I’m teaching an upcoming course on the Art of Memory. It’ll be an hour a week for five weeks starting on July 10th at 10:00 am on Saturday mornings. I’ll be using the online learning platform Hyperlink.Academy. I hope you’ll have the chance to join me and a group of people interested in exploring the topic.
I’ve had a personal memory practice since I was about eleven years old. I started with an old correspondence course from the 1940s that I found on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty expansive. I’ve realized that the original system I learned was only a small fraction of some of the powerful techniques that humankind has created and evolved over the last 20,000 years. Sadly, the majority of this knowledge, which was once commonplace, has disappeared in Western culture.
As a kid, I used the techniques as they pertained to magic and parlor tricks like counting cards and Rubic’s cubes. Later I learned how to bend and apply them other methods. I learned new methods and used them to memorize material for classes. I discovered I could remember vast troves of information both for pleasure and for work.
Since then, I’ve been researching into the history of mnemotechniques in Western culture. I’ve been uncovering the practice in other oral and indigenous cultures. As a result, I’ve seen and experimented with dozens of other methods. Some are better and more flexible than others.
It’s rare that I encounter people familiar with even one or two of these methods. There are lots of books and internet fora dedicated to some of them. They’re generally esoteric, incomplete, or both. On the whole, they’re difficult to discover, and often even harder to learn—much less practice.
In 2011, Joshua Foer ignited some interest with his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He describes the magic of some of the extant systems and nibbles around the edges. But he doesn’t detail how to enter the space and leaves the topic as esoteric as he began. His book motivates the “why”, but doesn’t describe the practical “how”.
I have seen and read scores of hucksterish and facile approaches. They usually outline a handful of memory “tricks” which some people use intuitively. Most touch on only one or two aspects of a much larger and richer memory tradition.
I’ve also followed some of the bigger memory-related sites online. They discuss many pieces of the whole. But they don’t help newcomers get a bigger picture of what is possible or how to start a practice. Most people want something more practical for daily life. Many start out with interest, but they don’t get very far before abandoning the idea because they don’t find the benefit.
I know there is an easier way.
Based on my experience, I’d like to provide a solid overview and history of the topic. My goal is to give beginners a practical entry point. We’ll look at and practice the bigger and most useful techniques. We’ll also discuss some of the lesser known methods and where they can be applied.
I encourage students to bring a practical list of things they’d like to memorize for use in the course.
After a few weeks, students should have a solid base of knowledge upon which to found a regular memory practice for the rest of their lives.
Those interested can read a copy of the syllabus. If you have any questions about the course or want to discuss if it’s right for you, please reach out.
If you can’t join us for the first cohort this summer, I’ll likely offer it again in either the Fall or Winter.
Sadly, I still need a clearer copy of Cursus. Is there an English translation out there? Any academics have non-published copies? Like to publish a copy? I’m happy to muddle through Latin or French especially if it’s an OCR/searchable copy, but it’s a stupidly long text for the assuredly short section on memory I’m seeking.
Some indigenous American tribes kept annual winter counts which served as both a physical historical account of their year, but served as visual mnemonic devices leveraging a bit of the idea of a drawn memory palace along with spaced repetition by adding a new image to their “journey” each year.
I was reminded about the idea over the weekend by a dreadful, cheeseball Hallmark Holiday movie A Royal Christmas Ball (2017) (please don’t torture yourself by watching it). The two main characters had a Christmas ritual of creating a holiday ornament every year for their Christmas tree with a design that represented something significant in their lives that year. Because most families generally use and reuse the same ornaments every year, the practice becomes a repeated ritual which allows them to reminisce over each ornament every year to remember past years. It’s a common occurrence (at least in Western society) for people to purchase souvenir ornaments when they travel, and these serve the same effect of remembering their past travels.
If others haven’t come across this idea as a fun mnemonic device for the whole family with built in spaced repetition, I recommend you give it a try. Just don’t everyone necessarily make coronavirus ornaments for this year.
Non-Christians could leverage a similar idea for their annual holidays, feasts, or events if they like. Of course, you could follow the Lakota tribe and make a more traditional winter count.
