The Classical Art of Memory

April 10, 2012 Memory

There was a time when human memory systems were treasured and cultivated. The technology of memorization was taught in the rhetoric classes and was deemed to be integral to public speech. Those days have long past and we trial lawyers are the poorer for it. The ancient art discovered by Simonides of Ceos is today an anachronism.

The classical art of memory is a set of techniques invented in ancient Greece. These techniques were used by the Greeks; by the African Griots; by St.Thomas Aquinas; by Cicero and other famous orators to memorize their speeches. The technology requires creating mental imagery so colorful, bizarre and shocking that it’s unlikely to be forgotten. That is why this skill is as much about creativity as memory.

Our modern world is filled with iPads, iPods, and smart phones. When we want any type of information it is only a Google search away. Obviously these are wonderful devices which assist our business every day, but one unintended side effect of all these devices is that we no longer seek memory training. We have lost the valuable ability to mentally store ideas, speeches, and poetry and to dredge them up when needed.

The ancients invested time into their memories, and cultivated them. Today, we have outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories.

This is not a great loss to most people because they don’t need this ability. However trial lawyers and public speakers are among the few who can benefit from memory training which brings the prized ability to speak without hiding behind a lectern and being a slave to notes and outlines.

This is a fertile area for trial lawyers. There are certain things we should have at our fingertips: rule numbers, case names and set pieces like describing reasonable doubt, presumption of innocence or the peroration. We know we will need to access them many times in our careers, so why not memorize them early on? It seems pretty efficient. While it is a little late for me, but the right time for most of you.

For quite a while I had an interest in memory training, but I didn’t have the perseverance to work on it. Instead I relied on the rote memory technique of repeating things in my mind until I could bring them back up. This is a highly inefficient way of memorizing and doesn’t last very long.

I spent a year at an old-fashioned english public school. They still used Victorian methods of teaching. The master pounded facts into our heads until we remembered them. Needless to say this was an unpleasant experience and it didn’t work very well. Repeating facts over and over again until memorized has been largely discredited in modern systems of education. We were lucky if we remembered these “facts” until the next exam.

Once again I decided to study the memory arts because of a recent success. I had memorized a short speech using the ancient loci method, and it worked splendidly. So I got back in the game by reading Joshua Forer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” (Penguin Press). Forer is a journalist who became mesmerized by the contestants he was covering in the U.S. Memory Championships. He trained himself in their techniques and the next year he won the championship. In the book, he takes us through his learning process. Although this is not a how-to book, readers will, nevertheless, get an excellent introduction to the technology.

Understanding memory

Developing a sticky memory involves mastering the technique combined with a basic understanding how our memories work. Everyone has the potential of a powerful memory but, despite legend, no one has a photographic memory.

Most impressions that enter our brains don’t need to be remembered more than a few seconds. We just have to react to them. This short term memory is severely limited. If we remembered everything, our minds would be quickly overwhelmed. Short term memory is like the memory cache in your CPU. Long term memory is the hard drive. The memory technology is designed to make short term stick and enter into our long term memory which can last for decades.

Our short term memory stores thoughts for 20 to 30 seconds only. The transfer of the thoughts from short to long term memory is called consolidation. Association and rehearsal turns short term into long term. So what is the technology to consolidate memories?


Mnemonics refers to artifical memory techniques such as rhymes, patterns, acrostics, acronyms and more sophisticated systems such as Link, Loci, Peg and Phonetic systems. For speeches the best systems are the Link and the Loci systems and the Loci is far superior for our purposes. Later I will outline the Memory Palace system which is the best of the Loci systems.

Memory is based on three processes: making it memorable; finding a place to store it; and being able to bring it back when needed. There is a distinction between natural memory and artificial memory: natural memory is that memory which is embedded in our minds, born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory, which we are interested in, is that memory which is strengthened by training and discipline. It is called artifical because it is created through memory techniques like the memory palace.

Human evolution explains why the Greek method works. Our brains are effective in dealing with sensory data. By correctly interpreting the five senses, our minds understand the environment and makes decisions. Among our senses, sight is the most sophisticated and developed of all. “..half of the human brain is devoted directly or indirectly to vision..” said Professor Mriganka Sur of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. For that reason, our brains are extremely effective in storing and processing images; especially of concrete, real world objects.

