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A BRIEF HISTORY
From ancient times to the modern age
We may regard memory as one of the humankind's oldest arts. To our ancient ancestors, it was not just a useful aid to survival, but an integral part of daily life. In the absence of the printing press, memory was the slate on which history was recorded. This was how we sorted information to help us make sense of the world. Reference devices were more primitive as well as thinner on the ground, so if facts and figures were to be at the fingertips of the ancients, they had to be remembered a job for intellect and imagination. Throughout this early period of history, a good memory was a prerequisite for success: epic poets, notably Homer, memorized their works long before they were ever written down; and politicians, theologians and philosophers persuaded their audiences by delivering effective and convincing speeches, the memory cues for which were visualized colourfully in their heads. In this chapter we look at how memory has been used and understood through the ages.
As children, and even as adults, some of the most wonderful stories we hear are those of our own ancestry tales that have travelled along the branches of our family tree like an army of determined ants. With each retelling, slight changes may be introduced perhaps an embellishment or exaggeration to hold the wandering attention of a restless young listener, or an invention or two to bridge an awkward gap in the known facts.This is how memories are polished to make them smoother and easier to pass on to others. Yet the basic body of information usually remains broadly intact. By listening to dozens of stories, we accumulate a knowledge of our past. We may look at old family photographs, but without the context that memories whether first- or second-hand supply, such physical records are merely visual ciphers.
If we go way back in time, before the invention of the personal organizer, before we had diaries or even writing, we revisit an age when oral tradition was the only method of passing memories from one generation to the next. Anything not recounted for the benefit of others would disappear from the collective consciousness, forgotten for ever. Hence, enormous importance was placed upon memory among the ancients it was recognized that without memory and reminiscence the cultural heritage would be lost. There were a few libraries in ancient Athens, and there was also a limited book trade, but these were no substitute for a wise man with a good memory.
We all have a vague image of the great epic poet Homer, whose feats of oral storytelling were no less heroic than the Greek and Trojan warriors whose stories he told. Homer no doubt relied on certain well-worn poetic formulae, improvised around a body of familiar material, and may even have used writing as an ancillary aid, at least for the Iliad, which consisted of 16,000 verses and would have taken four or five long evenings to recite. Yet there is no doubt that a spectacular ability to memorize lay at the heart of his skills as a performer.
Homer's great epics would have been somewhat fluid until in due course they were committed to writing. By contrast, in the Vedic tradition of ancient India it was believed that any inaccuracies in the chanting of any of the sacred hymns of the Rigveda would cause an imbalance in the cosmos, with dire consequences for humankind. In order to avoid such a catastrophe, Vedic priests carefully honed their memories so as never to make a mistake, and this has resulted in a highly unusual phenomenon: a scripture, born out of oral tradition, that is believed to be very close to its original, spoken form.
Storytelling is a natural way to spend long winter nights in a village, which is one explanation, as we pass into the Middle Ages, for the myths of northern Europe extended tales of gods, giants, dragons and strange transformations, whose origins are lost to us but certainly belong to an oral tradition. The extreme nature of the subject matter, with its grotesque and magical episodes, made it perfect for memorization an obvious link between the surreal and the memorable that operates in the most effective memory systems today. After all, what could be more vivid than Ragnarok, the last great apocalyptic battle between gods and giants which in the mythology of the Norsemen marks the ending of the world? Once heard, such tales could scarcely be forgotten.
The Ancient Greeks
Mnemonic the word we use for a device that aids the memory is related to the name Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, who was said to have known everything that is past, present and future. She was believed to be the basis of all life and creativity (an association derived from her role as the mother of the Nine Muses, who were the inspiration for all aspects of literature, science and the arts). Moreover, myth tells us that if a mortal were to drink from Lethe, the river of Death, all his or her memories would be lost for ever. From these mythic associations we can deduce that for the ancient Greeks memory was the fount of inspiration, and that its loss was synonymous with death making it a faculty to be held in the highest esteem.
