The Art of Memory

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.

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  1. Cool, thanks. One CD I picked up at the library that has helped me is called “Double Your Reading Speed in 10 Minutes” by Paul Scheele. Its only a 10 minute audio CD (literally) and gives a few tips on increasing your speed with some very basic steps such as correcting your posture. I did feel it was just a preview to other books/cds (well, most likely) which I havent looked into since it boosts 25,000 words a minute speed reading. Anyhow, its worth a look and listen if you can get a hold of it.

  2. What’s wrong with the term “superfluous smart phone trivia Googling?” 😉 I love memory games! My dad used to use the mnemonic system all the time to remember stuff. Our old garage door code was SHaRKS (6470) It’ll be a little nostalgic to read tomorrow’s post!

  3. Wandering the intertubes after following the link to Foer’s book led me to MentatWiki, a site of possible interest.
    I don’t know about the “smart drugs” stuff, but the other topics covered — memory, critical thinking, etc. — look at least potentially worthwhile.

  4. In Biology, I could memorize whole lists, columns with attributes of things on the lists by first letter only. However, I just memorized lists and put them in the grid. My teacher caught me doing this on the back of the test after the test started, and thought I was cheating. She watched me fill out the grid with no help and go on to answer all the questions on the final exam correctly. That’s one way if you never hope to see the material on another test!.

    The other is mnemonics. I finally, at the age of almost 50 taught myself “algebra without crying.” Every function and operation has a story. However, these are the most ridiculous stories ever. I could see smiles creeping into the corners of the GED students’ mouths. I told them I knew they were laughing at my silliness and that I hoped they just went to their friends and told them of my silly stories. They all looked rather sober and shocked. This way, I told them, they would reinforce the stories that helped them remember. At the end of class I begged them to go tell the story to at least one person that night and someone everyday until we met next. Yes, there was lots of eye-rolling.

    Your list–“mytosc” for me–m.y.t.o.s.c. I say it over and over in my head in a singsong fashion, sometimes in various voices and aloud. It is a tossable list, not like algebra. If a person would rather it be something else–“my tosc”- works as two words. Yes, weird and memorable.

    There is an important reason that writing helps our brain. Writing reinforces the brain–speaking aloud, hearing to “fingers” to paper to vision to memory. (imagine tasting all these.) The more of the senses a person uses, the better the memory.

    A week before finals, I wrote “study notes,” basically rewriting a semester worth of notes for each class in another spiral notebook. However, I never studied those notes because revisiting and rewriting and thinking about concepts were all I needed. And, I am almost sure that the Greeks never wrote rote to memorize.

    Memorization is easier if we learn to memorize, something my middle-aged children never had to do in grammar school. So, I assigned poems, taught them how to memorize. They still groan and repeat the poems as part of their stories of my torturing them with knowledge!…lol. And, two are now teachers.

    mytosc-milk, yogurt, tofu, olive oil, sunflower, cat food. The extraneous portions like ‘goat, tuna, and seeds is easily remembered once I have the list of basic words.

    Unfortunately, the older I get, the better a written list works…lol. Sorry this is so long.

  5. There’s a lovely book that uses memory palaces as major plot devices. It’s called A Trip to the Stars, and it’s by Nicolas Christopher.

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