In the modern age of books and internet, it is difficult to get beyond the printed word; science has little faith in oral communication – you might think that with Instant Messaging and text messaging, there is an actual conspiracy against speaking… We have thus lost an entire field of knowledge, one of which is the so-called “art of memory”.
by Philip Coppens

“Memory aids” or “mnemonic tools” have invaded corporate training courses – as if they are a novelty. Sessions are held in which people are asked to remember a series of objects or words, the purpose of which fits in a larger whole that is of some benefit to the individual and his organisation. That we are being taught to re-use our brain and our memory is in itself a sign of our times. Only actors, it seems, have a need to give detailed presentations; we prefer a report over a presentation, a book over a presentation. As the written word takes over, certain knowledge, such as the art of memory, is being lost. You may have perfect memory, yet a single piece of paper will in court outweigh any detailed oral account. “Seeing is believing”, but hearing seems to have become its opposite: what is not supported by the written word, must be a lie.

What is the “art of memory”? It is, in essence, the creation of a fictional setting, in which objects that need to be remembered, are placed, so that they can be easily remembered. One fictional use of memory palaces appears in Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal, in which Hannibal Lecter organizes his memories in such fashion. Harris exaggerates the potential of the palace by having Lecter read entire books and transcripts of interviews with patients, but also raises the fascinating, and possibly original proposition, that the palace can be a dangerous place for its owner. In one scene, Lecter retires to his palace in search of comfort, only to become haunted by horrific memories he, or his subconcious mind has stored there. It is no doubt a sign of our times that a memory theatre has become linked with a serial killer and his madness, rather than a potential road to enlightenment, as it was perceived in previous centuries.

Still, the art is not dead. Many “mentalists” or magicians, specifically the British mentalist Derren Brown, have gone on record as saying that his complex mental acts are largely if not solely based on an extreme application of such “mnemonic devices”. There is a lost world – a lost history – of the oral tradition. Some scientists have argued that “books on memory are regarded with embarrassment by most academics and are felt not to be part of serious scholarship.” Little is known about the origins of the art itself, as the art form had an oral goal, and hence was handed down orally. As a result, the source texts are fragmentary. Some were lost, and those that remain seem likely to have been written for people who were expected to already know the basic methods.

One good example is the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Though a “book”, it was not meant to be read, but to be recited. The Homer and Iliad, though cornerstones of any modern Greek education, were there to be recited too – if anything, the original written accounts of these documents were merely meant to be used as study instruments, so that the student did not need the physical presence of a teacher, but could instead use a text to learn.

But reciting the Iliad was not reading from a book, but knowing it by heart. And it was not merely the Iliad that was learnt by heart – most likely all texts were meant to be known by heart… as it had been done in the days before writing, when the accounts were passed on orally from generation to generation – and/or in some cases, as songs, such as the infamous Aboriginal “song lines”. Written sources of the “art of memory” in the Western world are normally traced back to the poet Simonides of Ceos (ca. 556-468 BC), who is said to have proclaimed that memory could be assisted by assigning information to the rooms of an imaginary house. His technique was that the mind wandered through an imaginary house, like a person would roam through a house, “picking up” memories as he went along from room to room. There is no doubt that Simonides knew what he was talking about: after all, he was a poet and had to rely on these techniques. But it also served him throughout his life. Once, when reciting a poem at a banquet, Simonides used this method to remember were each guest was sitting. After his departure, the roof of the building collapsed and crushed the guests beyond recognition. Nevertheless, he was later able to identify the bodies, by recalling where everyone had been sitting.