The so-called "father" of memory training was Simonides of Ceos, a Greek lyric poet who lived during the mid 5th-6th centuries BCE. Having delivered a speech at a banquet, Simonides was summoned with a message that two men were waiting outside to see him. As soon as Simonides emerged from the building, the structure collapsed, crushing everyone inside to death. (The two men never appeared, but were said to have been the twin gods Castor and Pollux, who saved Simonides because he had praised them in his speech.) The bodies were too damaged for the families to identify, but by thinking back to where each guest had been seated during the banquet Simonides determined who was who.
In one stroke, Simonides had demonstrated his first principle of memory that of locus, or place. By attaching images of what we need to remember to specific places, such as the rooms of a house or the chairs around a dinner table, we impose a logical structure on a group of items that are otherwise unrelated, thus making them easier to recall. To remember any sequence of data (be they names, a shopping list or points in a speech), a practitioner of the locus technique would mentally retrace their steps through the place in which they imagined the information had been stored. (Interestingly, the English word "topic", meaning a subject or theme, is derived from the Greek topos, a place.)
Although the Greek texts on memory are believed to have been lost long ago, the techniques they taught are preserved in Latin texts written between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE (see p.18). From these we find that the Greeks established and developed many guidelines to ensure the reliable operation of their locus method. For example, they devised the idea that the locus should be somewhere familiar to the memorizer, and that people and actions should be used as much as possible to make any visualizations deposited in the locus more memorable. They believed that the senses had a strong role to play in memorization, especially sight. And the philosopher Aristotle is said to have recognized the importance of association making connections in the mind, which enable us to take short, logical steps when storing and retrieving a memory. We will come across all these ideas later in this book because each of them remains relevant to memory enhancement today.
The Ancient Romans
The ancient Romans, like the Greeks before them, attributed prime importance to memory skills. Citizens were greatly impressed by the memorization feats displayed by trained orators, and were quick to see its value in the political theatre of the times. They believed that memorization was a fundamental component of rhetoric without memorizing the structure of a speech, how could an orator make an impassioned plea or convincing argument?
Perhaps the most famous Roman to write about memory was the great politician and orator Marcus Cicero (106-43BCE), who helped to bring Greek teachings on memory to the Latin world in his work De Oratore ("On Rhetoric"). Quintilian (c.35-c.95CE), too, wrote an influential work called the Institutio Oratoria ("The Fundamentals of Rhetoric"), in which he applies the principles of the locus (see p. 16) to a Roman villa. However, the most complete record of classical memory techniques appears in the Ad Herennium (c.85BCE), which predates the Cicero and Quintilian texts it is said to have been written by a young (unnamed) boy. The techniques described in all three works draw largely upon those of the Greeks, but the Ad Herennium makes a unique, important distinction about types of memory, which both Cicero and Quintilian maintained: each of us has natural memory (our innate ability to memorize) but this can be improved through artificial memory that is, memory techniques. According to Cicero, we all require our own individual levels of help from artificial memory. He himself had a good natural memory and could orate non-stop for three hours at a time, but he modestly claimed that even his memory had to be supplemented by artifice.
Memory's Changing Fortunes
During the Middle Ages a new perception emerged of the benefits of learning memory skills. The scholastics (medieval academics) adapted classical memory techniques to teach religion and ethics. The missionary Matteo Ricci used memory training as a vehicle to teach Christianity to the Chinese. Closer to home, the purpose of remembering the past was to inspire prudent conduct in the present and future. In addition, imagery was seen as important in bringing to life the vices and virtues many of the preachers used vivid details during their sermons. These images were easy to lodge in the minds of listeners, to keep the hope of heaven, the fear of hell and the lessons of the Church uppermost in people's minds.
During the Renaissance, with its resurgence of interest in classical traditions and its general spirit of humanistic inquiry, there was a blossoming of interest in memory as well as the arts and science. Memory techniques were no longer the sole province of religion in fact, the pendulum had swung back, and some people even considered these methods to be the Devil's own work. Memory theorists such as Guilio Camillo (1480-1544) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) adopted Plato's theory that through memory humankind could transcend life and death and join with the divine. They believed that by using memory we could understand the mind of God and interpret the order of nature. Camillo invented a series of elaborate "memory theatres" (see box, p.19), while Bruno stated that the key to reaching the divine was in the organization of the mind and its locked memories. Bruno devised many memory systems, finally completing a series of memory wheels. These wheels were seen as microcosms of the heavens, and showed the orbits of stars and planets. On them he placed symbols of the arts, languages and sciences, and used his sensory associations to lodge images and facts related to these symbols in his mind. Then, while he observed the sky, the images he had associated with the heavens would be committed to memory and the brain would make order of the world. Branded a heretic, Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600.
