Train our memory

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Here's a scary thought — you've been asked to speak in public before a large audience, on a complex subject, without any notes. Could you do it? I couldn't.

And yet, this is precisely what orators in ancient Greece were expected to do. In those days, there was no such thing as paper on which they could have scribbled notes, just bulky writing-tablets covered with wax. Their speeches were entirely in their heads. Memory was all they could rely on to lead them through their orations. If they didn't have an extremely well-trained memory, they floundered.

The ancient Greeks invented solutions to many problems, and one of these was a method — a memory aid — for remembering complicated things like speeches. In English it's called a mnemonic, from the Greek for remembrance.

How did their method work? Well, the basic elements — the building blocks, let's say — for creating such an artificial memory are places and images. First the orator visualizes a house — the place — with many rooms. Every room corresponds to a part of his speech. In each room, he sets objects or images that relate to the subject he's speaking about.

When he begins his talk, he mentally enters his memory house and walks through it room by room, visiting each object and image in succession, recalling what he has to say. By following the proper route, he's able to deliver all parts of his oration in the right sequence.

Most of us don't require an architectural support system on that scale for our artificial memory, but we often need to find ways to help us remember things. A memory aid of this kind is sometimes called a "pons asinorum," which is Latin for asses' bridge (not to be confused with Euclid's "pons asinorum" in his Geometry). It involves building a connection between two things, allowing us to remember by association.

I'll give you an example from my own memory storehouse. In medieval Italy there were two principal political factions — the Guelfs and the Ghibellines — and I could never remember which supported the Pope and which the Emperor. Until, that is, I thought of building an asses' bridge. In truth, this particular bridge was virtually pre-fabricated, because all I had to do was pair the words with the same number of syllables — it just so happens that the Guelfs supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines the Emperor. But you get the idea?

At present I'm intent on devising a mnemonic for remembering the various passwords I need to access different internet sites. I'm not supposed to write them down. I'm supposed to keep them in my head. And in my head they invariably become as tangled as a skein of wool batted by a playful kitten.

So now I want to try a new tactic. For every site requiring a password, I'm going to visualize a door of a colour that has a particular meaning for me, and this meaning will also be associated with the password. Then, when I'm asked to produce my password, I'll imagine myself in front of the correctly-coloured door, open it and find the magic word.

Do you think the ancient Greeks would have approved of my little mnemonic? More to the point — do you think it will work? Stay tuned.

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This page last updated: March 2, 2012.