Building Memory… History

There’s definitely some continuing interest in these palace of memory techniques that I’ve written out.  So I’m going to do some more scripts for you, which I invite you to read aloud to yourself.  A student has also requested that I record them, so I may do that as well.  If you do use this technique with your students, or if you’re an adult that is considering it, please let me know.

Today, class, I’d like you to put your feet on the floor, and hold your spine straight, and take a few deep breaths.  Close your eyes, and get ready to enter your palace of memory.  As you arrive in it, you find that you are facing east, with the globe behind you, and the yellow east wall in front of you.  There’s a door in the east wall, and a bookshelf to either side.  Take a moment to turn to your right, and see the red wall on the south with its bookshelves, and turn to the right again to see the blue wall in the west with its shelves, and turn again to face the north wall with its bookshelves.  Turn again to face the east wall, and walk over to it in your imagination.  Stand in front of the bookshelf on the left, the one with Herodotus at the top.  Remember that he was the father of history, and that these shelves hold everything you know about history.

Look at the top shelf.  Yesterday we put a label on this shelf that says “Native America”.  Look at the first four books on the shelf.  We named them:  “Olmec” is the first, then “The Maya”.  Then the next book is “The Aztecs”, and then the next book is “The Inca Empire.”  After that are twenty-six volumes in a row, some thick and some thin, called the “Encyclopedia of Native America”.  Each has a letter on it, and the books are a dusty red color, with gold lettering.  

Take down the “H” volume, and open it up to where the entry on the Hohokam is. You can read here, alongside the picture and the timeline and the map,  that the Hohokam lived in Arizona, and their culture flourished from around 300 AD to 1300 AD.  They were found in Arizona between the Gila River and the Salt River. The entry here goes on to say that they were a farming people who grew maize successfully by building irrigation channels across the desert, and that they made beautiful jewelry.  As I say these words, imagine them being written out in the book, and watch a space appear on a little map of America, where the Hohokam lived.  Put the picture we looked at in class into the book here, too.  Make sure that the information about them is recorded accurately: 300 AD to 1300 AD… that they were maybe originally settlers from Mexico, that they lived in a desert, and that they were maize farmers.  Close the H book of the Encyclopedia of Native America, and put it back on the shelf between the “G” volume and the “I” volume.  Know that the information will be there when you go looking for it again.

Tonight, go through this process with each of the other tribes or cultures in your textbook.  Imagine that you are writing information into these books on this shelf, as you do your homework.  

Now… you’re standing in front of the yellow wall, in front of the bookshelf on the left.  There’s a statue of Herodotus on the top shelf.  The next shelf down is labeled Native America, and the first book on that shelf is labeled “Olmec.” The next shelf down is going to be named “Colonial America.” I want you to see those words in your own handwriting on the shelf label.  

The next shelf down has a label on it that says “U.S. History.”  The shelf has a little statue of George Washington on it, wearing pale yellow knee breeches, and a blue coat, and white knee stockings.  There are a lot of books along this shelf, but about two thirds of the way along the shelf is a huge book.  It is bright red, and it says, “WORLD WAR TWO” in big black capital letters.  A little bit after that book is a brown book labeled “President Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

I want you to take that book down from the shelf, and open up to one of the last pages in the back.  There is a picture of the former president, in a light-blue colored suit, talking to a little boy.  The boy’s mother stands behind him, and the boy is offering Mr. Eisenhower a little brown notebook and a pen.  The boy is saying, “Mr. President, can I get your autograph?”  As you watch, the picture moves.  “I’m not the president any more,” says Mr. Eisenhower.  He takes the pen, and takes the cap off. The cap makes a little sound as Eisenhower takes it off.  He hands the pen cap to the little boy, and says, “Always keep the cap when you loan a pen.  That way, the pen comes back to you.”  This whole story, of the boy and the autograph, and Mr. Eisenhower, is stored in the book about Mr. Eisenhower, on the shelf about US History, just a little bit after the big red book about World War Two.  It’s a picture, with the words and the sound, and the three people — Eisenhower, the boy, and the boy’s mother, all standing together.