In the ensuing centuries, as scientific endeavour rose to prominence, the art of memory no longer commanded such intense interest, yet the use of memory techniques never fully disappeared. In the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, people sought to understand how the world worked. The emphasis was on discovering the harmonious system that lay behind nature and human mind. The study of memory became part of a general investigation into biological science. People concentrated on discovering how the brain retained memories. This scientific preoccupation meant that memory techniques involving creativity were largely rejected and the idea that a good memory was a mark of brilliance began to falter.
In the nineteenth century, memory was seen not so much as a mysterious and spiritual phenomenon but as an empty vessel that could be filled by mechanical learning and repetition of facts. This is the view behind the popular image of the Victorian schoolmaster, driving facts into his pupils' minds by hammer blows of repetition. Rote learning became the basis of educational systems (and, to some extent, still remains an important factor in schools today). This reflected an ethic of hard work, an unwillingness to believe in shortcuts, and, in the great age of scientific and industrial advance, a profound suspicion of the imagination.
Giulio Camillo's Memory Theatre
During the 16th century the Italian philosopher Giulio Camillo achieved great fame for his memory theatres, the purpose of which were to awaken the mind to the memory of lost divinity. Instead of simply describing an imaginary theatre, he conceived, designed and built actual, wooden ones and exhibited them throughout Italy and France, where they stimulated great interest.
Each theatre war large enough for two people to stand on its central stage, and the audience chambers were filled with ornate columns and statues of the gods, to represent "all that the mind can conceive and all that is hidden in the soul." Camillo claimed that a speech worthy of Cicero could be memorized by mentally placing its key points on the statues and columns in the theatre.
Memory in Modern Times
The twentieth century has seen a shift in the study of memory. Instead of looking for ways to improve our memories (for example, to build skills that will further our politicial ambitions), scientific advances have taken us toward a better understanding of how memories are formed and stored in the brain. One of the most remarkable memory studies was undertaken by the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria between 1920 and 1950. His subject was a journalist named Shereshevsky, known simply as "S", who confounded his colleagues by never taking notes at editorial meetings. He did not need to: he could remember every word, name, date and telephone number that he was told. As Luria tested S with increasingly complex data, all of which S could remember years later, it transpired that S accomplished his amazing feats by translating everything he heard into strong mental images or sensual experiences. But S was not doing this purposely he had a condition called synesthesia, in which the boundaries of the senses sporadically become blurred, so that he might read the word "door" and experience a salty taste or see the colour red. The condition goes some way to proving how using the senses during memorization can create a series of imaginative pegs on which to hang pieces of information.
Since S's time, psychologists have studied many hundreds of other subjects, some with unusual memory defects or abilities, most with normal memory function and capacity. Their research has yielded several theories on the way in which memory works. Although many aspects of memory's physiology remain a mystery, we are increasingly aware of how well designed were the techniques used by the ancient Greeks and Romans how well adapted to the functioning of the human brain.
Recently, perhaps the most influential development in memory has occurred not in the human mind but in machines. Our memory skills have become neglected as we increasingly rely upon external means of recording information from the video to the personal organizer. We rate our computers by the size of their "memory" and the speed with which they access it. We marvel at the versatility of the internet. Yet we neglect to realize the full potential that our own brains possess. Memory skills are not taught in schools, yet memory is still tested in examinations. Most people do not know that memory can be extended by techniques anyone can master. We must look back to the ancients and revive their faith in the mind.
The Memory Chip
The computer analogy is often used to explain the workings of memory. But is this really accurate? One distinction between human and computer memory is the relative ability of each to evaluate information. Once a computer has stored data, so long as it is given the appropriate retrieval cues, the computer will bring back that information perfectly in its most recently inputted form. In human memory, the information that we store and retrieve is subjective it is susceptible to mood, opinion, upbringing, and a host of other social factors.
One other difference between computer and human memory is our ability to remember layers of data in the same mental "document". In a computer's memory, of course, once data is overwritten, that information is lost for ever.