Art of Memory


I read about this memory technique about eight years ago, and I’ve kept coming back to it.  It’s the Ars Memorativa, or the “Art of Memory” and there are hints and suggestions in ancient literature that Cicero, among others, used it.

In shorthand, the way it works is that the user spends 2-10 minutes a day building up an image in their mind of a specific room, usually a library, with 10-15 places or locations within it, which can be visited in a specific order.  For convenience, they’re usually numbered 1-15.  Then, when they need to memorize something, like the points in an outline or a a series of quotations to use on an essay, there’s a framework in the mind where those quotations can be placed and called up in a specific order.  I use a pretty elaborate library for this exercise, myself, because I speak quite frequently to the whole school, and I like to have an outline in my head of what I’ll be saying, but I don’t want what I say to sound forced or read-from-a-page.

Several students complained after yesterday’s timed essay that they had had difficulty remembering their outlines and quotations from study time on Monday and Tuesday to Wednesday morning. I told them that’s because they don’t train their memory banks to hold information, and we talked about this technique.

The first step in ancient and Renaissance times was to write a description of the library, and then use that as a guide to visualizing it in your brain.  I assigned that last night for homework.

Today, I grabbed one of the kids’ homework assignments at random, and built it using Google SketchUp on the whiteboard with a projector.  The girl whose assignment it was, was thrilled.

Memory Palace

The memory palace

I then demonstrated the technique to them; we created a list of several items from the grocery store that I might need to buy, and I spoke them out loud and ‘stored’ them in the image on the screen: “The milk goes on the red table, and the eggs go on the blue table.  The toilet paper goes on the yellow table by the bookcases.  The gold bond goes on the left side of the bookshelf. The IcyHot goes on the middle shelf, and on the right side holds the deodorant. The green desk with the computer has a bar of soap.  The computer screen is showing an Axe bodyspray advertisement.  The butter goes on the pink lectern in front of the door.”

At the end of class, before the bell rang, I pointed to the image of Rachel’s memory palace on the screen, and had them test me.  I remembered the items on their list perfectly, and in order.  I was able to repeat it again three periods later after the fire-drill for the other class, and I’m still able to do it now, several hours later, as I type this blog entry.

Not everyone was excited by the technique of the Ars Memorativa, or the Memory Palace.  But it had a double purpose, of course.  The ones that weren’t excited about the Ars Memorativa were excited about learning to use a software tool like Google SketchUp, and everyone got a demo of how to use a powerful study skill, as well as a new software tool.

The trick, of course, is that you have to spend a couple of minutes every day imagining yourself walking through the room, and re-familiarizing yourself with the space, so that you can work with it quickly and successfully.  Once you have the location more or less memorized, you can place individual items in your list in specific locations so you can find them again easily. And your lists can get longer, and longer, and more complex… this room of Rachel’s has space for… oh, probably a list of a few hundred items in it with enough care and practice. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t carry the list with you always; it drops out of the Palace of Memory the moment you don’t ‘need’ it any more, though you can usually call it back any number of months later if it’s important enough.

I do think it’s interesting that a (2500?)500-year-old technique first developed for Renaissance spies and speechifying Roman senators has been so long neglected in schools, but that half-a-dozen kids saw an instant use for it.

Update: I’m reminded that this is not a particularly fastidious explanation of the Ars Memorativa or its origins. Those wanting to read more should consider this article and this one.  No, I’m not a member of AODA, but this is the best online explanation of the art I know.

Timed Essay: Followup

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As I’ve noted elsewhere, I try to give my students a timed essay once a week. I constantly say to them, “This isn’t a test. It’s practice.” And it is. If you can’t sit down and write for twenty-five minutes straight without some sort of interruption about a topic you’re studying in a class, school eventually becomes very difficult. Finding ways to help students navigate that barrier becomes very useful.  Unfortunately, there are very few cures for a failure to write well besides practicing writing.

On the other hand, if you can help a kid reach a point of “flow” in their writing, so much the better.  That’s ultimately the goal, isn’t it?

Of course, there has to be follow up.  I don’t grade the essays in any way, but I used take the time to pick one or two bad sentences, and pull them apart.

Then I realized last night, as I was correcting papers, that I could open up the experience for everyone, and make it equal-opportunity.  Here’s one sentence from every kid in the class, followed by a ‘better’ model of writing.

Because I don’t have to write each sentence on the board ahead of analyzing it, I can run through a lot more sentences in a shorter period of time.  These slides were done quick-and-dirty, but I can certainly demonstrate all the usual techniques of proofreading this way, and use presentation software to show how to fix your writing in more effective ways.

As a class, we went through all eleven sentences in a 40-minute period — without photocopies, without a lot of confusion about which sentence we were on.  We were discussing the sentence projected onto the board. We were talking about the sentence visible to everyone, and only that one.

What I should do next time, of course, is what I didn’t do today — which is ask each student to rewrite the sentence in a way that made explicit what they believed the student was trying to say.