The Greeks discovered that the best way to remember things was to impose order on them. They did this by choosing a scries of real places or loci which they could visualise in their mind. Images of what they wanted to recall would then be placed on the various loci. Writing in De Oratore, Cicero says, 'The order of the places will preserve the order of the things to be remembered.'
The Greeks recommended using spacious and architecturally varied buildings. Quindllian suggests using buildings with numerous rooms, forecourts, balconies, arches and statues. 'It is an assistance to the memory,' he writes, 'if places are stamped on the mind, which anyone can believe from experiment. For when we return to a place after a considerable absence, we not merely recognize the place itself, but remember things that we did there, and recall the persons whom we met and even the unuttered thoughts that passed through our minds when we were there before.'
A lot of people might have come across this 'Roman room' method, as it is called; I had heard of positioning literal images around rooms, but always thought it sounded too cramped and confusing. Significandy, Quindllian goes on to say that loci don't have to be mapped out around the house: 'What I have spoken of as being done in a house can also be done in public buildings, or on a long journey [my italics], or in going through a city.'
This is the only extant text that recommends using journeys. Still, my habit of wandering aimlessly around Guildford, mapping out a mental route, is clearly not so daft after all! Frances Yates even suggests that it would have been common in Greek and Roman times to see lonely students of rhetoric (or poets) meandering around deserted buildings and streets plotting their loci. This discovery has serious implications for me: the end of men-in-white-coat jokes. The next time someone stops me in the street and asks with some concern what I am doing, I will look them in the eye and tell them!
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