The forgotten art of memory

  • Themes: Culture

For centuries, mnemonics was valued by societies and cultures across the world. We would be wise to rediscover it.

A system of human knowledge from the ‘Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers’ edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert.
A system of human knowledge from the ‘Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers’ edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. Credit: Universal Art Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Hamlet (1603) is a play obsessed with memory. After his father King Hamlet’s mysterious death, Prince Hamlet is furious that his mother Queen Gertrude marries his uncle Claudius when, as the new king puts it, ‘the memory be green’ of ‘our dear brother’s death’. Polonius lectures his son Laertes to keep his trite ‘precepts in thy memory’.  And Hamlet himself vows to ‘remember’ his father’s death ‘whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe’, promising Old Hamlet’s Ghost that:

… from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain.

Hamlet’s idea of memory as a physical surface, a wax or stone ‘table’ or ‘book’ in which to inscribe, copy, or ‘wipe […] records’, ‘forms’ and impressions (‘pressures’) is a window into a now-forgotten culture of memory. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, people kept commonplace books for noting maxims, sententiae, scraps of poetry, moral and political exempla, witty epigrams, famous historical speeches and anything else worth remembering. Such snippets would be memorised and fetched when necessary to win a debate, impress a superior, court a lover, or simply garnish your reputation for good dinner conversation.

The image of remembrance as a ‘book and volume’ in Shakespeare’s play strikes us as strange because we no longer see memory as an intellectual faculty to be trained or a record of knowledge and experience that must be actively constructed, organised, populated, and continually rewritten. Today, ‘mnemotechnics’ are relegated to the more eccentric precincts of culture, like the World Memory Championships and the sport of competitive memory examined in Joshua Foer’s bestselling 2011 book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, or the endangered London cabbie qualification known as ‘The Knowledge’.

From the Rhetorica ad Herennium (the oldest surviving manual of rhetoric, composed c.late 80s BC) onwards, there was a 2,000-year tradition of ars memoriae (Latin for ‘the art of memory’) dedicated to refining the techniques necessary for the preservation, organisation and recall of information, arguments, memories, and stories.

Indeed, the art of memory might be due a revival. The impacts of the ‘Google effect’ and ‘digital amnesia’ are still being debated by scientists, and the long-term repercussions on our memories of storing everything we need to remember on phones, computers and the internet remain unclear. Ominously, one recent study of ‘Digital dementia in the internet generation’ suggested that ‘excessive screen time during brain development will increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in adulthood’, contributing to both anterograde amnesia (the inability to form new memories) and retrograde amnesia (the loss of old memories).

It is worth remembering, then, that it is only relatively recently that the art of memory passed into oblivion and ceased to play a central role in social, political and educational life. As Frances Yates put it in The Art of Memory (1966), a pathbreaking history of European mnemotechnics from ancient Greece to the 17th century: ‘in the ages before printing a trained memory was vitally important… the history of the organisation of memory touches at vital points on the history of religion and ethics, of philosophy and psychology, of art and literature, of scientific method’.

The origin story of the art of memory is a grisly one, told by Marcus Tullius Cicero in his dialogue De Oratore (‘On the Orator’, 55 BC). Simonides of Ceos was invited to compose and recite a poem at a great feast hosted by a nobleman named Scopas. After Simonides left, the hall caved in, crushing the banqueters so badly their relatives could not recognise them. But Simonides was able to remember where the guests had been sat and thus identify the dead. This gave him the idea that:

Persons desiring to train this faculty [of memory] must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those mental images in the places, so that the order of places will preserve the order of things… and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.

Now we begin to understand that Hamlet’s ‘table of my memory’ is not just a clever metaphor but an example of the remarkable longevity of the ars memoriae tradition. For the Greeks, memory was paramount: Mnemsoyne was not only the Greek goddess of memory, but the mother of the nine muses. The Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey were recited orally using a combination of memorisation, stock figures and devices, and improvisation in performance.

