On Substituting Memory and Imagination

Comedian “Father Guido Sarducci,” the chain-smoking priest on Saturday Night Live and putative gossip columnist and rock critic for the Vatican, had a routine he called the 5-Minute University. “The idea is that in a five minutes you learn whata the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is a outa school,” he said. “It would cost like a $20.”

Instead of wasting time with all the stuff you’re going to forget very soon after you take you last college test, Father Sarducci asked, why not just commit to memory the handful of things you actually will remember while still getting a valuable credential?

So in linguistics the answer to the question “como se llama?” is “muy bien,” Sarducci said in his bit. And in theology the answer to the question “where is God?” is that “God is everywhere.” In ethics, “the ends justify the means.” You get the idea.

Father Sarducci might say that anyone who survived microeconomics in college probably remembers that, to a variable degree, capital and labor are substitutes.

In a like manner, imagination and memory are, to a variable degree, also substitutes.

What a minute, you’re asking, how could imagination… defined as “the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses” possibly substitute for memory?

Here’s how: there is a memory technique, older than Socrates, and first employed by a colorful 6th century BC Greek named Simonides of Ceos. Simonides, as the story goes, was at a banquet in Thessaly, the bread-basket of Ancient Greece, performing in his role as a lyric poet. He stepped out out of the hall for a time and during his absence the roof of the building collapsed killing everyone inside and making it impossible to identify the bodies. What were grieving loved ones to do?

But upon recollection Simonides found he was able to recreate who was where just by walking his memory around the places of the hall. So, Alcibiades was next to the third column on the right. Heracleitus was serving kalamari by the table nearest the fountain. Eusebius was toasting the statue of Dionysus in the courtyard. Etc.

In their respective textbooks on rhetorics, the Romans Quintilian (a rhetorician) and Cicero (the legendary philosopher), gave Simonides credit for discovering the method of the loci, aka the memory palace. It was a boon to the ancient world. Because so very few people in the ancient world wrote, the only memory system for most people was internal. If you wanted to remember stuff, you didn’t save a spreadsheet to Dropbox. You didn’t even make notes on paper. In the ancient world you memorized it.

Since the Iliad and the Odyssey predate writing, Homer’s work was passed down orally, person to person, for hundreds of years, and perhaps much longer. Even literate cultures used memorization because you could never be sure that written works would survive the turmoil of the times. It’s said that the ultimate test of rabbinic students in the ancient world was to stick a pin through a line of text on one side of a scroll of the Torah and ask what word it penetrated on the other side!

The Greeks used tricks to remember Homer, none the least of which is that verse set to music is easier to remember than prose. I almost can’t get the words of Bob Seger’s song “Turn the Page” out of my head once it gets implanted there. You probably have at least one song like that for you. But the Jews mainly used brute force memorization.

What Simonides brought to memorization was a kind of third way. He and his successors found that if you could associate a memory with room or a place in a familiar building, you could then just walk your memory around the building and pluck each item from its place in your memory palace.

Grocery lists, the constellations visible in the night sky in December, the birthdays of loved ones, and many more, are all things you could load into your own memory palace.

The trick, Simonides discovered, was in making the associations especially vivid and multisensory. Author Joshua Foer describes the process in his fine book on memory, Moonwalking With Einstein.

“The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. What distinguishes a great mnemonist… is the ability to create these sort of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten.”

Foer opens his book with a recounting of the images he used in memorizing the order of multiple decks of playing card in just minutes and in doing so winning the USA Memory Championship.

“Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick to the groin of of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds).”

Each of those images was associated with a space in Foer’s memory palace. The method of loci works because, then as now, the human brain is far better at remembering spaces than abstractions. Father Guido was right; five years out of school, who but the fussiest among us remembers the rule for when is the word “swimming” is a gerund and when is it a present participle?

But in order to pull it off, you have to create associations that are out of the ordinary. Memorable, in other words.

Foer, as he explains, relies on associations that are rude, sexual, even vulgar. It was always thus. In his 2,000-year-old classic Rhetorica ad Herennium Cicero wrote that:

“When we see everyday life things are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them. But of we see something exceptionally base, dishonorable, unusual, great, or ridiculous, that we are likely to remember for a long time… the striking and the novel stay longer in the mind.”

After Gutenberg, when external memory became much more available and literacy and paper more widespread, the method of the loci fell out of practice. The sexual and rude associations often used in technique fell into disdain and even disfavor.

Still, people needed and wanted internal memory, even if the memory palace techniques for doing had become unsavory.

In his biography of the influential American theologian Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden describes a mnemonic trick Edwards used when taking long rides on horseback:

“For each insight he wished to remember, he would pin a small piece of paper on a particular piece of his clothes, which he would associate with the thought. When he returned home he would unpin these and write down each idea. At the ends of trips of several days, his clothes might be covered by quite a few of these slips of paper.”

Edwards was a pious man, the leading light in the First Great Awakening in America. For him, remembering ideas he’d had while riding by imagining a fat man spitting, or kicks to the Pope’s groin would have been out of character (and for Edwards, unacceptably papish). Instead, Edwards used the first trick of remembering things we wish to remember; mindfulness.

In an email response to me, Joshua Foer said as much about Edwards’ mnemonic device:

This “sounds like a version of the old string around the finger trick. It’s not that we forget the content of the anecdotes we want to remember so much as we forget that we want to remember them. This is a clever way around that.”

Here’s a for-instance: the other day someone gave me a name of a person who I wanted to look up later. His first name is Paul, which is my name and thus easy for me to remember. His last name is Twayne. The name of his company is Cumulus. And so I imagined a super tall man… I’m 6’4” but I saw this man being 10,000 feet tall!… with my body and Mark Twain’s magnificent head of white hair suspended among fluffy cumulus clouds.  

But by the 19th century, memorizing names, or cards, or lists, or poems using the method of loci was a parlour trick. And nowadays when the answer to the question of when “swimming” is a gerund and when it is a present participle is as close as your phone, why bother committing anything to memory at all?

Isn’t Wikipedia proof that Father Sarducci was right?

Here’s one response: Accessing and using what we really know is always faster than accessing and using whatever external memory is available to us. Programmers coding away can certainly find the snippets of code they need within moments, maybe minutes at the most. But it’s faster and better if they can pull it from memory. Likewise if you’re at the flower market in Aix en Provence, it’s better to pull the word tournesols from memory than to point at the sunflowers and pantomime.  

But even ready access undersells the value of committing things to memory. A few months back I went to the funeral for a man who had done me a great favor many years earlier and had lived to age 86. He had lived a full and accomplished life, including winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit medals as a young Air Force pilot. The eulogy was beautifully delivered by his younger brother, aged 83, who recited from memory poem after poem that were dear to both men.

Certainly the younger brother could have simply read the poetry from his phone or a book. But, as with the ancients, the verse this man had memorized had done more than inspire him, it had molded his character, his outlook, and his view on life. He was a different man because he could recite that poetry from heart than he would have been had he just known of it. What we can remember not only forms us, it becomes us.

All laughs aside, don’t we want to be more than just Father Guido Sarducci’s three things?

For workable and effective memory techniques and tricks you could hardly do better than any of Harry Lorayne’s works, but I particularly like his 2007 book Ageless Memory. For a great read about why memory matters Joshua Foer’s 2011 book Moonwalking With Einstein is that rarest kind of nonfiction, a page turner. 


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