Memory of Things vs. Memory of Words

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.

  1. An artificial memory is established by combining places with images;
  2. 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.
  3. Images are forms or pictures which can be static or in motion, of pieces of information which we wish to remember.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
And this is what I find, as well.  I can construct the room, and I can put an image of Henry Hudson being set adrift with his loyal ship mates among the floating icebergs of Hudson’s bay in 1610, the map of Manhattan and the Hudson River on the back side of the mainsail of his ship the Half Moon (along with the date, 1609), with the English red-crossed Banner of St. George waving from the quarterdeck…
… but I still had to memorize Beowulf line by line.  (“So, the Spear-Danes, in days gone by, had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes heroic campaigns. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge…”) I can more easily recall Beowulf to mind, now that I know that it sits on the top right shelf of the east wall, the third book in (after the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Holy Bible [KJV] ), and just before the memorized section of The Canterbury Tales that I know (“Wan that aprille with his showres soocthe// the drochte of marche hath percéd to the roochte”) [And the weird thing about Canterbury Tales is that it’s an audio recording from when I was in high school… I can’t tell you how the Middle English is spelled, but I can hear it in my mind, and repeat it aloud for you. Which suggests that the memory is a very complex thing, indeed.]
After that is English Poets, and in the Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772-1834) section of that is “Kubla Khan.”
“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 ground
with 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 slanted
down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover.
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
by woman wailing for her demon-lover…”
And so on.  I could go on, but then you might suspect me of cutting-and-pasting, rather than remembering.  I learned this poem last week, to practice on, and because it’s well suited for visualization.  And if you double-check, I suspect that you’ll find that the punctuation is likely incorrect, although the spelling and actual text probably are right on, or at least close.
It did not take me nearly as long to memorize a new poem as a guy my age should expect.  And I think that’s part of the point that Yates and pseudo-Cicero wanted to make — that when you train your brain to remember images-of-things, that the memory of images-of-words becomes stronger too.  Yates tells a story that a friend of St. Augustine of Hippo’s, a rhetoric teacher named Simplicius, could recite the whole of Virgil’s Aeneid backwards.  And Seneca, the master moralist and teacher of grammar, could recite a list of 200+ names backwards after hearing the list once, or recite poems backwards after hearing them once — by storing each verse in his palace of memory as he heard them.
I take from all of this that memory is plastic in a variety of ways.  It has an easier time holding images that represent things or ideas, as my initial image of Henry Hudson in the longboat in 1610.  It can be used to fix specific texts in memory, and make them readily and permanently available… but one must still memorize them by rote, repeating them several times until they become clear in the mind and easily recalled.
I hope this helps, Janet.


  1. Hi Andrew, thanks for this useful summary. Aren’t you afraid that the method you’re teaching your children will interfere with point 9, ‘Memory places should not too closely resemble each other’? Because it will probably be hard to distinguish between the 26 volumes of the American encyclopedia after one has added some more information to them. How do you plan on dealing with that in the future?

    • Hi, Melson!

      We actually had a discussion about this in class, and we decided to make the books in the encyclopedia “pop-ups”. It turns out to be useful to try to store some information alphabetically, and since they were learning a LOT of tribes (18 or so), it made sense to give them a useful referent to store all of them. But when a kid opened up the A volume and looked up Abenaki, they’d flip open to the relevant page, and see a pop-up like picture of natives in Maine living in a village on a rocky sea shore, with birch-bark canoes, wearing heavy deerskin and raccoon-fur clothing as protection against cold weather, with some sitting around a fire telling stories — the married men have the sides and backs of their heads shaved, with their remaining hair tied into an elaborate braid.

      I’ve asked kids to “keep their memory images” in this one room until they feel like it can’t hold any more. But I also find that thanks to TV, films, and video games, the kids have a much greater range of ability to store moving pictures, and not just static images. This seems to give them the ability, as well, to store a wider range of images in a ‘narrower’ amount of space. We’ll see if this continues to hold true.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m looking forward to new posts in this series!
        Meanwhile, have you visited the forum at There’s a good community there who will probably be very interested in your methods and scripts.

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