In fact, the oldest mnemotechnic remains the best-known today. Simonides’ ‘loci’ (place or location) method – also used by Aristotle – was refined and expanded over the centuries from a banquet to a house; and from a house to a theatre to a street of buildings through which one journeys through memories. Even the metrical tropes of the Homeric epics, composed in a dactylic hexameter, occupied specific places in the line and on the page, enabling poets to ‘locate’ phrases in their memory, or what Cicero later called the mentis oculi (the ‘mind’s eye’).

The same loci principle underlies Sherlock Holmes’ famous ‘mind palace’ in the 2010-17 BBC series. This method was dominant in medieval and early modern Europe; other techniques included alphabetising memories and symbols and writing aide-memoires to train, test and improve memory, a forerunner of the ‘look, cover, say, write, check’ method used by children today. Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27, first translated as Remembrance of Things Past) is the most famous literary meditation on memory. Proust shows that memory is not only an abstraction of the intellect or a conscious discipline but an unruly, involuntary act of the body, activated by sight, sound, smell and taste.

Europe was not the only part of the world where the art of memory flourished. In Islam, those who memorise and recite the Qurʾān – which contains 77,439 words across more than 6,000 verses – are known as ḥāfiẓ (‘protector’ in Arabic). The practice of hifz goes back to to Muhammad and the Ahl al-Bayt (the Household of the Prophet), who were the first ḥuffāẓ in the decades before an official codex was prepared by Zayd ibn Thābit (one of Muhammad’s scribes) during the reign of the third caliph ʿUthmān (d. 656). Yet this process of codification did not make ḥāfiẓ obsolete – on the contrary, the Arabic word qurʾān itself means ‘recitation’, and the art of hifz continued to thrive as a living tradition for more than 1,400 years. Becoming a ḥāfiẓ remains a great honour today, requiring years of training and constant reinforcement and recitation.

In Australia, indigenous Aboriginal history and culture survived for more than 50,000 years without written alphabetic transmission. One recent study suggests that ‘location-based’ Aboriginal mnemotechnics might be more effective than the Greek ‘loci’ tradition. Indigenous Australians weave information about navigation, food and water sources and tribal territories into topographical and chorographical ‘Songline’ stories. These ancient sung and danced narratives ‘exhibit little variation over long periods of time, and are carefully learned and guarded by the Elders who are its custodians’. New stories are created by ‘incorporat[ing] aspects of the flora, fauna, and physical geography of the local area’ with ‘numerical, spatial, and temporal relationships’. Music and melody, of course, have always been an effective aid to memory, from the songs children use to learn alphabets to impossible-to-forget earworms.

Africa also has a long history of mnemonic culture. In the east of the continent, exact memorisation of oral poetic tradition – without addition, subtraction or improvisation – was highly prized in Somali culture, with the reciter regarded as a ‘memory storage device’. In the west, griots (a combination of historian, poet, political advisor and town crier) were entrusted with the task of memorising and orally transmitting chronicles, pedigrees, legal precedents and cultural traditions. They also travelled extensively, spreading news, propaganda and history to ordinary people. In a non-literature culture, older people were especially valued as embodiments of memory. According to one African proverb: ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.’

Anxieties about the pernicious effects of external storage on internal memory also have a long history. In Plato’s Phaedrus (c.370 BC), Socrates worried that the invention of writing would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves’. Writing, Socrates said, was ‘an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence’. William Caxton, the man who brought printing to England in the late-15th century, thought the opposite. For Caxton, printed history was an extension of the memory: ‘a perpetual conservatrice’ of the past far superior to the limits of the human mind, and therefore the best custodian of tradition.

In December 2023 Google began purging ‘forgotten’ accounts. The metaphor of the ‘cloud’ has led us to forget that our data – the memories we digitally outsource to big tech companies – still exist physically. In reality, Google’s cloud storage differs only in degree rather than in kind from Hamlet’s ‘book and volume of [the] brain’ or Somalia’s poetry reciters. The principle remains the same as it was for Socrates and Caxton: we store memories outside the mind in a place where we can retrieve them when needed. Whatever the effect on our powers of remembrance, it is a shame that we in the West have largely forgotten the art of memory.


Josh Mcloughlin