Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch – Part II

Posted by Barry Flanagan on Jun 19th, 2008
2008
Jun 19

(Read the first post of this series here.)
Several Romans writers wrote of these ancient memory techniques. "Rhetorica ad Herennium" (author unknown), "De Oratore" (Cicero, 55 BCE),  and Institutio Oratoria (Quintillian, 95 CE) all cover the use of the memory palace technique in oratory. According to "The Art of Memory" by Frances Yates, each of these ancient works refers to the Greek Simonides as the originator of the technique.


His patron, Scopas, reproached him at a banquet for devoting too much space to a praise of Castor and Pollux in an ode celebrating Scopas’ victory in a chariot-race. Scopas refused to pay all the fee and told Simonides to apply to the twin gods for the remainder. Shortly afterwards, Simonides was told that two young men wished to speak to him; after he had left the banqueting room, the roof fell in and crushed Scopas and his guests.  During the excavation of the rubble, Simonides was called upon to identify each guest killed. He managed to do so by correlating their identities to their positions (loci) at the table before his departure. After thanking Castor and Pollux for paying their half of the fee by saving his life, Simonides drew on this experience to develop the ‘memory theatre’ or ‘memory palace’, a system for information management widely used in oral societies until the Renaissance. He is often credited with inventing this ancient system of mnemonics (Quintilian xi.2,n).


Cicero expands upon the memory palace technique in "De Oratore"(Book II, Section 357) -


It has been sagaciously discerned Simonides or else discovered by some other person, that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our sense is the sense of sight and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflection can be most easily retained if they are also conveyed to our minds by the meditations of the eyes.


A memory palace (also called method of loci) provides a location and series of associations for memory. The cornerstone to this method is vivid and imaginative pictures for each item to be included in the memory palace. In my experience, a outrageous action scene that includes a great deal of color, sound, and, if possible, tastes and smells is even more effective.

 


Ancient Greeks did not have access to paper as we know it today for taking notes. Gutenberg’s printing press would not come along until the 15th century. Oratory was very common (and extremely long winded) but there was no readily available method for writing down notes or using sources. Mnemonics were essential to oration, and oration was considered essential to politics and academics. These techniques were refined and proven over centuries, but fell out of favor as paper, printing (and now computers and powerpoint) became more common.

 


This memory palace technique can still be useful today for the speaker. This mnemonic technique can be used for much more than speeches of course. The key is to create vivid, outrageous active pictures for each bit of information, then chain all that information together as action scenes throughout a building (or along a journey as Dominic O’Brien suggests).




In Part III of this series, I will cover a step by step process to creating a memory palace.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Marjorie G. Jones Says:

    Frances Yates & the Hermetic Tradition by Marjorie G. Jones, the first biography of Frances Yates, author of the Art of Memory, has been published this month by Ibis Press.

  2. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch - Part III Says:

    [...] Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch – Part II [...]

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