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.

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  1. Great article, Andrew.

    In my experience, it is absolutely key to spend some time either drawing the palace or describing it in prose.

    There’s an old theory that the hand builds the mind, so actually getting in there with a pen, pencil or computer tool of some sort will definitely increase the power of the palaces one creates. Even an Excel file can do wonders when it comes to preparing and predetermining a memory journey.

    You’re right to be dismayed that simple techniques like this aren’t taught in schools. I myself off the techniques to my students whenever I can, usually starting by having them memorize the alphabet backwards.

    I do this sneakily by getting them to memorize 2 lists of 10 words using a room-by-room technique. Throughout the exercise I tell the students that there will be a special bonus prize and challenge them to figure it out. Only once has a student realized that the words I was feeding them were in reverse alphabetical order. Students are always amazed when they find out how easily they can say the alphabet backwards.

    Thanks again for the article.

    • There’s a whole page of resources about Palace of Memory technique on my blog, so if you or your students are interested, feel free to come back and check out the whole archive.

      Thanks for the hat-tip

  2. Google SketchUp looks fantastic, but the price after the trial ends is steep for classroom applications. Do you know of similar programs?

    Obviously, any draw program would suffice, but the 3-d development really makes this pop!

    • I use the LAST released version, which is free, instead of the current version, which is for-pay. Some clever person figured out that this is a tool that some of us might pay extra to use, but that we weren’t going to learn to use a tool that was expensive to start with.

      I also don’t use this on a school machine — I use it on mine. And I don’t permit students to download it onto school computers; it’s for their personal machines onl.

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