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Posts Tagged ‘memory palace

“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).


“Every history is a map”*…

Antoni Jażwiński’s Tableau Muet, based on the original “Polish System” for charting historical information, later revised in France and the United States, 1834 — Source.

How does one visualize history and chart time? Is it a line, moving forever outward in one direction? A Grecian temple, as Emma Willard envisioned, with Ionic columns representing centuries, receding from view toward a vanishing point at the world’s origin? Or could it be a corkscrew ascending upward, allowing us to look down from our present position into past events similar to our own? 

For the Polish educator Antoni Jażwiński, history was best represented by an abstract grid — or at least it was for the purposes of remembering it. The so-called “Polish System” originated in the 1820s and was later brought to public attention in the 1830s and 1840s by General Józef Bem, a military engineer with a penchant for mnemonics. As Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg catalogue in their Cartographies of Time, the nineteenth century brimmed with new methods and technologies for committing historical information to memory — and Jażwiński’s contribution (and its later adaptations) proved one of the most popular. 

The Polish System — which almost anticipates Piet Mondrian’s abstract checkerboards and the wider modernist fascination with grid figures — coupled chronology to the map-making traditions of geography. In Jażwiński’s original chart, each main 10×10 box is a century and the rows separate decades. Within a century box, each individual square is a year, each color a nation (with shading for different monarchs or governments), and symbols can stand for marriages, wars, treaties, and other types of events. Should one become proficient with this system, they can peer down on the history of the world, summarized on a surface not much larger than a chessboard… 

More on this proto-modernist memory palace: “Visualizing History: The Polish System.”

* Jacob Bronowski


As we picture the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that the FBI Laboratory declared the lyrics of Louie Louie to be officially “unintelligible at any speed.”

In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the U.S., alleging that the lyrics of “Louie Louie” were obscene, suggesting that “The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not [sic] enclose them in this letter.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the complaint, and looked into the various rumors of “real lyrics” that were circulating among teenagers.  In June 1965, the FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the Kingsmen recording and, after 31 months of investigation, concluded that it could not be interpreted– and therefore that the Bureau could not find that the recording was obscene.

In September 1965, an FBI agent interviewed one member of the Kingsmen, who denied that there was any obscenity in the song. The FBI never interviewed songwriter Richard Berry nor consulted the actual lyrics that were on file with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Snopes suggests that while some teenage mondegreens were indeed pretty filthy, the song itself was clean.

“It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…


The “Memory Palace,” a form of the method of loci, is a technique by which the user memorizes a physical space (often, a palace), then– when desiring to remember something– walks to a location and “deposits” that memory… which can be retrieved simply be “revisiting” that location.  It dates back to ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians, and, as Frances Yates explains in The Art of Memory, was in broad use all the way until the Enlightenment.

But while the technique fell out of the spotlight with the advent of wide-spread printing and the emergence of the Scientific Revolution, it didn’t disappear altogether…

This “Chronographer of Ancient History,” published by American educator Emma Willard in 1851, is one in a series of prints Willard designed to teach students about the shape of historical time. Her “Temples of Time” were (she wrote) a way to tap into the power of visual comprehension, so that the historical information conveyed would “by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.”

This Chronographer is a more specialized offshoot of Willard’s master Temple of Time, which tackled all of history. (She also produced an American version, with a map of the United States on its faraway back wall.) Willard’s Temples, writes historian Barry Joyce, were “possibly inspired by her study of ancient Greek commentaries on history and memory.” The structure’s reliance on perspective was intended to help chronology take on a physical dimension…

More at “A 19th-Century Memory Palace Containing All of Ancient History“: and see a zoomable version of the Temple here or at the Library of Congress.

* Dr. John Watson, describing a “tool” used by his friend Sherlock Holmes


As we tidy up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held. Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet to Frederick the Great of Prussia


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

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