Quick history about the Art of Memory.

The Art of Memory (AoM) is a collection of mnemonic techniques. It remains the main method to remember information from the classical period of Simonides of Ceos in Ancient Greece to the renaissance era of hermeticism with Giordano Bruno. These techniques were almost universally practised by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of creativity. Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mind of a trained mnemonist.  Appropriately, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses.[1] It was common for orators  to memorise their speeches or any other items by imagining a journey (perhaps from their doorstep to the fora) and mentally tracing their steps to recall each articles or paragraphs associated to an image, they would have place along.  Those techniques can be synthesized with the three pillars of memory: Imagination, Association and Location. Imagination and Association gives memory (IAM)[2] . Location gives the flow.

The three pillars of the AoM

Memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks. They became the principal method by which Monks would meditate upon the bible after committing it to memory.  Safe within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries, the art of memory made it through to the later Middle Ages. By The Renaissance, mnemonic training was taught to almost all students, alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic.  Even the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and the relative availability of books had little effect on the status of a trained memory; books were considered aids to recall rather than a replacement for a well-stocked mind.  The Renaissance did however give rise to a technological trend that would eventually contribute to the decline of the AoM. As far back as 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo published a book outlining plans for construction of what he called a memory theatre. Only a few years after Camillo published his plans, the AoM became the target of religious persecutions that signalled its decline and eventual removal from education systems.  In 1584 in England, the Puritans launched a fervent campaign against the AoM because of its frequent use of sexual, violent and absurd thoughts.  Memory in education eventually turned a full 180 degrees.  Mnemonic practice, which depended on the creative and mindful painting of mental pictures, was replaced with rote learning and repetition.  Memorization went from being an intrinsically rewarding activity to being a task that elicited boredom at best, and reluctance at worst. [1]

TheTheater Fludd
Fludd’s theater, “The Art of Memory” F. Yates

It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published “The Art of Memory”[3] in 1966 that those techniques once again caught the public imagination. Today, although those  mnemonic techniques are mainly used by memory athletes, numbers of authors like Tony Buzan [4] and Joshua Foer made them available to everyone.

1. Kilov, D. (2012) “The Rise and Fall of Remembering” Issue 398, Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
2. Buzan, T.(2010) “The Memory Book”
3. Yates, F. (1966) “The Art of Memory”
4. Foer, J. (2008) “Moonwalking with Einstein”

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