(Roughly) Daily

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”*…

Woodcut illustrations from Anianus’ Compotus cum commento (ca. 1492), an adaptation of Bede’s computus system — Source.

Before humans stored memories as zeroes and ones, we turned to digital devices of another kind — preserving knowledge on the surface of fingers and palms. Kensy Cooperrider leads us through a millennium of “hand mnemonics” and the variety of techniques practiced by Buddhist monks, Latin linguists, and Renaissance musicians for remembering what might otherwise elude the mind…

In the beginning, the hand was just a hand — or so we can imagine. It was a workaday organ, albeit a versatile one: a tool for grasping, holding, throwing, and hefting. Then, at some point, after millions of years, it took on other duties. It became an instrument of mental, not just menial, labor. As a species, our systems of understanding, belief, and myth had grown more elaborate, more cognitively overwhelming. And so we started to put those systems out into the world: to tally, track, and record by carving notches into bone, tying knots in string, spreading pigment on cave walls, and aligning rocks with celestial bodies. Hands abetted these early mental labors, of course, but they would later become more than mere accessories. Beginning roughly twelve hundred years ago, we started using the hand itself as a portable repository of knowledge, a place to store whatever tended to slip our mental grasp. The topography of the palm and fingers became invisibly inscribed with information of all kinds — tenets and dates, names and sounds. The hand proved versatile in a new way, as an all-purpose memory machine.

The arts of memory are well known, but the role of the hand in these arts is often overlooked. In the twentieth century, beginning with the pioneering work of Frances Yates, Western scholars started to piece together a rich tradition of mnemonic practices that originated in antiquity and later took hold in Europe. The most celebrated of these is the “memory palace” [see here]. Using this technique, skilled practitioners can memorize vast collections of facts by nesting them in familiar places (or “loci”): the chambers of a building or along a well-known route. (To make these places more memorable, a bizarre image is often added to each one, the more jarring the better.) It is an odd omission that hand mnemonics are rarely mentioned alongside memory palaces. Both techniques are powerful and broadly attested. Both are adaptable, able to accommodate whatever type of information one wants to remember. And both work by similar principles, pinning to-be-remembered items to familiar locations.

The two traditions do have important differences. Memory palaces exist solely in the imagination; hand mnemonics exist half in the mind and half in the flesh. Another difference lies in their intended use. Memory palaces are idiosyncratic in nature, tailored to the quirks of personal experience and association, and used for private purposes; they are very much the province of an individual. Hand mnemonics, by contrast, are the province of a community, a tool for collective understanding. They offer a way of fixing and transmitting a shared system of knowledge. They serve private purposes, certainly — such as contemplation, in the case of the Mogao mnemonic, or calculation, in the case of Bede’s computus. But they also have powerful social functions in teaching, ritual, and communication…

The five-fingered memory machine: “Handy Mnemonics,” from @kensycoop in @PublicDomainRev.

* Steven Wright


As we give it (to) the finger, we might recall an occasion for counting that required no fingers at all: on this date in 2015, a baseball game between Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards set the all-time low attendance mark for Major League Baseball. Zero (0) fans were in attendance, because the stadium was closed to the public due to the 2015 Baltimore protests (over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody).


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