In a few days, or in a few weeks, I’ll ask you to recall this story, and we’ll see if you stored it correctly.

Palace of Memory technique always works best if you store the image using sound and music and figures doing and acting out a scene together.  The library technique works great as a filing system, but many of the bits of data you may want to store are best stored as images, rather than text.

I’m adding an additional shout-out to Bryan Jackson and his Talons students in British Columbia.  The following script is for you.

Look to the shelf to the left of the door on the east wall.  It’s the one that has Herodotus on the top of it, and the top shelf is Native America under him.  The next shelf down says “Colonial America” and the next shelf down says “U.S. History.” The shelf below that says “Canadian History,” in your own handwriting, and at the left end of the shelf is a statuette of Samuel de Champlain.  About a third of the way down the shelf is another statuette, this time of Sir John MacDonald. Another third of the way down the shelf is a third statue, this time of Pierre Trudeau. There’s a big red book with black letters that say “WORLD WAR TWO”, and that book is directly underneath the same book with the same title on the U.S. History shelf directly above it….”

I hope this gives you a starting place for this work, and I hope that you will add to this project in your own way.

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  1. I found your Palace of Memeory post from the link on JMG’s blog comments, and am intrigued. Any tips for an adult using this, especially since I have several decades of memories to store?

    • Yes, actually, Troy. Start by building this imaginary room, as best you can. And then start storing pieces of poetry that you want to memorize, in chronological order, on the English and American literature shelves. Put a statue or a photograph or a painting at the start of each shelf to help locate it and fix it in your memory. Use Google Images to find pictures of the people, and use people to stand for whole disciplines or sub-disciplines of subjects you want to memorize. On each shelf, put a specific image representing the kinds of images that you’ll want to store.

      Gradually, as your sense of the filing system improves, and you both store and retrieve information, you’ll find that many of your memories and materials will sort themselves into the correct locations in this room. Personal memories, for the record, go into the shelves on the north wall, to the right of the door. On top of that cabinet is a picture of your grandfather (either one will do), and then there are photos or statues of your Father on the next shelf down (for stories and family history about your father’s side of the family), and Mom on the next shelf down (for stories about and from your mother’s side of the family). Some kids are adopted in my class, so the next shelf down is adoptive family, and then friends on the next shelf down. Jokes and funny stories go on the next shelf down.

      From time to time, I’ll be adding scripts here on my blog as I help kids develop their palaces of memory, and help them develop the filing systems. You’re welcome to make use of the filing system, but the process of figuring out WHAT to add, and WHERE to put it, is gradually going to diverge from what a bunch of middle schoolers need to store.

      If you need further guidance, please let me know.

      It turns out that there isn’t a complete, surviving system of scripts for any Palace of Memory, although Matteo Ricci’s version that he helped Chinese scholars develop in the 1500s, does exist in rather sketchy form. It’s a weird thing — not completely abstract, but not completely concrete either.

      Hope this helps.

    • So glad it’s helpful!

      Have you been reading the follow-on scripts? Have they been working, or useful?

      If you work with this system for the next six to eight weeks, would you write a guest blog post here, and report on how it’s going?

    • I will need to commit some time to this, difficult to fit into a busy schedule. If I do manage it, I would be glad to reflect on the experience for you and your readers.

  2. Thanks for the personalized script, Andrew! Love the visual, imaginative angle(s) this experiment allows, and will definitely be sharing with the Talons, and beyond. Looking forward to being able to share our Palaces in return!

    • Bryan, Awesome!

      To the degree that we can start in the same room, and use some of the same scripts for storing information, especially at first, we’ll do your students and mine a huge advantage. If everyone stores the initial set of information on the same shelves and in the same rough order, they can prompt one another with reminders of what’s stored where, without having to explain as much.

      It takes practice to work this system, I admit. But wow, can it do good stuff moving forward.

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