An ancient art for modern classrooms

Note: This article was originally submitted as a conference paper for the 2013 Mind and Its Potential conference (

Can you name the year in which the first fleet landed at Sydney Cove? Do you know the year the City of Melbourne was founded? If not, you aren’t alone. Even the minds of university level history students are sparsely furnished with particular historical facts.  History professor Derek Matthews gave a list of five questions to a group of history students from some of the top research universities in the United Kingdom; 89% of them could not name a 19th century British prime minister while 70% did not know where the Boer Wars were fought1.

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 instead. Of course, it must be asked whether this is really 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. Skills at the memory drills were 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 learning2. Dewey, and those like him, exchanged 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 rites befitting 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.

The techniques of the Art of Memory all involve the creation of colourful mental stories. The most effective of these capitalize on a cognitive bias known to modern psychologists as the ‘Von Restorff effect’. According to the Von Restorff effect, we are more likely to remember something if it is distinctive. The more unusual or original a mnemonic image, the more likely it is to be remembered. The relationship between memory and creativity was something the Ancient Greek’s knew well; In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses, the goddesses of creativity.

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. It was only during the Protestant reformation, which sought to eliminate the lush visual imagery of the Renaissance, including the elaborate mental images used in mnemonic training, that the art of memory was driven underground.

As we have seen, for most of human history, a well-stocked and well trained memory was considered a prerequisite, rather than an obstacle to higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and creativity.

More recently, support for the importance of memory in education has come from the cognitive sciences. Research from across a range of fields of scientific inquiry has converged on the conclusion that memory is the king of cognition. Consider this comment by Kirschner and colleagues:

‘Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.’3

Research has shown, for instance, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players. In 1946, Adriaan De Groot, a dutch chess master and psychologist conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high level chess players. The experiment is described here by Herbert Simon, whose research into this area won him the Nobel Prize:

‘He [de Groot ] displayed a chess position to his subjects for a very brief period of time ( 2 to 10 seconds) and then asked them to reconstruct the position from memory. These positions were from actual master games, but games unknown to his subjects. The results were dramatic. Grandmasters and masters were able to reproduce, with almost perfect accuracy (about 93% correct), positions containing about 25 pieces… Good amateurs (Class A players in the American rating scheme) could replace only about half the pieces in the same positions, and novice players (from our own experiments) could recall only about eight pieces (about 33%).’4

Educationalist Daisy Christodoulou highlights the key lesson of this research when she writes ‘Chess is supposed to be a game of pure reasoning, a game where strong and abstract ‘mental muscles’ separate the best players from the weakest. But in actual fact, one of the most important differences between the best players and the weakest players is the knowledge they have of typical chess positions.’5

If remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent give birth to phenomenal performance across a variety of fields, then the case for training our memories using the techniques of the Art of Memory is all the stronger.

This research also furnishes us with a response to the most common question I, as a memory athlete, get asked: ‘Why bother learning to remember more and faster in an age of smart phones and search engines?’

Being able to look information up is no substitute for having that material in your head. For instance, can you imagine trying to carry a conversation with someone armed only with an online translator? Would you be comfortable being operated on by a surgeon who was following a tutorial found on YouTube? Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly coloured by the things we think, believe and know, all of which resides in our memories. There is no clear line between remembering and creating. Cultivating a better memory is not (or not merely) about storage or efficiency: in these respects, external recording technologies are either already superior to our biological memories or might be so one day soon. Our ability to notice connections between previously unconnected ideas, to find, analyize and evaluate arguments, to appreciate humour in the world and even the performance of skills are all essentially human acts that depend on memory.

The Art of Memory is superior to technological ‘external-memories’ in another respect when it comes to the classroom. Many modern educational interventions/programs require expensive new equipment or technology. The Art of Memory, however, was invented in an age that predates even pencils and paper as we know them. It can be taught incredibly quickly (It was only 6 months after I began studying the Art of Memory that I competed in the Australian Memory Championships) and does not require any special equipment.

Teaching students memory techniques would open up new vistas of learning to them (imagine being able to learn a new language in weeks instead of years!) and transform their relationship to learning. Given how little it would cost to do so, the case is strong for bringing these techniques back into the classroom. The techniques of the Art of memory represent a potential revolution in education, both in the obvious sense of the word, and because, as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.


  1. Matthews D. The strange death of history teaching (fully explained in seven easy-to-follow lessons ) (2009), p. 33, assets/ documents/ subjects/ history/ br_matthews_deathofhistory_20090803. pdf (accessed 3 March 2010).
  2. Foer, Joshua (2011-04-07). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (p. 194). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.
  3. Kirschner P.A., Sweller J. and Clark R.E. Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery , problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 2006; 41: 75– 86.
  4. Simon H.A. and Gilmartin K. A simulation of memory for chess positions. Cognitive Psychology 1973; 5: 29– 46.
  5. Christodoulou, Daisy (2013-06-16). Seven Myths about Education (Kindle Locations 1401-1404). The Curriculum Centre. Kindle Edition.

Leave a Reply