For those interested in some of the further history and description of the idea of an annual count in the framing of mnemotechny, I would recommend LynneKelly’s book Memory Craft or some of her more academic works.
I’m not as well-versed in the history of educational technology as those like Audrey Watters, but after reading the opening of chapter 10 of The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, I’m prepared to call Pierre de La Ramée (aka Petrus or Peter Ramus) as the godfather of EdTech for his literal iconoclastic removal of the artificial memory from rhetoric and replacing it with his ‘dialectical order’.
To be clear, “Godfather of EdTech” is a perjorative.
As I’ve been reading about Zettlekasten for part of the evening, it dawns on me that there are some likely overlaps with both my prior work on statistical mechanics and ideas of mnemonics and techniques like the method of loci. I’ll have to think of how to better memorize and specifically tag pieces of information into such a mental Zettlekasten. I wonder what might evolve?
Has anyone tried the Cornell Note-taking System? It looks interesting.
They layout looks like this:
Here’s a summary:
1. Record: During the lecture, use the note-taking column to record the lecture using telegraphic sentences.
2. Questions: As soon after class as possible, formulate questions based on the notes in the right-hand column. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for exam-studying later.
3. Recite: Cover the note-taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the questions or cue-words in the question and cue column only, say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the questions, facts, or ideas indicated by the cue-words.
4. Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on? How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?
5. Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for current use, as well as, for the exam.
I’ve used Cornell notes specifically with mnemonic methods before. In addition to the date, name, subject area, I’ll also write down an associated memory palace.
I typically keep some space in the recall column to write down associated PAO, Major System, etc. images related to the key concepts, dates, and other notes and sometimes include locations along with the images. Sometimes I may make the notes themselves the memory palace by drawing sketches, doodles or other drolleries into the margins. Depending on the information I may also encode details into other pre-existing palaces.
I can then come back to the notes and do spaced repetition over them to strengthen the images, loci, and ideas. Depending on the material, I might transfer the basics of the notes over to Anki or Mnemosyne for more formal spaced review.
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This was probably a great memory exercise for Monsi. Des-Cartes in simply making these. But on first blush, I have to think that he’s also creating a memory palace of sorts for the information itself! Because the deck of cards can be a predetermined path of sorts, going through the deck in the prescribed order he’s laid out allows it to be a journey to which he’s attaching the images on the cards as well as encoding the information within the text by which to memorize it. To me this is very reminiscent of the “Sermon on the Six Wings of the Seraph” described as:
The earliest of the four preachers’ arts is the so-called sermon on the six wings of the seraph, using as the organizing figure the six-winged creature described in Isaiah 6. Ascribed to the late twelfth-century Parisian master Alan of Lille, it became quickly popular as one of the model sermons of his ‘‘art of preaching.’’ But it is not a sermon. It is instead an art for preachers needing to invent sermons. It describes how to use sets of five themes on each of six basic subjects, or res, all keyed to a memorable organizing ‘‘picture.’’ Only the first of these themes is developed as an actual sermon might be, evidently to serve as a model. The work as a whole provides a fine example of memoria rerum and is related, through centuries of (mostly orally disseminated) classroom tradition, to the picture-like example of the technique of memoria rerum used in a courtroom setting, which is described at the beginning of the first century B.C.E. in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (3.20.33).
— The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Edited by Mary Carruthers and Jan M. Ziolkowski (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)
In this issue, I want to open a conversation about a technology of our age that hasn’t quite worked out the way we all had hoped—and by we, I mean those of us who care about the composition and transmission of ideas, which I believe includes everyone on this list.
Twenty years ago, literary critic Sven Birkerts reviewed the new technology of ebooks and e-readers for the short-lived internet magazine Feed. They sent him a Rocket eBook and a SoftBook, and he duly turned them on and settled into his comfy chair. What followed, however, was anything but comfy:
René Descartes designed a deck of playing cards that also functioned as flash cards to learn geometry and mechanics. (King of Clubs from The use of the geometrical playing-cards, as also A discourse of the mechanick powers. By Monsi. Des-Cartes. Translated from his own manuscript copy. Printed and sold by J. Moxon at the Atlas in Warwick Lane, London. Via the Beinecke Library, from which you can download the entire deck.)
