The Nature, Science, and Art of Memory (and uses for its improvement)

Written by Barry Beck

If we remembered everything, we'd be as ill-off as if we remembered nothing. - William James

How can we enhance our retention of information? Is it a important that we do so? Can there ever be too much information and data at the cost of wisdom and the discovery of the best solutions? Is the trend toward the maintenance of all our information by computers making it less necessary that we remember every little item, such as phone numbers? Grammar, spelling, and writing abilities appear to be declining. Has anything comparable to this ever occurred before in human history?

These are two intriguing books on the subject: The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates, written almost fifty years ago and the more recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. I will summarize them and add some concepts about literacy and the development of books (from scrolls to codex to digital.)

We will include some ideas about memory, its nature and the history of its comprehension. Then we will associate this with the evolution of literacy and forms of books; and with aspects of OCD (rituals, counting tricks, repetition, in use not of the minutia with which it is often associated, but rather its potential with pertinent practical memorization.) Also an examination of acronyms, mnemonic devices, poetry, mind mapping, and most importantly, techniques understood by ancient scholars and orators such as the method of loci and memory palaces.

In ancient times before the advent of literacy, certain people within tribes and nations had better memories than we do today. A few had astounding recall. They could remember and pass on through the generations long elaborate tribal genealogies or tales as long as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and the Bible with little or no change for hundreds of years. Greek and Roman orators could give well-planned memorized speeches lasting for hours.

A rudimentary timeline: cuneiform picture and phonetic writing (3500 BCE) / alphabets (2000 BCE) / administrative writing (1300 BCE) - - In the eighth century BCE, literacy changed from practical and business, and administrative to law, stories, customs, and literature. (The Bible and Homeric tales were first written down in eighth century BCE, after centuries of oral transmission.)

Early mnemonic devices utilized to aid in memorization involved imagining images that suggested words or thoughts. Strategies included envisioning the room the speech will be delivered in while memorizing the speech, and tying each section of the speech to a different part of that room. The speaker could then visualize the room to help him remember different sections of the speech.

There are hints of this in Homer and the Bible (i.e., evidence of where changes in the content occurred and where it didn't.)

In Europe, as levels of literacy and communication began to decline in early medieval times, languages started to differentiate. Most illiterate people in the early middle ages were unaware that languages (such as French, Spanish, and Italian) were drifting apart from Latin. For example, most people in France thought they were still speaking Latin in 700 CE. More exactness and stability in language and literacy came (in English) with the King James Bible and Shakespeare [four centuries ago for English Dictionary standardizing and stabilizing exact meanings, context, spelling], (in Italian) with Danté's Divine Comedy, and (in Spanish) with Cervantes' Don Quixote (just as in the twentieth century cinema, radio and TV mitigated regional accents and stabilized and further standardized languages.)

Developments toward writing, alphabet, scroll, codex (scarcity of paper and expense until printing press; with binding codex.) Now, the movement is toward digital.

The development of books from scroll to codex to digital: In fifth century BCE, during the time of Socrates, reading and writing were not widely used; memory was considered more reliable. Books (in the form of scrolls) were different in form and function than today. This was prior to indexes, tables of content, punctuation, and other aspects of a book that we take for granted. The codex parceled text into pages bound at the edge during the second and third centuries CE. But this was still before punctuation marks, lowercase letters, and even spaces between words (due to the value and scarcity of paper.) Today we do not need memory as much, but through the late middle ages, books served not as replacements for memory. Scrolls and early codex books were difficult to access and research to find exact spots and references, so superior memories were still essential. That is, even with the aid of a written scroll, an extraordinary memory was required by orators and scholars to know the areas of research. Therefore, the relationship between reading and memory was different. This continued until the advent (in Europe, from 800 to 1600) of inclusions of the tables of contents, indexes, spaces, punctuation, vowels, and both upper & lower case letters. Specifically, spaces between words and a richer variety of punctuation arrived in the 9th century, paragraphs, page numbers, and chapter divisions came in the 13th century, and binding with titles facing outward on a bookshelf in the 16th century. Rules of spelling and grammar uniformity began in the seventeenth century. An alphabetic index within a book was unknown until the seventeenth century, though the concept for organizing libraries alphabetically had existed almost two thousand years earlier.