Trying to memorize abstract symbols, such as words printed on a page, is unnatural and inefficient. Words are useful units of communication, but they are not how our brains optimally process information. When you think of a cow your brain brings up the image of a cow not the letters: C O W. So images are our mental language not words.

The development of artificial memory has two components: images and places. The image is what we want to remember, the place is where the image is stored. It is a combination of visual memory and spatial navigation. Two things our brains are good at. You have probably used this method in the past without realizing it. Perhaps you lost something and you mentally re-trace your steps to find it. You go back to each place you were and try to think if you left it there. This works because our brains naturally work this way.

“Loci” is Greek for “locations.” The ancient Greek orators used the loci method to recall each point of a speech in its proper order. This involves mentally moving through a familiar place and storing each image to be recalled later in a specific place. This is a type of anchoring. During the speech, the orator would mentally visit each location in turn and mentally retrieve the item.

The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace technique is based on the evolutionary fact that we are extremely good at remembering places we know. A ‘Memory Palace’ is any well-known place that you’re able to easily visualize. It can be inside your home, your school, your work place or the route you take to work. That familiar place will be your guide to store and recall any kind of information. Let’s see how it works.

Find a specific route in your home. Motion is memorable so visualize walking the route. This will help you keep the items in proper order as you move through your route. Look for distinctive features to use as places. It might start with the front door, move to an entrance table, a picture, the sofa etc. Use places that catch your attention.

Now that you have the loci it is time to work on the images. The Memory Palace system works through visual association. Take the loci and combine it with the image you want to remember.

The creative part is in the images. The visual association has to be strong for this to work. Here is the best description I have read on images:

“Make it crazy, ridiculous, offensive, unusual, extraordinary, animated, nonsensical — after all, these are the things that get remembered, aren’t they? Make the scene so unique that it could never happen in real life. The only rule is: if it’s boring, it’s wrong.”

What sticks in the cells of our brains are disgusting, bizarre and novel images. We forget things because they are unexciting and dull. Imagination and memory work together. The more vivid and surreal the image the easier it is to recall.

Putting this to Work

Using the Memory Palace method, I decided to memorize the Rudyard Kipling poem “If.” I didn’t want to learn every single word, only the most important word in a line. This is how we memorize speeches. Cicero stated the best way to remember a speech was not word by word but point by point by creating an image for each major topic.

The first line of the poem goes like this:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you;”

The most important word is head. So I started at the front gate to my driveway and imagined Adolf Hitler’s head impaled on it surrounded by brimstone and fire. I could feel the heat and smell him burning. This is a memorable image which allows me to recall “head” on the beginning of my journey. I won’t go through the rest since bizarre sexual images help men remember more than any other. Ludicrous and bizarre images must be used for this to work. Next I walk to my front door and have an image for “trust” which prompts the next line. I go quite deep in the house for all the lines.

The great talent of the mnemonists is the creation of bizarre images on the fly so they won’t be forgotten. That is why at the beginning of this piece I said creativity is the important skill. At the championships, they memorize several decks of cards by seeing each one for only a moment. They can flash the bizarre images almost immediately to set the memory of the card in their minds and then recall them in perfect order.


In order for this to work, you must be like the mental athletes in the memory championships and push your memory as hard and as far as you can.

This last Sunday I tried out the Memory Palace technology and worked on the poem  by Kipling. As I related, I picked out the main word in each sentence and placed them on a journey through the first floor of my house. It took about 15 minutes to capture the poem. The words other than the topic ones I had to use rote memory. I thought it too much work to visualize every word. Try this yourself.

I recommend you spend about 15 minutes a day working on your memory techniques. Start a conscious program of memory training. Perhaps to remember a poem or a quotation and store it in your long term memory.  Just as with everything else the more you practice these techniques the better you will perform them.

I also decided to start teaching this system in my UM law class to give the students an introduction to memory training. When I started this blog, I wrote that the main reason was to work on things I wanted to learn or improve on. I wrote this piece to be sure I grasped how the system worked. Perhaps my description is not good enough to get you started, so let me recommend the following books I read this last week besides “Moonwalking with Einstein”:

“The Art of Memory” by Frances A. Yates
“The Mind of a Mnemonist” by A. R. Luria
“The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” by Jonathan D. Spence

“Your Memory How It Works And How To Improve It” by Kenneth L. Higbee

“Learn to Remember” by Dominic O’Brien

“The Memory Book” by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas