The rise and fall of remembering

This article was originally printed in Issue 398 (March/April 2012) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Can you list all the Australian prime-ministers in order?  Chances are, neither could your history professor at university.  British mnemonist, Ed Cooke points out in his book Remember remember that “Oxford history undergraduates can freely name an average of only 9 of the 52 British prime ministers”.  They haven’t even heard of more than half of them, and their professors “are not much better”.

Memorization doesn’t feature much in modern classrooms. Schools today deemphasize the learning of facts, most of which are forgotten by students almost as soon as they have been successfully tested on them, in favour of developing the capacity for critical analysis and the capacity to mine external records of information such as books and the internet.  Despite Cooke’s stunning stats, one has to ask, is this any kind of problem? Rote memorization drills, once thought to build discipline and improve the memories of young minds, were shown by psychologists Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth to be ineffectual.  Skill at the memory drills was not transferable to new tasks, and the proposed auxiliary benefits of mental discipline were found to be “mythological”.  So undermined, traditional methods of rote memorization soon gave way to the methods espoused by a group of progressive educators led by John Dewey, an American philosopher who championed experiential learning.  Dewey, and those like him, traded in biology textbooks for student-run gardens and geology books for excursions to cliffs. In their war on remembering, Dewey and his contemporaries were guilty of creating a false dichotomy; reflection on the history of memory and education reveals that rote memorization is a fairly recent (and unfortunate) chapter in the story of memory. For most of history, facts were regarded as important signposts that guide students towards cultural literacy and the act of remembering them was one of creativity and imagination.

The last century of educational reform has been especially unkind to memory.  Memory however, has not always had such a bad rap.  In fact, from the Ancient Greeks right up until The Renaissance, the art of memory, a collection of mnemonic techniques unrecognizable to those of us familiar only with rote methods of memorizing, formed the cornerstone of education; for hundreds of years, students were taught how to furnish their minds with memories.

The earliest record we have of the techniques that make up the art of memory come from an ancient Roman treatise known as Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was written sometime between 86 and 82B.C.  The Rhetorica ad Herennium attributes the origins of memory techniques to the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, who lived during the fifth century B.C.

Legend has it that Simonides was invited to perform at the banquet of a nobleman of Thessaly. During his performance, the poet sang praise to the twin gods, Castor and Pollux.  This was apparently a faux pas in Ancient Greece and when the performance was complete, the nobleman told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed fee, and that he would have to extract the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned.

Simonedes was then summoned outside by a mysterious messenger.  As he exited the banquet hall it collapsed, crushing everyone inside. The great tragedy for the Greeks did not lie in the death toll, but in the fact that the bodies had been so severely disfigured that they could not be identified for burial rituals fitting of their stations.  At this point, Simonides realized that by closing his eyes and visualizing himself travelling around the hall, he could recall the exact location where every guest had been seated.  From this experience, Simonides extracted the principles of visualization and association which became the basis of all memory techniques.  These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.  Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mental playground of a trained mnemonist.  Appropriately, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses.

Memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks, who used the techniques of the art of memory as tools for composition and meditation.  The art of memory became the principle method by which Monks would read and meditate upon the bible after committing it to memory.  Safe within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries, the art of memory made it through to the later Middle Ages and The Renaissance.

By The Renaissance, mnemonic training was taught to almost all students, alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic.  Even the invention of the Guttenberg printing press and the relative availability of books had little effect on the status of a trained memory; books were considered aids to recall rather than a replacement for a well-stocked mind.  The Renaissance did however give rise to a technological trend that would eventually contribute to the decline of the art of memory, specifically, the idea that could relegate the process of our mind and memory to external sources.

Many of us view the advent of smart phones as the latest in a recent trend of technologies designed to replace our cognitive faculties.  In much the same way that the calculator waged a war on mental arithmetic, smart phones and the like are replacing our biological memories with built in recording devices to capture (and remember) everything from important dates to shopping lists and phone numbers.  The desire to relegate cognitive tasks to external tools is not a new one however.  As far back as 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo Delmino published an eighty-seven page book outlining plans for construction of what he called a memory theatre.

The theatre was designed to act as a physical repository of memories and consisted of a small pulpit which opened onto an auditorium divided into seven sections.  In each section, various images and messages would be inscribed, which Camillo claimed would allow the occupant of the pulpit to “be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero”.

