Magic: Mala of Memory

It’s hard not to look through my stats and comments, and not come to particular conclusions.  For the most part, you don’t come here to read about sewing. Mostly you don’t come here to read about Making, Maker programs or Maker spaces in schools.

Mostly you’re here to hear me talk about magic.

And the thing that I find that most magicians need help with, is memory technique.  There’s a vast quantity of information that magicians are expected to learn and absorb, much of it governed by number. Arnemancy recently posted about Giordano Bruno and his memory system, which uses in part a P-A-O system (person-action-object).

In a P-A-O memory system, you can memorize long strings of by memorizing visuals for at least the 10 digits, if not the 99 double-digit numbers. Each number consists of a coded image: a person performing an activity with an object. The activity, the object, and the person all stand for the same number; and you can use characters all from the same story, or characters from different stories, or historical figures, or a mixture.

  • 0. Oppenheimer Operating an Oven
  • 1. Archimedes Accuses with an Abacus
  • 2. Bilbo balances with a beagle
  • 3. Columbus charting with a compass
  • 4. Darkwing Duck dancing on a desk
  • 5. Einstein eating with an Elk
  • 6. Ford (Henry) fiddling on a fish.
  • 7. Galadriel gardening with a guitar.
  • 8. Hozier hopping with a hamburger
  • 9. Isaiah ice-skating with an ice-cream

The images are supposed to be strong, grotesque or funny in some way.  Most of these are not particularly memorable, but they’ll do.

You also need a series of places, preferably in your house or neighborhood, that are memorized in a specific order.

  1. Kitchen – stove
  2. Kitchen – refrigerator
  3. Kitchen – sink
  4. Living Room – TV
  5. Living Room – chair
  6. Living room – couch
  7. Bedroom – bed
  8. Bedroom- dresser
  9. … and so on.

Say that you’re then given the number, 897568929104982504 to memorize.  You can break this down into groups of three: 897-568-929-104-982-504

The first set of numbers, 897, can then be turned into a picture — a Person – Activity – Object combination — that becomes a kind of statue on top of your kitchen stove. What’s it a statue of?

Hozier, ice-skating with a guitar.  That’s 8 – Person, 9- activity, 7-object.  

What about the next one, 568, a kind of statue that you remember seeing inside your fridge?  Einstein fiddling with a hamburger.  You’ll have to decide if that’s Albert Einstein  putting ketchup on his hamburger, or if he’s trying to turn it into a musical instrument.  Either way, it’s 568.

And the next one, 929? Isaiah (the prophet, or one of several basketball players) balancing on one foot with his hands splayed out, not quite able to lick his ice-cream. A strange thing to find in your sink, this funny and slightly-sacrilegious statue.

And the next, 104? Archimedes, operating a desk (maybe it’s one of those weird stand-sit desks with a motor, or a desk with an angled surface that you have to dial all sorts of knobs to get it to stay at the right angle). Where does it go? In the living room, on the TV.  Weird movie, that.

And the next, 982? The prophet Isaiah again, hopping with a beagle. On your favorite living room chair, no less.

And the last combination, 504? Einstein again, this time operating a desk while getting his socked feet all over your couch.

The images generate three-digit numbers, in other words, that are strung together in places.  In your mind’s eye, walking from place to place and room to room, you recover the numbers one grouping at a time:

  • Hozier ice-skating with his guitar – 987
  • Einstein fiddling with a hamburger – 568
  • Isaiah balancing with an ice-cream – 929
  • Archimedes operating a desk – 104
  • Isaiah hopping with a beagle – 982
  • Einstein operating a desk – 504

In a sense, you’re not memorizing an 18-digit number.  You’re memorizing six three-digit numbers in a row, by using six pictures tied to a walk through your house.  The longer the walk, the larger the number of places you’ve already defined, the longer the number you can memorize.

But Andrew, I hear you ask, why would I need to memorize an 18-digit number when I have my cellphone?

You probably don’t, and won’t, be called upon to memorize an 18-digit number, anytime soon. But let’s say you wanted to win the Pi (π) memorization contest at your school, for example. Chances are pretty good that most kids in your class aren’t going to try past the first 25 numbers. Memorizing the first 102 digits gives you a pretty good shot:

3. 141 592 653 589 793 238 462 643 383 279 502 884 197 169 399 375 105 820 974 944 592 307 816 406 286 208 998 628 034 825 342 117 067 982

Columbus, period.  Archimedes dancing with an abacus… Einstein ice-skating with a beagle… Ford eating a compass … Einstein hopping with an ice-cream…  Galadriel ice-skating with a compass… Bilbo charting with a hamburger… Darkwing Duck gardening with a compass…

Even this seems ridiculous to some of my readers.

Still… maybe it becomes an impressive party trick.  Teller (of Penn and Teller) wrote in one of his rare articles about magic, that the art consists of going to far more effort than seems reasonable to an ordinary person, to achieve extraordinary results; and combining tricks wherever possible.

And that combination of tricks is interesting, in the context of memory-work, because Giordano Bruno draws his persons and their activities and objects from ancient Greek and Roman mythology and history. Standing and sitting changes their values, as well, so that they can be used to represent alphabetic strings as well as numeric strings. And Giordano’s wheel, with its 30 places (the Roman Alphabet, plus some Greek and Hebrew characters for sounds not made in Latin or Italian) was designed to cover most every language available in Europe.  This meant that he could memorize texts, in part, by remembering the rough outline, and assigning them a mysterious Greco-Roman mythological image, which he made “to move” like we would think of a movie scene.

Which means, for example, that it’s possible for us to generate a list of figures for letters or numbers, and map them onto a prayer-rope of 108 beads (When we memorize 108 three-digit sequences of Pi (π) , for example, that’s 324 places past the decimal point).

But it also means that we’re generating 108 images for study, for meditation, for communion with gods or spirits, for creating artworks, when we combine the digits of Pi (π) with a set of deliberately chosen figures, activities, and objects, it’s possible to generate all the possible digits, 0-999, in such a way that they generate mythological or religious imagery.  Inspired by Giordano Bruno’s example, we might construct a different person-activity-object list, one that looks more mythological.

  • 0. Mother Earth, pouring out a libation cup
  • 1. Uranus, measuring a globe
  • 2. Neptune, riding a chariot
  • 3. Kronos, eating his children
  • 4. Zeus, pointing with a scepter
  • 5. Mars, leaning on his spear
  • 6. Apollo, singing beside an altar
  • 7. Venus, disrobing at her bath
  • 8. Mercury, running with a scroll
  • 9. Diana, stretching with a bow

So now the number 467 is Zeus singing in the bathtub, while 892 becomes Mercury stretching beside a chariot, and 56 is simply Mars singing.

Why generate such imagery?

One possibility is stories.  If Pi (π) is indefinitely large, and we put two characters in a single memory-location, 467 and 892, then Zeus is singing in the bathtub while Mercury prepares to deliver a new message, a message so important that only his chariot will get him there fast enough (wings on his feet and head aren’t enough).  A six-digit number tells a story of two characters — and that story can be augmented with other characters along the way.  We have to choose our terms — our persons-activities-objects — very carefully, though, so that they reflect the imagery, the stories, the landscape we are trying to create.

Pseudo-Cicero, the author of Ad Herennium, goes so far as to say that memory-of-thing and memory-of-word are two different skills: that is, it’s easier to remember the general outline of what you want to say and how you want to say it, than the exact text of the thing you want to speak.

I’ll say more on that another time.

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