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.
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.
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 Concentration  , 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.  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. 
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)  , John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602)  , Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618)  , or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626)  ? 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.
B. Furst, You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co., 1965.