Although hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Camillo and his work fell into obscurity after his death and his memory theatre was never constructed.  It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published The Art of Memory” in 1966 that Camillo’s work once again caught the public imagination.  Yates identified Camillo’s ideas as being continuous with a much older tradition known as the method of loci.  The method of loci is a mnemonic device, the earliest textual mention of which occurs in the Rhetorica ad Herennium and involves travelling through a mental location in order to place and later recall information one wished to memorize.  This mental technique is often considered the crowning jewel of the art of memory, and Camillo viewed his memory theatre as the next great innovation in memory techniques.  In his view, the creation of a physical memory locus meant would allow a person with no prior education in a subject to instantly gain literacy by glancing around the memory theatre.  This idea has striking parallels to the today common practice of pulling out one’s phone to look things up on Wikipedia.

The idea that we might relegate our cognitive workload to technological devices is far from new and far from being an apocalyptic horseman, smart phones represent the latest in a fascinating historical tradition that, at its core, seeks to expand rather than eliminate the human mind.

Only a few years after the Camillo published his plans for a memory theatre, the art of memory became the target of religious prosecution that signalled its decline and eventual removal from education systems.  In 1584 in England, the Puritans launched a fervent campaign against the art of memory because of its frequent use of sexual, violent and absurd thoughts which proved to be a wounding, but not fatal skirmish to the tradition of mnemonic training.  The art of memory again became a target of religious attack during the Protestant reformation, which sought to eliminate the lush visual imagery of The Renaissance, including the elaborate mental images used in mnemonic training.  Memory in education eventually turned a full 180 degrees.  Mnemonic practice, which depended on the creative and mindful painting of mental pictures, was replaced with rote repetition.  Memorization went from being an intrinsically rewarding activity to being a task that elicited boredom at best, and reluctance at worst.

Certainly, the removal of rote memory drills from our schools is a wonderful development.  Aside from being time consuming and ineffective, rote learning does nothing to instil students with a sense of wonder of the world and a hunger for knowledge.  There is however, a sense in which the suspicion of memorizing facts in education, originally motivated by a desire to improve students’  understanding of the things they studied, has taken on a life of its own and gone too far. When I explain what I do as a competitive mnemonist and memory coach, I often use the terms “memorize” and “learn” interchangeably, and never gave it much thought until one day, a friend of mine, an excellent primary school teacher, made the point that remembering, does not equate to understanding.  This is sometimes true.  Students often rote learn complex mathematical equations without really comprehending how they work. Similarly, one can memorize by rote a song or a prayer in a foreign language without having any idea what it means, or even being able to parse it into distinct words or sentences.  Indeed, this is exactly what I did when I read from the Torah at my Bar-mitzvah.

This criticism, an almost reflexive response of many teachers to the idea of bringing memory back into the classroom, does not hold for the mnemonic skills that make up the art of memory.  To begin with, there are some cases in which mere remembering does constitute understanding.  If I remember that the French word for ‘butterfly’ is ‘papillon’, I understand butterfly in French.  This may seem like a fairly basic kind of understanding, but it can get us a surprisingly long way – the vocabulary for languages, an understanding of the chemical composition of water (I remember that water is H2O) and similar facts are all things which are understood when they are remembered.

But there are deeper ways in which the art of memory aids in the understanding of material.  A key principle of all memory techniques is association.  Skilled mnemonists are masters at recognising and creating connections between things.  This allows them to see how new pieces of information fit into the bigger picture, like a piece of a puzzle.  Just like a puzzle, the more pieces you have already the easier it is to add new ones. This is why it’s easier for us to learn new facts in fields we are already experts in.  Memory techniques, in allowing mnemonists to take conscious control of the associations our brains naturally make when we learn allow them to skip the learning curve and make things stick.

Education is not merely about memorizing.  It’s about having the ability to retrieve information and play with it, analyse it and synthesize it, but you can’t engage in analysis or creative thinking without having information at your fingertips, and you can’t do that without having it in your memory.  The Ancient Greeks valued the art of memory for its ability to improve focus and creativity, for the way in which it enabled students to transform any subject so as to make it relevant and interesting and for the way that it internalized information and left an imprint on the soul.  Given the objections often leveled against our schools today (that they fail to engage with individuals, that they kill creativity and that they don’t produce students ready for the ‘real’ world) perhaps it’s time for the art of memory to make a return to classrooms.



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