One of the last similar parallels today reminiscent of earlier times is the reading from the torah in synagogues (a scroll without vowels or punctuation.) The reader must be familiar with its content before reading from it.

Plato's argument against written speeches in the Phaedrus is concerned with memory. Socrates and Plato believed that once speeches are memorized from a written text, that memory is no longer important, because the person reciting can always refer to the text when in doubt as to a part of the speech. Learning a speech from a written text creates a reliance on physical memory instead of an intellectual memory.

Analogous to today's concerns about receiving information from the Internet contributing to shorter memory spans and lessening our standards of learning, Socrates and Plato believed that the increasing reliance on reading and writing over memory was a negative trend. They believed literacy and books accumulated information, but were not facilitating memory; and that people were just amassing facts without understanding them. This is why Socrates did not write down his lessons and the reason that Plato wrote in the form of dialogues - listening and interacting were essential. The intention was not just learning - it was experiencing the lesson.

Language, literacy and how we perceive and remember them shape our experience of reality. With the advantages of literacy, we surrendered aspects of memory. So now with computer literacy, are we losing abilities in expression, grammar and spelling as well as memory? Perhaps we are also changing the manner that we reason and process our thoughts... just as we did with the advent of literacy.

More concepts on literacy and memory from Socrates and Plato


Artificial memory - concept and mind maps - sight is most remembered of the senses - sight-location - images-places-architecture - when emotion is involved, there is more remembrance. - Using the method of loci (memory palaces), places (within the visualized architecture) are like paper, images are suggestive of letters, arrangement and disposition of images are evocative of script. Delivery of the information becomes like reading. Emotional attachment, as a song from youth, brings up people, places, and feelings of the time period. RAM memory. Excerpts in literature on the nature of changing memory through an individual's life and through history.)

Memory palace / Method of loci - a technique for memorizing that was practiced in classical antiquity. It is a type of mnemonic link system based on places (loci, locations), used most often in cases where long lists of items are concerned. Loci were physical locations, usually in a familiar large public building, such as a market or a temple. To utilize this method, one walked through the building several times, viewing distinct places within it, in the same order each time. After a few repetitions of this, one could reliably remember and visualize each of the places in its proper order. To memorize a speech, one breaks it up into pieces, each of which is symbolized by vividly imagined objects or symbols. In the mind's eye, one then places each of these images into different loci. They can then be recalled in order by imagining that one is walking through the building again, visiting each of the loci in order, and viewing each of the images that were placed in the loci, thereby recalling each piece of memory. Example - http://www.ba.infn.it/~zito/loci.html

Method of loci, mnemotechnics - indications of this is in an expression such as: "in the first place" and in the etymology of words like "topography" and "topic". Evidence is also in the very choice of poetry. Aside from its aestheticism, poetry is a facilitation for memory. The medium is part of the message; not just knowledge but methodology. The very form, structure, organization, arrangement of stanzas, measures and verse forms… of types of metre, and particular preferences of adjectives and accents… the wordplay, the pun... formulaic redundancy and incantations... all have a function. The ancients understood metaphors, the figurative, and the unconscious much more than we think. Literal comprehension of events and actions is more our modern assumption.

Mnemonic devices and acronyms - MVEMJSUNP (order of planets,) HOMES (the Great Lakes.) Ancients before the printing press and literacy (alphabets, writing, reading) remembering Homer, Bible, long passages, genealogies (computer implications)

Memory as a canon and the ability to memorize and remember speeches - The Romans divided memory into two classifications: natural memory and artificial memory. Aristotle in On Memory and Reminiscence stressed the importance of visual cues and memory; he argued that memory needs a visual image to function. He goes on to discuss how memories are tied together; one memory leads to another through association: the basis for artificial memory.



History as an Art of Memory - Frances Yates according Patrick H. Hutton

The Art of Memory - according to Ad Herennium by Frances Yates

The premise of these thoughts about memory has informed and governed our perceptions as has the nature of literacy and the different mediums of writing and books (scroll, codex, books.)

Let's also examine the additional effect of innumeracy (the inability of or unfamiliarity with mathematics or numbering systems) - European numeracy as well as literacy declined in the early Middle Ages (sixth to eleventh century) until Hindu-Arabic decimal numerals and the concept of zero appear in Europe by way of Spain.

