What the Ancients Can Teach Us About How to Remember

What the Ancients Can Teach Us About How to Remember

Why you should care

Because remembering things is something of a lost art for humanity.

The origin of the art of human remembering starts with a very memorable story. According to a legend reported by Cicero, the ancient Greek poet Simonides invented a powerful mnemonic technique after witnessing a horrible tragedy. After delivering a poem before a packed banquet crowd in Thessaly, Simonides stepped outside for a moment. While he was gone, the roof of the hall suddenly collapsed, crushing most of the diners under its weight, many beyond recognition.

When it came time to identify the remains, Simonides was called upon to help. He found that he was able to identify the bodies easily based upon their location in the hall, which he had observed while delivering his poem. Simonides’ accompanying realization — that memory could be so closely tied to a physical location in space — became the basis for perhaps the most famous mnemonic device in history, often called the memory palace or the loci method. In ancient Greece and Rome, subsequent scholars like Cicero developed elaborate memorization techniques to remember lengthy stories and speeches. Those techniques profoundly shaped the world and how people learned from antiquity to the Renaissance. Then, they all but disappeared.

Our memories feed on context.

In an age of smartphones, search engines and external memory aids, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t long ago that a good memory was essential to being an educated person. And, in many ways, our brains are built to be used in this way, even if we often opt not to do so today. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed in two types of memory: natural and artificial. The former was innate, but the latter faculty could be developed through training. And so they refined the loci method and other techniques using rules and instruction manuals to help senators, statesmen and performers remember lengthy speeches, poems and stories. Such methods proliferated during the Middle Ages as a means for the pious to commit to memory religious texts and long portions of the Holy Scriptures. Memory training came to be regarded as a required element of education.

The essence of each of these techniques centered around building rich associations in the mind. It’s hard to remember isolated facts, figures and data points, but when they’re tied to a broader network of associations, the more likely such data will be to stick in the memory. Our memories feed on context, and one of the most powerful contexts — perhaps because our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied so heavily on recalling details of locations — is physical space. The loci method, used by ancient orators to memorize the order of long speeches, typically involves visualizing the layout of a well-known building, and then assigning the item of information being stored to a virtual location, such as a room in that building (your “memory palace”). So, one way of remembering a long grocery list, for example, might be to assign each item to a room in your house so that when you imagine walking through your house, you can more readily recall those items. (Sherlock Holmes famously employed this method in the recent BBC TV series Sherlock.)

Not all mnemonic devices rely on location to provide context. Another classical method is known as the peg-word technique. A simple example of this, says Henry Roediger, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of Make It Stick, is the number-rhyme mnemonic. So 1 is a gun, 2 is a shoe and so on. “The idea is to associate the first item given — car — to the first pre-memorized peg word — gun — in an interactive image: a gun shooting a car,” says Roediger. “Do that kind of image for all 20 items on a list. Images are powerful and well-remembered.”

Mnemonic devices fell out of favor well before the age of the smartphone. As early as the 15th century, with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, it was no longer as necessary to remember what the printed page could record for you. And by the 19th century, the same memory techniques that had once been at the core of a classical education were becoming the stuff of carnival sideshows or, in more recent decades, of international memory competitions.

Today, we need mnemonic devices arguably less than ever, especially the more reliant we become on smartphones and search engines. “Our research indicates that people offload their thinking to the smartphone,” says Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Regina, and co-author of a 2015 study on how smartphones affect our thinking. “In terms of memory, what this means is that, instead of attempting to conjure something from memory, people will use their smartphone.”

This is a phenomenon that has occurred many times before in human history, and even well before the printing press. Socrates himself warned about how the act of just writing things down harms human memory: “[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,” the philosopher argued in an eerily prescient observation. “[T]hey will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Of course, we only know about Socrates’ own words because disciples of his like Plato decided to write them down. At least, I think that’s the case. I would have to look it up to be sure.

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