A Palace of Memory assignment

Some of you new readers (wow there are quite a few!) are trying to develop the skills to develop your own Palace of Memory, but you may not really grasp how important it is to develop a strong visual image of the thing you’re trying to remember. It’s one thing to memorize a poem through rote repetition, but it’s another to remember a whole web of facts and fingers as if it were a complete and thorough visual image.

Along those lines, I’m asking my readers to develop a script or a text or an image for the Palace of Memory, to share here in comments, of a specific thing that can or should be remembered.  Read on for a sample script, or go straight to comments for a chance to see what people are doing.Here’s an example of such a script:

“Go into your Palace of Memory.  Go to the east wall, the yellow one, to the shelf on the left.  Notice the bust of Herodotus on the very top.  Notice that the next shelf down is labeled Native America, and the first four books are Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and Inca, followed by the encyclopedia of America.

Go down to the next shelf.  Label this one “Colonization of America.” On the left end of the shelf is a sculpture or model of a Caravel.  If you know what Columbus’s ship looked like, you can use that ship, the Santa Maria.  It is a ship with a rounded bottom hull, a tall back deck, a low middle deck, and a medium-height fore-deck.  It has three masts.  There are square sails on the first two masts, which are white with big red crosses.  

Look on the back deck, by the tiller which controls the rudder.  There you will see Christopher Columbus standing, with a telescope in his right hand, and an astrolabe dangling from his left fingers.  The astrolabe is a brass circle, a kind of primitive slide rule or computer, for calculating position at sea.  And the telescope is a device for seeing long distances across the ocean.  This trio — of caravel, astrolabe and telescope — allowed Europeans to travel farther from land than they had in centuries.  

Go up to the crow’s nest, where there is a lookout in shabby, baggy trousers and shirt, with a black cloth tied around his head.  Even though it’s out of place, put a watch on his wrist, and point the hands to October 12, 1492, at 2 in the morning.  He’s got a big speech bubble over his head, like in cartoons, that says, “Tierra! Tierra! Land! Land!” Because that’s the time that Columbus and his crew reached San Salvador, probably an island in the Bahamas.

Look at the front side of the center mast of the caravel, at the level of the main deck.  On your left and right are large cannons, because Columbus and the other explorers brought guns and gunpowder to the New World for the first time.  And mounted in the mast at your eye level is a single gold coin hammered into the mast — because Columbus placed such a coin, and promised it to the sailor who saw land first. The coin has a picture of the christian cross on it, with two crossed swords behind it — because the Europeans searched for gold, often in violent ways.

Now go below into the caravel’s cabins, to the back cabin, where the captain sleeps. There is a narrow bed here, and narrow windows looking out at white sand beaches and palm trees.  Christopher Columbus’s chart is here, on brown-white paper that’s crinkly around the edges, showing his routes to the Americas in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502 — and the islands in the Caribbean he discovered.  His logbook is also here, and you can see where he has scribbled out the real distances he traveled, and replaced them with fake numbers to confuse his crew.  His sword is here, hanging over the chart. It has human blood on it, because Columbus was often violent toward the people he met.

Go down into the cargo hold of the Caravel. Down there, amid the barrels and boxes and crates, I want you to label one box “Smallpox” and another one “influenza” or “flu” and another one “malaria” and another one “Measles.” These were the diseases that Columbus and other explorers brought to the new world, both by accident and sometimes deliberately.

Go into another part of the caravel’s cargo hold.  There is an iron cage here, and it holds a number of African slaves here, wearing chains and talking at one another in a number of languages.  Around them are the ghosts of their gods and cultures from back in Africa, because they do not come from one place, but from many kingdoms like Ghana and Mali and Songhai.  They are bloody from wars, and bleeding from slavery.  COlumbus did not bring slaves to the Americas, but his successors did, and you should remember that all these things — technology, ambition, gold, weaponry, slavery, disease, slavery and religion — affected nearly everything that the Europeans did in the New World.

Now look at it from the point of view of a writer.  It uses clear and specific language — not abstracts, but real objects that can be genuinely imagined: things like gold coins and African slaves. They’re all located inside an incredibly detailed and elaborate model of a caravel, so students can imagine them as static images or as moving pictures.  There’s a wealth of detail to describe the look of everything, so that the practitioner of the Palace of Memory technique can store the image successfully and clearly — and recall it to mind.

Take some piece of a history textbook or a piece of literature, and create a script to share with someone else, that conveys the meaning clearly.  If you’re doing European explorers in the Americas right now, try Henry Hudson or Jacques Cartier… or Hernán Cortés or Francisco Pizarro or John Cabot.  Work to refine your script, and then share it in comments. We’re all interested.

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  1. I had trouble remembering the plague boxes just by labeling them. It’s hard to read them in my mind’s eye, and even my imaginary handwriting is poor.

    I tweaked the boxes to be like one of Harry Potter’s magical creatures classes.

    The crew stays away from this part of the ship. They’re afraid of getting sick. They don’t quite know how these things make them sick, so they keep their distance. I find one crew member to be my guide. He stands as far away as possible.

    The measles box bumps and lurches, with wooden thumpy noises. When I carefully open it I see it’s full of red spots jumping up and down. The measles spots see their chance at freedom, cheer “HOORAAAAAY!” in tiny little voices, and start swarming to get out. I slam the lid before they escape, but I know they’re going to get loose when we make landfall.

    The malaria box is a cage with iron bars.There’s a GIANT mosquito stuffed inside. The cage is too small. Its body bulges through the bars and its spindly legs stick out in every direction. Boy is it mad – it wants out! It makes a loud, angry mosquito NNNYYYYYYEEEEEEEE buzz.

    Smallpox is in a very small box. A very, very, small box, the size of a quarter. “Why such a small box?” I ask. The guide says, “it’s a small pox”, as if that should be obvious. I hold it in my palm. It’s light, but there’s a feeling of menace from it. Holding it makes me itchy, so I put it back down.

    The fourth box is a birdcage under a blanket. When I take off the cover I see a bright talking parrot. He looks a little feverish and listless. Despite that, he does credible imitation of a human sneeze. “AAAAAAAACHOO! The flu! The flu! InfluENza, *sqwak*!” He ends with an imitation of someone blowing their nose, HWONK, sniff sniff. Poor birdie. I’m about to reach in to stroke his feathers, but the crew member stops me. He says (in a heavy Italian accent) “Influenza doesn’t look so bad, but he’s deadly. In 1918 he’ll kill 3% of the people on the planet.* That’s 50 million people, from one little bug.” I think better of petting him and put the cover back on the cage.

    I take one last look at the plague zoo. Measles, malaria, smallpox, influenza. This place gives me the willies. The crew member is happy to take me back up on deck.

    * So says wikipedia.

    • Janet, Thanks!

      This is exactly the right way to go about creating a script. Strong visual memories, grotesque images that capture the imagination and force it to work, and clear relationships between the thing to be remembered and the image that holds it.

      It turns out that memories are best formed at the acquisition moment, rather than trying to ‘remember’ later on. The second is a recall event, but it can only work as well as the primary moment of memory-acquisition.

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