Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ars Memoriae

I sense that more is possible in the art of memory.

There was a time when everyone remembered. There was a time before smart phones, before computers, before widespread literacy, and before writing, when there was nothing to do with a thought besides remember it. If you failed in that task, there would be no external reminder to fall back on--no index to browse, text message to dig up, no crumpled-up post-it at the bottom of your purse--and the thought would be lost forever. That time comprises the vast majority of  human history.

It's easy to imagine that members of pre-literate societies must have lived almost entirely in the moment, with no libraries or photographs to hold onto their past thoughts for them. But that is only because the art of memory has been so thoroughly replaced by external mnemonic technologies. Few of us have ever been prompted to explore the potential of internal memory.

Before the printing press, people were taught from childhood the powerful, ancient techniques of memory. How powerful? Powerful enough to create and pass down the 15,963-line Iliad for at least a hundred years before it was finally committed to paper. People in pre-literate societies were constantly immersed in their history, oral tradition, and the products of their previous mental labors. For all the incomprehensible breadth of humanity's new external memories, it is we who are bound to the present.

If you haven't heard of linking, memory palaces, or the Major System, the most basic introduction to mnemonics will demonstrate that you needn't be limited by the tiny capacity of your working memory once you've learned to embed information directly into long-term memory. I remember the first time I learned a twenty item list in just a few minutes. The encoding took effortful concentration (though it gets much easier with practice; I can now complete the same task in about 30 seconds), but the surprise and excitement I experienced with each item effortlessly recalled shattered deep resignations about my own cognitive limits. That was my first taste of the possibility in the art of memory.

I've since learned of the subculture of mnemonists, people who compete in the memory circuit. They travel all over the world to find out who can learn the longest string of random digits, lines of poetry, and shuffled decks of cards. I've learned that the only difference between myself and mental athletes is that I've never deliberately trained my skills. I could perform such feats if I tried, as could you.

I've not tried, though I have made my life much more efficient (I was once terribly forgetful and absent minded) by storing information in my very own brain for reliable recall any time I want to. If I don't want to lose my keys, I simply remember where they are. If I want to remember which bus stop I'm looking for, I needn't leaf through my notebook while standing in the cramped isle or pull up the right screen on my phone. I just remember. I never forget passwords, names, or my credit card number--not once I've decided to remember, anyway. These conveniences alone are well worth the half hour of study needed to become proficient in elementary mnemonics.

But there's just no way that this is all there is. About 2,600 years have passed since we began writing things down. And rather than putting to revolutionary use the internal memory software responsible for the Iliad by harnessing the ability to remember more important and different kinds of information, we're still mostly using it to remember our shopping lists while our hands are full? That can't be right.

Or can it? After all, there's no reason for most of us to know that a mole of carbon atoms is 6.022*10^23 atoms of carbon: In the unlikely event that you need to do stoichiometry, Wolfram Alpha will answer all of your questions. This much is certainly true. But in the context of a discussion of mnemonics, something about it feels off. "We don't need internal memory because our external memory is so much better" misframes the relationship between memory and learning.

If you take a 400 level college course, it probably has prerequisites. You must first have taken a related 300 or 200 level course. Why?

Because often, in order to learn things you first must know things. Human memory is a massive network of associations, and recognizing relationships among concepts requires each concept be located somewhere in that network. Without well-traveled pathways, the memories will get lost. They will find neither conscious awareness nor each other.

You cannot innovate, you cannot invent, and you cannot seamlessly integrate information stored only externally. Creativity is not a magical spell for creating something out of nothing. It's the ability to make new associations among old ideas and new data. To be creative, the raw materials must reside in internal memory. Wikipedia is simply not available to the subtle workings of fluid intelligence.

We should not allow technologies like writing to cause our memories to languish and atrophy. Rather, they should enrich our memories with much higher leverage information than was available to mnemonists past.

Our society has lost the art of memory because we can get away with being lazy. But how might the world be if each of us had a sprawling memory palace as lavishly furnished as that of an erudite Greek of 660 BCE? Imagine if it contained the most important information we encounter now.

This is the vision of a liberal arts education, after all; but while we spend longer than ever before--18 years at least--memorizing only to forget, we are no longer taught how to learn. If we all learned to think memorably, to keep the most important parts of past experience close at hand, how much more creative might we become? And what might we gain the ability to learn?

Further Resources

  • This half-hour lecture/audiobook by Derren Brown is the best introduction to the basic mnemonic techniques I've found so far.
  • For a look at how it was done in the good old days, check out Cicero's Rhetorica ad Herennium (Latin background optional). Though there's been some innovation, this is still basically an accurate description of how the professionals do it.
  • There is much to learn of the remembering mind in Homerian verse. As Milman Parry established in the 1920's (at the age of 18), what was captured by Homer in heroic hexameter was not merely a story, but the inner workings of literary thought 'ere dawn of the written word.
  • Joshuah Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein is a riveting tour of mnemonic subculture, as well as an introduction to the history and theory of the art of memory. The Kindle version's only ten bucks, but if you can't spare the resources, at least watch his TED talk on the same.

1 comment:

MMM said...

Best argument yet for the detrimental effects of overdependence on external memory on creativity and innovation. Very nicely said.