History of the Art of Memory
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the Goddess of memory and mother of the nine muses: epic poetry; history; music; lyric poetry; tragedy; hymns; dance; comedy; and astronomy. The muses were said to be the inspiration for creative thought and knowledge, and orators and rhetoricians obtained their ability or authoritative speech through the 'possession' of Mnemosyne and her muses.
The importance of the art of memory throughout history
The origins of the art of memory can be traced back over 2500 years ago. In ancient times, information was shared primarily by word of mouth. Mnemonics were used to organise impressions, improve recall and assist in the exploration and combination of new ideas and philosophies, and were usually associated with rhetoric or logic. Rhetoric, defined as persuasive and effective speaking, was a revered skill and mnemonics were a huge asset to the orator, enabling them to recite lengthy speeches from memory with astounding accuracy. For some, they were considered an art form and became a much admired skill in those who mastered them.
Perhaps the earliest recollection of the use of the art of memory was a story about Simonides, the Greek lyric poet. Legend has it that Simonides was invited to recite a poem at a banquet in honour of his host. Whilst doing so, he also paid tribute to the mythical twins Castor and Pollux. His host was so offended by this additional tribute that he only paid half the promised fee and told Simonides to obtain the balance from the twins to whom he had also referred.
A message was delivered to Simonides shortly after his recital, stating that two noblemen were waiting for him outside. He left the banquet to seek out the men. While he was gone, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, crushing all who were inside. Through his use of visualisation, the poet was able to remember where all the families were sitting; thus enabling identification of the bodies. The technique he used to recall this information is referred to as either the method of loci, the memory palace, or the journey method and illustrates the importance of visual imagery in the art of memory.
Memory techniques were also practiced by Cicero (106BC- 43BC), a Roman rhetorician, who believed that memory was a virtue and necessary to moral character. Aristotle (384 - 322 BC), Greek philosopher and scientist, wrote about the importance of memory and, like Simonides before him, used visualisation and the mental placement of images to organise memories. Early Christian monks utilised the art to imprint the Bible into memory, after reading and meditating on its contents, and these methods were passed on to afterbears.
The first known written record of the techniques used in the art of memory was in 86 - 82 BC, penned by and unknown Roman teacher of rhetoric in a manuscript, entitled Ad Hernnium. In the manuscript, the use of colourful and hideous images was promoted as they were easier to recall; however, little detail was provided about the actual techniques themselves because their use was commonplace. The author did elaborate on the beliefs about memory:
‘There are two kinds of memory: one natural; the other, artificial. The natural memory is one which is grafted in our minds, born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory is a memory strengthened or confirmed by training. A good natural memory can be improved by this discipline and persons less well endowed can have their weak memories improved by the art.’
(This is the very reason why there has been rejuvenated interest in the art of memory and a revival of these techniques in recent times; and why we have such a keen desire to share them with others and explore their potential, especially for those with memory problems. We believe the results could be profound).
With the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD), the art of memory was kept alive in the monasteries. In the 1200s, Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Roman priest, philosopher and theologian, promoted the art, to connect the soul and memory, and meditate on virtues of religious devotion and reverence. During the Middle Ages, or medieval times (5th -15th century), mnemonic strategies were used in education and writing, and books were decorated for memorabilia. Paintings and sculptures that appear grotesque, ugly and shocking to the modern eye were crafted, using mnemonic principles, to evoke emotion and enhance memorability.
However, the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1440 led to the mass publication of books and an increase in literacy and access to knowledge. Hence, in the 1500s, the practice of the art of memory declined. Ioan P. Culianu (1950 – 1991), a Romanian historian of religion and culture, offered an additional explanation for this decline, maintaining that mnemonics were suppressed during the Reformation in the 16th century as they were thought to encourage absurd and obscene thoughts through the use of visual imagery and were chastised by Protestants and Catholics, alike. The art of memory still had a scattering of followers, including actors of the Shakespearean Globe Theatre; Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), English philosopher and statesman; and René Descartes (1596 – 1650), the father of modern Western philosophy.
The art of memory was gradually excluded from educational curriculum and rote learning became the norm. This approach was supported in the scientific movement of the 17th century, where information was grouped into categories and memorised through repetition. The art was all but forgotten by academia and the practice of mnemonics became obsolete.
However, in the 19th century, mnemonics were revived in practice as the field of psychology grew (William James, 1890) and ancient works were revisited. Perhaps the most comprehensive history of the art of memory was written by Frances Yates in 1966. She argued that:
The art of memory is a clear case of a marginal subject, not recognised as belonging to any of the normal disciplines, having been omitted because it was no one’s business. And yet, it has turned out to be, in a sense, everyone’s business.
This is discussed further in the Present section.