THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 3

Subject:   Memory – Simonides’ Memory Palace

Event:  Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein published, 2011

In 2005, journalist Joshua Foer attended the U.S. Memory Championships as a part of his research to find the world’s smartest person.  There he became mesmerized, watching “memory athletes” demonstrate prodigious feats of recall, such as memorizing 27 decks of shuffled playing cards.  Foer discovered that the secret to a great memory was not IQ; instead, it was strategy and focus. Foer found the competition and the strategies so fascinating that the next year he participated himself — and won.

File:Moonwalking with einstein.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

Foer chronicled his experiences in his book Moonwalking With Einstein, which was published on this day in 2011.  One specific method he highlights is known as the method of loci, which capitalizes on the brain’s especially strong ability to navigate spatial environments and visualize specific images.  For example, think of how easy it would be for you to draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in.  Even though you never consciously tried to remember the layout, you could probably draw it easily from memory and even recall the exact layout of each piece of furniture.

The method of loci is also known as the memory palace method.  It can be employed, for example, for memorizing a speech by transforming the speech’s key concepts into concrete images.  These images are then placed in the mental floor plan of the speaker’s memory palace.  In addition to making the objects you imagine distinctive, it also helps to make them outrageously absurd.  Doing this makes the images more memorable and more vivid.

For example, say you were giving a speech on the topic of the importance of education and you plan to open with a quotation by Socrates.  To remember this, you might imagine the toga-clad Socrates standing on your front porch with a Bic lighter and an empty bedpan on his head; this might help you remember your opening quotation:  “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  The next point in your speech can then be found based on an image that you find in your living room as you walk through your memory palace’s front door.

As Foer explains in his book, strategies like the memory palace are nothing new; instead, they were developed over two thousand years ago: “Once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today” (1).

In 55 B.C., for example, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote a book called De Oratore where he outlined the strategies of the ideal orator.  It’s in this book where Cicero tells the story of the origin of the memory palace technique, which began with a dramatic near-death experience by Simonides, a Greek lyric poet:

There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honor of his host, in which he followed the custom of the poets by including for decorative purposes a long passage referring to Castor and Pollux; whereupon Scopas with excessive meanness told him he would pay him half the fee agreed on for the poem, and if he liked he might apply for the balance to his sons of Tyndaraus, as they had gone halves in the panegyric.

The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment; and that this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement.

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it. (2)

Much has changed since Simonides’ time, but the human brain is still very much the same, and we should do what we can to remember how effective the memory palace is for helping us to remember.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the memory palace, and how can it be employed to memorize a speech?

Challenge – Your Brain Blueprint:  Draw the floorplan of the home you are most familiar with.  Consider what strange things you might furnish our memory palace with so that you can use it the next time you need to memorize something.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 3, 1845:  On this day, Florida became the twenty-seventh state.  This day we should remember the Florida effect, a psychological phenomena that reaches far beyond the borders of the Sunshine state.  (See Thinker’s Almanac – January 9)

-March 3, 1847:  Today is the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell who not only invented the telephone but also said the first words on the telephone on March 10, 1876:  “Mr. Watson — come here, I want to see you.”  He also said something profound about the power of attention:

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Sources: 

1-Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 

2-Simonides of Ceos.”  The Art of Memory Blog 24 Nov. 2010.

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