My immediate thought is that this deck of cards was meant as a memory palace. I’m curious what training in rhetoric/memory methods Descartes must have had?
November 06, 2019 at 08:49PM
We are beginning a renovation of our main library at Northeastern University, Snell Library, and have been talking with architects (some of them very well-known), and I’ve found the discussions utterly invigorating. I would like to find some way to blog or newsletter about the process we will go through over the next few years, and to think aloud about the (re)design and (future) function of the library. I’m not sure if that should occur in this space or elsewhere, although the thought of launching another outlet fills me with dread. Let me know if this topic would interest you, and if I should include it here.
Dan, this is definitely interesting. Please include it here or on your main site!!!
November 06, 2019 at 08:43PM
But wait, there’s more. Much more. We generally encounter four different acquisition models (my thanks to Janet Morrow of our library for this outline): 1) outright purchase, just like a print book, easy peasy, generally costs a lot even though it’s just bits (we pay an average of over $40 per book this way), which gives us perpetual access with the least digital rights management (DRM) on the ebooks, which has an impact on sustainable access over time; 2) subscription access: you need to keep paying each year to get access, and the provider can pull titles on you at any time, plus you also get lots of DRM, but there’s a low cost per title (~$1 a book per year); 3) demand-driven/patron-driven acquisition: you don’t get the actual ebook, just a bibliographic record for your library’s online system, until someone chooses to download a book, or reads some chunk of it online, which then costs you, say ~$5; 4) evidence-based acquisitions, in which we pay a set cost for unlimited access to a set of titles for a year and then at the end of the year we can use our deposit to buy some of the titles (< $1/book/year for the set, and then ~$60/book for those we purchase).
Nice to see this laid out. I’ve never seen a general overview of how this system works for libraries.
I’ve always wondered what it cost my local public library to loan me an e-book whether I read it or not.
November 06, 2019 at 08:40PM
It is worth asking why ebooks and e-readers like the Kindle treaded water after swimming a couple of laps. I’m not sure I can fully diagnose what happened (I would love to hear your thoughts), but I think there are many elements, all of which interact as part of the book production and consumption ecosystem.
For me, and potentially for a majority of others, our memories have evolved to be highly location specific. It’s far easier for me to remember what I’ve read when I read a physical book. I can often picture what I was reading at the top, middle, or bottom of the left or right page. This fact in addition to how far I am in the book gives me a better idea of where I am with respect to a text.
These ideas are very subtle and so heavily ingrained in us that they’re not very apparent to many, if at all.
See also Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture by Lynne Kelly (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
November 06, 2019 at 08:32PM
I have a problem and I hope, you can help me.
Is there a way to just memorize information with mnemotechniques without doing much work beforhand?
My problem is, that I am tired of having to constantely building new memory palaces before I can memorize something. (Reusing memory palaces does not work for me, unfortunately.)
Is there a technique where I don`t have to constantely memorize new loci, a technique where I can just put the infos somewhere and review them later? And if so, how does this technique work and is it efficient (a good way to memorize things)?
In many modern descriptions of the method of loci, they’re often (unfortunately) described as places that are frequently reused as they would be for memory competitions. This makes them much tougher to use for remembering more useful things in longer term memory. As a result I use a small handful of very specifically selected places for these sorts of short term memory-based journeys. When I’m done with the specific task at hand, I mentally travel back through the journey and wash out all of those short term memories so that I can come back to them in rotation and they’re fresh and clean with many of the memories having faded out with the advance of time. Alternately peg-systems or linked story-systems can be used depending on the items being memorized.
For longer term memory, I prefer to use more everyday locations such as my home (or previous residences, schools, college, etc.) or walks around my neighborhood. This way, as I’m moving about my house, neighborhood, or other frequently visited quotidian places, I’m seeing the accumulated images and regularly re-firming them in my memory. This regular revisiting of them makes them stick in my long term memory much better. For things you want to keep for longer term, revisiting them at an hour, a day, a week, a month, and then three months with occasional annual revisits helps to keep them stored permanently in your long term memory. This method also allows you to add additional information via images over time so that when you’ve read that biography of Abraham Lincoln, for example, you can add any additional information to the loci where you stored him when you may have memorized all of the U.S. presidents in order. Lynne Kelly has a reasonably good description of this in her book The Memory Code where she discusses the timeline of history she’s created in a journey around her neighborhood.