New Math: The 'Countinghouse Theory' and the Medieval Revival of Arithmetic

The link above is to an article illuminating the history of mathematics before and during the introduction of numerals. This is crucial for our current reappraisal of a profound impact on later changes in memory and literacy.

"The human species has had a recognizable concept of abstract numbers for at most 8,000 years. Formal, symbolic mathematics with equations, theorems, and proofs is little more than 2,500 years old. Calculus was developed in the seventeenth century; negative numbers came into widespread use in the eighteenth, and modern abstract algebra, where symbols like x, y, and z denote arbitrary entities, is a mere 150 years old." - Keith Devlin.

"Abstract ideas and concrete realities were once interwoven and interdependent to such an extent that no significant wedge could be driven between them. For the ancients and the medievals, symbolic meanings of things assumed a natural significance that rests upon associations of ideas that we no longer possess." - John D. Barrow.

"We moderns who have no memories at all may [...] employ from time to time some private mnemotechnic not of vital importance to us in our lives and professions. But in the ancient world, devoid of printing, without paper for note-taking or on which to type lectures, the trained memory was of vital importance. And the ancient memories were trained by an art which reflected the art and architecture of the ancient world, which could depend on faculties of intense visual memorisation which we have lost. The word 'mnemotechnics', though not actually wrong as a description of the classical art of memory, makes this very mysterious subject seem simpler than it is." - Frances Yates on the classical vs. the modern art of memory.


_________Under Construction_________ ____________________


New York Public Library Resources:


Mnemonic Devices:

Next let's ascertain if digital changes taking place now can successfully explain or predict future changes.



Earlier I mentioned the relation of memory and OCD. On 60 Minutes, there was a segment on "superior autobiographical memory." Part of it discussed the relation of memory, OCD, and emotion and that the same parts of the brain are enlarged in people with superior memories and people with OCD.

Description, video, and transcript of the 60 Minutes segment.

This is the specific part of that segment that delved into a correlation between memory and OCD.


Topics in Personal and Collective Memory

Topics Associated in Memory, Media, Language and Mind:

Noam Chomsky - Language and Mind

Marshall McLuhan - Understanding Media

Plato in the Light of Yoga

Earliest Photograph of a Person - 1838






Theory in Memory - (four above combined)

Method of Loci


Let me just insert an alternate way to perceive this. Perhaps like the Architect in Inception or The Matrix movies, you, the dreamer or subject, are projecting and creating a world or structure in advance and later, for different fluid and varying flexible situations, you are populating it with the objects of the individual requirement specific for your need (theme, speech, report to be created) as in a lucid dream.


Since the late twentieth century....



Self-examination and a study of history, art, literature, philosophy, psychology, religion, ideas and concepts can help to give one confidence, patience, tolerance, intelligence, health, success, peace of mind and a sense of one's meaning, place and purpose. This can help to dissipate doubts, fears, inferiorities and other obstacles. Every word is a new idea and every idea gives you another choice and another opportunity. Learning and its retention is of two kinds - Knowledge we learn and know - and Training to teach us to find what we don't know. All this can help expand your choices, options, ideas, horizons and view of reality.



Aristotle - On Memory and Reminiscence
Barrow, John D. - Pi in the Sky: Counting, Thinking, and Being
CBS News - 60 Minutes - The Gift of Endless Memory - December 19, 2010
Critchley, Simon - Memory Theatre
Devlin, Keith - The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers are Like Gossip
Foer, Joshua - Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Gleick, James - The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
Gold, Jeffrey - Plato in the Light of Yoga: Philosophy East & West
Hutton, Patrick H. - History as an Art of Memory
Levitin, Daniel J. - The Organized Mind: How to Put Things in Place, Focus on What Matters, and Live Well
Marinoff, Lou - Plato, Not Prozac: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems
McLuhan, Marshall - Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Rawlings, Gertrude Burford - The Story of Books
Rickard, John S. - Joyce's Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnic of Ulysses
Sachs, Stephen E. - New Math: The 'Countinghouse Theory' and the Medieval Revival of Arithmetic
Spence, Jonathan D. - The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
Yates, Francis - The Art of Memory



The Nature, Science, and Art of Memory  

by Barry Beck

Copyright © 2019. Barry Beck. All Rights Reserved.


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