can recall your list in any order by simply walking through the imaginary building you’re using.
While I’ve got the basic concept of the art of memory I need to do some more practice. So far what I’ve found it most useful for is learning people’s names. And, as an urban homesteader, I always find myself learning new skills some of which require memorization. Now this won’t help you find a lost set of car keys. That’s what the ad Herennium calls “natural” memory which it distinguishes from the “artificial” memory that can be enhanced with a memory palace.
I wish this handy trick had been taught to me in school. You can get the idea across in just a few minutes. While we don’t want education to devolve into rote memorization, it’s a little embarrassing to think about how much memory we’ve ceded to the Internet in the post-iPhone era.
The art of memory is a right brain, creative activity that exercises creative visualization. It’s a tool that Renaissance mages such as Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo used to initiate the shift in consciousness that gave birth to the Renaissance. Francis Yates’ book The Art of Memory describes the role memory techniques played in this shift. The revolution in thought launched by Bruno and Camillo gave us the wonders of Western science and, ironically, the iPhones that have externalized our memory palaces. It’s time to re-aim that consciousness and we’ll do so by constructing new memory palaces, even whole memory cities and landscapes. To paraphrase the emerald tablet, beloved by Bruno, “As within so without.”
We’ll go over a mnemonic system for numbers tomorrow.
For an entertaining introduction to the art of memory see Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.