In short, one should carefully consider the type of information one is trying to memorize, the length of time one wants to remember it, and then choose from one of the many methods for remembering it. Experience in doing this takes some time and advanced thought, but in the end will give better results.
Hello, I have a problem and I hope, you can help me. Is there a way to just memorize information with mnemotechniques without doing much work beforhand? My problem is, that I am tired of having to constantely building new memory palaces before I can memorize something. (Reusing memory palaces does not work for me, unfortunately.) Is there a technique where I don`t have to constantely memorize new loci, a technique where I can just put the infos somewhere and review them later? And if so, ho...
The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic.—Wikipedia
While many may consider this example of Homer’s to be the first instance of ekphrasis within literature (primarily because it specifically depicts an artwork, which is part of the more formal definition of the word), I would posit that even earlier descriptions in the Iliad itself which go into great detail about individuals and their methods of death are also included in a broader conception of ekphrasis. This larger ekphrasis subsumes all of these descriptions in an tradition of orality as being portions of ancient memory palaces within a broader field of mnemotechny. I imagine that these graphic, bloody, and larger-than-life depictions of death not only encoded the names and ideas of the original people/ancestors, but they were also quite likely to have had additional layers of memory encoded (or attached) to them as well. Here I’m suggesting that while an actual shield may or may not have originally existed that even once the physical shield or other object is gone or lost that the remembered story of the shield still provides a memory palace to which other ideas can be attached.
(I’ll remind the forgetful reader than mnemotechny grows out of the ancient art of rhetoric as envisioned in Rhetorica ad Herennium, and thus the use of ekphrasis as a rhetorical device implicitly subsumes the idea of memory, though most modern readers may not have that association.)
Later versions of ekphrasis in post-literate history may have been more about the arts themselves and related references and commentary (example: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn), but I have a strong feeling that this idea’s original incarnation was more closely related to early memory methods at the border of oral and literate societies.
In other words, ancient performers, poets, etc. may have created their own memory palaces by which they were able to remember long stories like the Iliad, but what is to say that these stories themselves weren’t in turn memory palaces to the listeners themselves? I myself have previously used the plot and portions of the movie Fletch as a meta memory palace in just this way. As the result of ritualistic semi-annual re-watchings of classic and engaging movies like this, I can dramatically expand my collection of memory palaces. The best part is that while my exterior physical location may change, classics movies will always stay the same. And in a different framing, my memories of portions of history may also help me recall a plethora of famous movie quotes as well.
Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.—Irwin M. Fletcher
Replied toa post by Davey Moloney (daveymoloney.com)
I’m glad that there’s some more modern research around this general idea. Of course the reliance of humans on the power of visual memory goes back to ancient Greece with the method of loci and from the Renaissance (or earlier) with the mnemonic major system.
I know both systems intimately well since the age of about 11, though I haven’t written much about them on my site. (I should fix this, though there are some related tangents within my memory category.) I did notice a large overlap with the major system and Gregg shorthand a while back, which leads me to believe that they’ve got an even richer back history than most may presume.
I’ve always been confounded that these systems aren’t better known in modern culture, though some sources have indicated that religious influences tamped down their proliferation in the 1500’s.
I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old. The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.
The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons – perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered. This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.
The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:
Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
s, z, soft c
“z” is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
n has two downstrokes
m has three downstrokes; m looks like a “3” on its side
last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
L is the Roman Numeral for 50
/ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/
j, sh, soft g, soft “ch”
a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu
capital K “contains” two sevens (some variant systems include “ng”)
script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Vowel sounds, w,h,y
w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value
There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings. When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration1, I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method. Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!
My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand. 2 In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen – one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method.3
I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:
Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!
Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!
The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.
The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump – heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.
Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.
One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.
I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588) 4, John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602) 5, Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618) 6, or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) 7? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.
Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.
UPDATE on 7/6/14:
I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.
Furst B. You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co.; 1965.