Placing The Memory

IN a previous chapter I have mentioned that the Greek poet Simonides had the idea of symbolizing complex or abstract ideas so as to remember them easily. The examples I took were from a hypothetical discourse in which government, financial matters and naval affairs and the necessity for wisdom in the policy of the time, would be represented respectively by a crown or sceptre, a current coin, the image of a ship, and the figure of Minerva.

We are also indebted to him for the idea of using places or positions in which to put ideas for safe-keeping in the mind, much as we put papers in pigeon-holes or files.

Suppose that we provide our places in a house which is quite familiar to us. Then, if we enter our house at the front door and number all the objects we see in turn—the doormat I, the brass step 2, a picture 3, a hatrack 4, an umbrella stand 5, and so on—we have at once a basis for remembering a large number of things in order.

In the discourse above mentioned we might place the crown on the doormat, the coin on the brass step, the ship in the picture, a statue of Minerva on the hatrack, and so on. Thus the speaker could avoid missing any of them in the course of his speech or debate.

The incident which led Simonides to this mnemonic device of places is related as follows by Cicero. I have taken it from Dr. Pick's History of Mnemonics (1866).

"A man named Skopas, at Kranon, in Thessalia, once gave a grand dinner in honour of a victorious gladiator. Among the guests was the poet Simonides, who, during the repast, recited some verses he had composed in honour of the hero of the feast. After his recitation, he was called outside, and had scarcely left the room, when the ceiling fell in, crushing Skopas and all his guests. When the relatives of the killed came to bury the remains, they found them so smashed and disfigured, that they could not distinguish one body from another. It happened, however, that Simonides had observed the place which each person had occupied; and on looking at the several places, he was able to identify all the bodies. This led him to believe that nothing could better assist the memory than to retain in the mind certain fixed places, and therein to deposit, with the assistance of the imagination, whatever we intend to keep in our memory."

The following extract from Quintilian shows how the idea was used among the ancients—

"You choose a very spacious and diversely arranged place —a large house, for instance, divided into several apartments. You impress on the mind with care whatever is remarkable in it; so that the mind may run through all the parts without hesitation or delay; for the essential is not to hesitate before the objects, as remembrances destined to help other remembrances should be more than sure. Moreover, for recalling to mind what you have written or simply meditated, you help yourself with any sign borrowed from the matter you have to treat of—if the object should be one of war, navigation, or the like; or with some word, for a word suffices to refresh the memory, as soon as it begins to fail. If the object is navigation, the sign will be an anchor; if it is war, it will be a weapon.

"Then you proceed as follows: you place the first idea in the hall, the second in the parlour, and so on with the rest, going over the windows, the chambers, to the statues and similar objects. This done, if the object is to apply that proceeding to the memory, you look over every apartment, beginning with the first, and recalling at every picture the idea which was confided to it; so that, howsoever numerous the things may be which are to be kept in mind, they are put in a row, and form a sort of chain, which prevents the confusion to which you are exposed when bound to learn by heart. You can create for yourself imaginary places."

In another place Quintilian said that in place of a house, which might not contain enough things to act as pegs or places (quite possible in his day, I suppose, though hardly likely now), we may assume a public building, the walls of a city, or a well-known road, to divisions of which we may refer our symbols.

Metrodorus assumed the circle of the zodiac, divided into 360 compartments of a degree each—but that in my opinion would not provide a background of sufficiently vivid quality. The common things of daily life, or the incidents of mythology or history are far more vivid and facile for any but an extraordinary mind.

The process of locating ideas (by means of symbols and otherwise) in familiar objects underwent numerous changes in the course of the centuries that followed. I need not detail these but will content myself with a brief description of the adaptation made by Gregor von Feinaigle.

In this later development an imaginary house is taken as having a number of rooms, and each room as having fifty places, arranged in the following manner: the floor is divided into nine equal squares, and each wall is divided similarly into nine, with, however, a tenth in the centre above it upon the ceiling, while another square in the centre of the ceiling makes the fiftieth square in the room.

You enter at one side, and find before you nine squares on the floor; then, on your left hand is a wall with the tenth square on the ceiling above, and squares 11 to 19 on the wall ; in front of you a similar set from 20 to 29; on the right another, from 30 to 39; beside you another, from 40 to 49; while number 50 lies above you in the middle of the ceiling.

Having fixed your walls, it is better to take a walk round the room in imagination, rather than merely to stand at the side and survey it in the manner described,

It now remains to people the apartment, and this may be done in a variety of ways.

Von Feinaigle used the method of similarity of form, that is, he made pictures somewhat resembling the numbers assigned to the squares or places. On the floor of the first room he had—

The Tower of Babel

A Swan

A Mountain, or Parnassus

A Looking-Glass

A Throne

The Horn of Plenty

A Glass-blower

Midas

A Flower, or Narcissus

In the case of number 4, the form was really symbolical, the looking-glass having four corners, but the other pictures were so drawn that they very closely resembled the numbers.

I will supply a set of the first nine squares which I think give an improvement upon von Feinaigle's selection—for 1 a tower, 2 a swan, 3 a sea-horse, 4 a sailing boat, 5 a snake, 6 a monkey, 7 a trumpeter, 8 an ant, and 9 a flower. The pictures on page 124 illustrate the idea.

It would be equally practical, at least for the smaller numbers, to use the homophones, or similar-sound words, of Gouraud, which I have mentioned in my previous chapter. Then the first square would be occupied by a wand, the second by a tooth, the third by a tree, the fourth by a fort and so on.

A better method, in my opinion, is to form pictures according to number-words representing the numbers. In that case we might have in the first square a head, in the second a hen, in the third a home, in the fourth an oar, in the fifth a hill, and so on. The advantage of this method is that it gives us a very wide choice of familiar objects from which to make at least two rooms—that is up to a hundred. If the student wants at short notice a set of, say, ten

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