Attributes in Paintings May Stem from Mnemotechnics Dating from Ancient Greece

As I delve into the history of mnemotechnics, I suspect that attributes in paintings originally stem from memory techniques that date from Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 – 468 BCE) and potentially earlier through the oral tradition.

As I delve further into the ancient history of mnemonics and mnemotechnics, I  strongly suspect that attributes in paintings (like those frequently seen in depictions of Christian saints) originally stem from memory techniques that date from Simonides of Ceos (Σιμωνίδης ὁ Κεῖος; c. 556 – 468 BCE) and potentially earlier by means of the oral tradition.

The National Gallery has a short little primer on paintings of saints and recognizing them by means of their attributes. As an example, in the painting below Saint Genevieve of Paris holds the candle which she miraculously relit. On the brooch at her neck are the alpha and omega signs. Saint Apollonia of Alexandria’s brooch shows pincers: she was tortured by having her teeth extracted.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472 - 1553 Saints Genevieve and Apollonia 1506 Oil on lime, 120.5 x 63 cm Bought, 1987 NG6511.1 This painting is part of the group: 'The St Catherine Altarpiece: Reverses of Shutters' (NG6511.1-NG6511.2)
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472 – 1553
Saints Genevieve and Apollonia (1506) Oil on lime, 120.5 x 63 cm
Bought, 1987; NG6511.1
This painting is part of the group: ‘The St Catherine Altarpiece: Reverses of Shutters’ (NG6511.1-NG6511.2)
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Book Review of Dominic O’Brien’s “Quantum Memory Power”

While I'd generally recommend this to the average mnemonist, I'd recommend they approach it after having delved in a bit and learned the major system from somewhere else.
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O'Brien
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien

I’ve read many of the biggest memory related books over the past three decades and certainly have my favorites among them.  I’ve long heard that Dominic O’Brien’s Quantum Memory Power: Learn to Improve Your Memory with the World Memory Champion! audiobook was fairly good, and decided that I’d finally take a peek having known for a while about O’Brien and his eponymous Dominic System.

General Methods

Overall, I was fairly impressed with his layout and positive teaching style, though I don’t particularly need some of the treacly motivation that he provided and which is primarily aimed at the complete novice.  While I appreciate that for some, hearing this material may be the most beneficial, I would have preferred to have some of it presented visually.  In general, I wouldn’t recommend this as a something to listen to on a commute as he frequently admonishes against doing some of the exercises he outlines while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Given the prevalence of and growth of memory systems from the mid-20th century onwards, I personally find it difficult to believe all of his personal story about “rediscovering” many of the memory methods he outlines, or at least to the extent to which he tempts the reader to believe.

Differences from Other Systems

Based on past experience, I really appreciate his methods for better remembering names with faces as his conceptualizations for doing this seemed better to me than the methods outlined by Bruno Furst. I do however, much prefer the major mnemonic system’s method for numbers over the Dominic system for it’s more logical and complete conversion of consonant sounds for most languages. The links between the letters and numbers in the major system are also much easier to remember and don’t require as much work to remember them.  I also appreciate the major system for its deeper historical roots as well as for its precise overlap with the Gregg Shorthand method. The poorer structure of the Dominic system is the only evidence I can find to indicate that he seems to have separately re-discovered some of his memory methods.

I appreciated that most of his focus was on practical tasks like to do lists, personal appointments, names and faces, but wish he’d spent some additional time walking through general knowledge examples like he did for the list of the world’s oceans and seas.

While I appreciated his outlining the ability to calculate what day of the week any particular date falls on (something that most memory books don’t touch upon), he failed to completely specify the entire method. He also used a somewhat non-standard method for coding both the days of the week and the months of the year, though mathematically all of these systems are equivalent.  I did appreciate his trying to encode a set up for individual years, which will certainly help many cut down on the mental mathematics, particularly as it relates to the dread many have for long division.  Unfortunately, he didn’t go far enough and  this is where he also failed to finish supplying the full details for all of the special cases for the years.  He also failed to mention the discontinuities with the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar making his method more historically universal. For those interested, Wikipedia outlines some of the more familiar mathematical methods for determining the day of the week that a particular date would fall on.

Instead of having spent the time outlining the calendar, which is inherently difficult to do in audio format compared to printed format, he may have been better off having spent the time going into more depth memorizing poetry or prose as an extension of his small aside on memorizing quotes and presenting speeches.

I could have done without the bulk of the final disk which comprised mostly of tests for the material previously presented. The complete beginner may get more out of these exercises however.  The final portion of the disk was more interesting as he did provide some philosophy on how memory systems engage both lobes of the brain within the right-brained/left-brained conceptualizations from neuropsychology.

While O’Brien doesn’t completely draw out his entire system, to many this may be a strong benefit as it forces individuals to create their own system within his framework. This is bound to help many to create stronger personalized links between their numbers and their images. The drawback the beginner may find for this is that they may find themselves ever tinkering with their own customized system, or even more likely rebuilding things from scratch when they discover the list of online resources from others that rely on people having a more standardized system.

O’Brien also provides more emphasis on creativity and visualization than some books, which will be very beneficial to many beginners.

Overall, while I’d generally recommend this to the average mnemonist, I’d recommend they approach it after having delved in a bit and learned the major system from somewhere else.

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