In Roman times, the art of memory was known as “memoria” and the “method of loci” – space. The only complete source on the subject to survive is a Latin work by an unknown author, “Rhetorica ad Herennium”, written in about 85 BC. The “rooms of a house” technique, credited to Simonides, was not the sole tool available. Others used grander structures, such as a palace, though more common was a theatre, the working area of the artist-poet. But a most intriguing memory technique was “introduced” by Metrodorus of Scepsis, a contemporary of Cicero (106-43 BC). He used the twelve constellations of the zodiac, which was subdivided into 360 separate storage places, some of which could be grouped in the twelve zodiacal signs, containing “types of information”. In recent years, Dieterlen and von Dechend in Hamlet’s Mill and the Woods in Homer’s Secret Iliad have been able to demonstrate that many myths contain a stellar connection, linked with the zodiac. As we know that these myths were often recited, it is clear that Metrodorus’ technique must have been used to recount these myths – and this also suggests that the technique is far older than Metrodorus, possibly dating back to 1500-2000 BC – if not older. Though it were either rooms or theatres if not the zodiac for the ancient Greeks, Frances Yates argues that in medieval times, it were cathedrals, as well as monasteries and pilgrimage churches that contained “mnemonic hooks” that allowed celebrants to more easily remember the Gospels. Saint Thomas Aquinas was an important influence in promoting the method when he defined it as a part of Prudence and recommended its use to meditate on the virtues and to improve one’s piety. Probably under the influence of Jewish meditational traditions, idealized versions of structures described in the Bible were also used as “hooks” or settings on which to “hang” a story: the Tabernacle of the Exodus, the Temple of Solomon, the visionary Temple of Ezekiel, the Heavenly City of the Apocalypse, etc. A similar possible explanation has been proposed regarding the extraordinary decorations of Rosslyn chapel, that they are books, written in stone. Some have argued that the angels actually reflect locations where the “page” has to be turned – where another story in a chapter begins – a bookmark. Derren Brown’s application of these techniques has left many with the impression that Brown is – contrary to what he and others of his like argue – psychic. This conclusion is not new, for several poets could recite beyond the limit of reason: the elder Seneca, a teacher of rhetoric, could repeat two thousand names in the order in which they had been given: when a class of two hundred students or more spoke each in turn a line of poetry, he could recite all the lines in reverse order, beginning from the last one, going right back to the first. No-one, for sure, would argue these are displays of the supernatural, but if applied in a certain way, they could be perceived as such. The art of memory was in gradual decline as history progressed, but knew a short revival at the time when printing became more and more in vogue. The technique was also used by Matteo Ricci (1552-1616), an Italian Jesuit who entered China in 1583 to spread Catholicism. He taught young Confucian scholars tricks to increase their memory skill and was able to attract numerous students in this fashion. But it was in Italy that the art of memory would know its biggest revival. The two most famous users of the art of memory were Giulio Camillo and Giordano Bruno. Bruno wrote a book on the subject and advised that the “images [that were chosen] must be lively, active, striking, charged with emotional effects so that they may pass through the door of the storehouse of memory”. Intriguingly, Bruno proposed the zodiac tool, rather than the theatre/palace tool. He created an elaborate method, which was based on the combination of the concentric circles of Ramon Lull, and filled these with the images representing all the knowledge of the world. Bruno – and his peers – believed that these “spinning discs of the mind” would allow the mind to reach the intelligible world beyond appearances, and thus enable one to powerfully influence events in the real world – magic: they were mind machines that would somehow send the mind spinning so fast that it would move into another dimension. Though labelled the “art” of memory, it is actually a science. In the 1950s, the concept of how memories were stored in our brain was reigniting interest. How were our experiences stored in the brain? How were they recalled? And how were some memories more easily remembered than others?

For a long time, it was felt that memories were stored in a particular part of the brain. But when certain people had to undergo surgery on these portions of the brain, it was soon learned that they still retained their memories – which according to the scientific theory they should have forgotten. It was therefore proposed that memory was stored “non-locally” in the brain, which, even though it seems closer to the facts, did actually not answer the core of the problem. Some researchers have therefore more recently argued that memory storage in the brain is conform to a hologram: if one section is removed, the rest still retains a complete “memory”. This hologram approach would thus indicate that the brain is storing this information, but that memories are stored not just in a particular location, but “everywhere”. Of course, there are some correspondences between a hologram and a “theatre”, in the sense that it is believed that the hologram is native to the brain, and we then store memories in them. The art of memory proposes that the student creates an empty template – whether it is a room, a theatre or the zodiac – and then stores memories in those locations. The hologram is being built from nothing, and so it is with the art of memory, which begins – or should begin – with an empty room. Various connections are then made, which in a holographic mind enable “remembering” and could explain why our mind sometimes jump from memory to memory, even though the link between the various memories is often tenuous. Of course, meditation is exactly the technique that stops the brain from jumping from memory to memory – to halt the “remembering”.

Though we have an empty room, how do we store information? This question is best answered by the row that broke out between the followers of Ramus and Bruno in 1584. The Ramists, who would eventually triumph, advocated a system in which each broad category of knowledge was repeatedly subdivided. Ramus held that this structure absorbed the art of memory into that of logic. Today, we call it the taxonomic approach. In a taxonomy, you start with an ordered room, in which we try to store additional information – we do not start with an empty room and let the person furnish it according to his own will. Interesting, therefore, is that the Art itself began to decay at the time that taxonomies became a prominent tool for thought. Still, this row was merely incidental to the real cause of why the art was slowly dying. The Greek philosopher Plato summed up the stand-off between writing and the oral tradition. In Phaedrus, he quoted from Socrates, who spoke about a conversation between Thamus and the god Thoth – Hermes, the god of letters: “You, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

Today – and at the dawn of the printing process – we know that many books continue to have illustrations. Cartoons have a particular fascination, as they combine both words and images. Hieroglyphs fascinate us, as they are a visual language: they are images, not physical letters, though the images act as letters. All of this harkens back to the basic concept that memory is in essence a visual tool – and that dry text is not very visual. Still, in the long run, Thoth has won. Indeed, of all the turning points in Mankind’s history, the invention of writing, though often hailed as the greatest benefit ever, also meant the end of an era; and though we may consider the invention of writing beneficial – you would not be reading this if it had not be – it also meant that certain knowledge got lost. But, more importantly, Thamus warned that certain knowledge, though now written down, would be read, but would no longer be comprehended. This, for sure, is what has happened to the myths – the information – that existed at a time when the oral tradition was in vogue and writing was either absent or a sideshow. Today, in our written world, we have lost the ability to understand – hear – the voice of the oral ancient world. Many have sworn a solemn oath to only put faith in the written word – often without realising it.