Janet asked me in a recent comment about the difference between memorizing things, and memorizing words. As a computer programmer, she’s concerned with exact syntax, and the more vague visual images we’ve been discussing here are less useful.
I’ve been reading pseudo-Cicero’s book, Ad Herennium, about this, along with the elegant book by Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, and I’ve gained a few brief insights into the process. Pseudo-Cicero, the unknown grammarian wrote a book dealing with the memory art I’ve been describing, lived around 80 BC. Ad Herennium, that very book, eventually had its authorship attributed as the work of the great Roman statesman and man of letters, Cicero, who lived forty years later, around 40 BC (and the time of Julius Caesar’s murder). His chapters on the art of artificial memory are a critical look into the mindset of the time, and those rules are succinctly summed up by Yates. I won’t reproduce them here, but sum them up.
- An artificial memory is established by combining places with images;
- A place is a location easily grasped by the memory, such as a house, a place between pillars, a corner of a room, an arch, a piece of furniture.
- Images are forms or pictures which can be static or in motion, of pieces of information which we wish to remember.
- The art of memory is an inner writing. Those who know the art of memory invent images, like letters or words, and set them in the appropriate places that they may be vigorously called to mind.
- The more we wish to remember, the more places we must equip our minds to remember. They must form a series, so they can be visited in order, or they must be spatially organized, so they can be visited at random, and so that we may go back and forth, either within the series or out of order as needed.
- The mental images of the places are far more important than the images stored there; for the same places can be used again and again for remembering different material. The images fade with time and lack of use, but the places remain strong.
- To make sure that we do not forget where we are in the palace of memory, it is good to put a marker at every fifth and tenth place, to remind ourselves of what goes there.
- Form one’s memory of a desolate or solitary place; crowds of people passing through the place tend to weaken one’s impressions of the space.
- Memory places should not too closely resemble each other. They should be distinguished by color, shape, texture and more to make them clear. They should not be too brightly lit, nor too dark. Images should not be too closely stacked on one another.
- A person of large experience, with many images to store, can start with a fictional room, or a real room, and gradually invent more and more places to serve his (or her) need. These places can be based on real or fictitious locations, especially as the memorizer gains more experience.
- It is easier to remember more striking or grotesque images than it is to remember pretty or ordinary images. Ridiculous or unbelievable or even disgusting images are easier to call to mind.
- Images of things — of the sort of historical or social events that I’ve been dealing with in this blog, and in this series of posts — are a lot easier than images of words…
- One still has to remember precise images of words “in the usual way” — that is to say, by rote memory — but they can be stored in a specific place in the memory, and called to mind by this kind of precise attention to detail.
- If a visual image can be constructed that ‘puns’ the opening line of a verse of poetry or a line of syntax that must be remembered, so much the better.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree
where Alph, the sacred river ran,through caverns measureless to man,down to a sunless sea.So twice five miles of fertile groundwith walls and towers were girdled round:and there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;and here were forests ancient as the hills,enfolding sunny spots of greenery.But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanteddown the green hill athwart a cedarn cover.A savage place! As holy and enchantedas e’er beneath a waning moon was hauntedby woman wailing for her demon-lover…”