Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 14 - January Issue - Year 2013
The Memory Palace
Simonides escaping the collapse of the banquet hall
A Memory Theater in the sixteenth century
The poet’s voice floated softly through the air. The guests crowding the banquet hall sat in total silence, hypnotized by a tale of battle and courage, loyalty and betrayal, and of a warrior’s attempt to return home across a stormy sea populated by witches and monsters. For hours the poet sang his melody, reciting episodes which had been passed down by his father, and by his father’s father before that.
But how did he manage to deliver his story from memory, in an age void of hard discs, memory sticks and megabytes, when even a piece of parchment was a precious commodity available to very few?
The secret lay in his mind and in his ability to remember names, facts, numbers and details with unerring precision. Nevertheless, a supple and capacious mind was not enough; there had to be a method, a system by which he could classify information and recall at will every detail in the correct order. How were the ancients able to remember vast amounts of information and recall them without missing a single detail?
In the European tradition, the first to develop a method for improving memory was a Greek poet named Simonides, who lived in the sixth century B.C. Legend tells us that Simonides managed to identify the mangled and unrecognizable bodies of guests killed when the roof collapsed during a banquet at which Simonides himself had been present and which he left moments before the tragedy. He correctly identified the numerous guests thanks to the fact that he remembered exactly where each guest had been sitting at the banquet table. This led Simonides to realize that the “memory of place”, that is remembering exactly where a person or an object is located, is a powerful aid in remembering the “thing” itself.
This principle became the basis for a method for improving memory which Simonides elaborated in writings since lost, but which were known to classical writers. In particular, the Latin poets Cicero in his De oratore and Quintilian in his Institutio oratoria described Simonide’s method. It must be remembered that the art of memory was, according to Cicero, one of the five parts of rhetoric and the one thanks to which the orator would be able to deliver long speeches from memory.
But it was an unknown poet who, in 86 – 82 B.C., wrote the most important and the most detailed source on ancient memory techniques. It is, in fact, the only remaining complete source for the classical art of memory from both the Latin and Greek worlds. This anonymous Latin author composed a book known as Rhetorica ad Herennium, a detailed treatise on the five parts of rhetoric. In his work, he describes two kinds of memory, one natural, the other artificial. Natural memory is the one with which every human being is endowed at birth, while artificial memory is the result of training and practice, capable of being improved by the application of a suitable method. The author dedicates most of his attention to the second type and proceeds to describe the type of discipline needed to strengthen artificial memory.
Artificial memory was made of places and images. The first step was to imagine places, the more the better. In order to be more efficient, these places would have to take the form of a building with several rooms and hallways, richly decorated with various types of furnishings and with even the lighting to be created. The places should form a series and must be remembered in their order, so that it would be possible to start from any one of the places and move either forward or backwards through them. It would be necessary to firmly implant these places in the mind by “walking” through them and carefully studying every corner and every detail, for it would be in these places that the images of the things would be positioned.
Once the places had been created, it would then be necessary to create the images of the things to be remembered. The things would be more easily remembered if they were associated with an image with some strong distinguishing feature, such as a strange or comical shape or a bright color.
The final and most important step would be to “carry” the images into the places and to position each image in a precise spot, carefully noting its location in the building.
It would then be possible to call up at will any image which was needed simply by walking through the building and going to the spot where that image had been left.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives
Author: Giovanni Gregorat