The Orris: A Cultural Journal

Mnemonics in the Twenty-first Century: Have we Forgotten How to Remember?

The practice and study of mnemonics, or “the art of memory,” has a history that is two and half millennia old. Simonides of Ceos first developed this memory technique as a reaction against the growing popularity of writing [1]. Since ancient Greece, a number of other technologies have been created that seem to fully externalize our memory systems, making our brains less capable of independently recalling information; however, the art of memory continues to thrive in all sorts of cultural spaces such as the educational system, the self-help industry, and the memory championships.  Also, the art of memory has become, in many respects, the science of memory, studied by neurologists and psychologists. In this essay, I explore the development of the art of memory from its ancient roots to its contemporary uses and interrogate if we have, as many people say, forgotten how to remember without technological aid.

       The story of Simonides is steeped in lore. He was a famous lyrical poet hired to chant a poem about a nobleman, Scopas of Thessaly [1]. After performing his ode, Simonides was called outside of the hall by a servant. While standing outside, the hall collapsed and crushed all of the people inside. Their bodies were so badly mangled that they were unidentifiable by physical characteristics, yet Simonides was able to identify each guest by re-constructing the hall and the place where each guest sat at the banquet table [1]. Simonides realized that to remember accurately, it is necessary to recognize the importance of orderly spatial arrangement of information [1]. His marriage of loci (places) and imagines (images) allowed him to discern the place and identity of over a hundred guests, and the art of memory was born.

        Mnemonics is a cognitive device that allows its user to remember large amounts of information with ease; the technique encourages the linking of visual and spatial information with otherwise unassociated information. Often this linkage is cemented by the user imagining specific loci, or places, and then associating those loci with specific visual and verbal information [2]. Often the loci take the shape of an architectural structure such as a palace, or a hall, with many and varied rooms contained inside the structure [2]. The hall and the banquet table that Simondies reconstructed allowed him to recall the arrangement of the guests in relation to the loci and to discern their identities based upon that arrangement, a factor that proved crucial to ameliorating the tragedy of the hall collapsing. During antiquity, mnemonics proved to be useful in a number of situations with varying degrees of importance and urgency and, despite what Frances Yates or Joshua Foer suggests, the study and the practice of the art of memory has continued to flourish in the twenty-first century.

        For both practical reasons and social reasons, the art of memory was deeply respected and widely studied in Ancient Greece and Rome. In the intervening centuries the study of memory and the practice of mnemonics were crucial to the development of many European intellectual movements, and although Frances Yates calls the art of memory a “marginal subject,” whose “serious investigation . . . may be said to have only just begun,” she identifies the art of memory’s influence on the rise of scientific inquiry and empiricism in the seventeenth century [2]. Mnemonics continued to play an important role in the intellectual and theological movements of Europe even well after the eighteenth century—the point at which Yates ends her study of mnemonics—however, after the eighteenth century the study of the art of memory shifted from the purveyance of rhetoric and philosophy to that of psychology, physiology, and literature. Journalist Joshua Foer’s work on mnemonics verifies that the art of memory, and our capacity to remember, is neither marginal nor forgotten, but actively studied in a number of intellectual and cultural spheres. Foer’s research is an example of the persisting interest in memory and mnemonics in our society. Although he often seems to argue that we have forgotten how to remember—that we are experiencing the death of internal memory—his work poses the exciting question of whether external memory and internal memory are as different as they seem to be. An answer in the negative profoundly changes the nature of our relationship to technology and challenges many critics’ assertions that the digital age has severely inhibited many of our cognitive skills.

        Everywhere we turn it seems that critics, scientists, and public intellectuals are exploring the (often adverse) effects of technology on our biological and social selves (see Nicholas Carr, Adam Gopnik, Sherry Turkle, Bill Keller, and Brian Rotman). We hear about the end of our private lives (and our attention spans) due to Twitter and other social networking sites; the end of our social lives due to the internet and smart phones; the end of being human (“we are now all cyborgs”) due to our intimate and often physical connections to technology; but, for me, the most interesting of these cries is that we have reached the end of remembering; that we have forgotten how to remember. Unlike the ancients, who relied on a trained memory to learn and to develop social currency, we “moderns” no longer have a need for training our memories. The popularity of writing in the fifth century B.C. in Greece, the printing press during the fifteenth century, and other technological shifts in how we encode and remember information, externalized memory and changed how we learn and retain information; technology introduced many different external repositories for memories. Scrolls and even books seem antiquated in the face of the internet, which ushered in the digital age: ebooks, ipads, smart phones, blogs, and social networking sites are just some of the places where we now store memories of our knowledge and our past experience. Additionally, the digital revolution has made it so that we now have access to an infinite amount of knowledge, whether we want it or not. Truly, it seems, our capacity to remember, and the respected status of mnemonics, have been altered by technological changes. We are no longer beholden to our internal memory because of all the devices that have externalized memory. Still, the persistence of mnemonics in the twenty-first century, and Foer’s figuration of the relationship between internal and external memory, suggest a different story.

       I am skeptical of arguments that suggest we have hit a turning point—often for the worse—in our brain physiology because of technological advancements. I don’t necessarily believe that the way in which we learn, store, and recall information has remained unchanged since the time of Simonides. Indeed, technology has introduced all sorts of new external storage units for our memories. Similarly, the internet has changed, by a magnitude, the amount of accessible information that exists in the world. Still, it seems that declaring the death of memory is one of those preemptive anticipations that ignore the fact that since the nineteenth century (the time when, Yates argues, the art of memory supposedly withered), psychologists and other theorists have become increasingly interested in how we remember; the physiological processes underlying our memory systems; and what we are most likely to remember well, poorly, or not at all. This work began with the nineteenth century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied what he termed the memory curve, or the amount of information our memory systems retain over long spans of time [2]. What he found is that our retention tends to drop off immediately after learning, and then stabilizes over the course of six days [2]. Other researchers of memory, such as Wilder Penfield in the early twentieth century, and more recently Elizabeth Loftus, studied whether or not our brains contain “a lifetime of memories . . . socked away somewhere in the cerebral attic” or whether some memories are simply unrecoverable [2]. Today most psychologists don’t think that all memories are recoverable or even accurately recalled and there are a number of neuroscientists and psychologists, such as Eric Kandel and Daniel Shacter, who study how memories are formed and changed by the electro-chemical processes taking place in our brain. They have revealed that memories are highly contextual and change each new time they are recalled. This discovery of how internal memory works—its revisionary capacity—distinguishes it greatly from the unchangeable quality of memories recalled by external devices and challenges the assertion that we have forgotten how to remember.

        Science is only one area where the study of the art and science of memory enjoys attention. As Joshua Foer discusses, the creation of the World Memory Championship in 1991 and the various self-help books and courses for training one’s memory, which are popular among aging baby-boomers, suggests that our interest in understanding and utilizing our internal memory systems is neither withering, nor fading from the popular imagination [1]. Rather, it seems that we are amidst a rebirth in the study of memory, which includes a growing interest in understanding and utilizing the ancient techniques that comprise mnemonics as well as the recent scientific discoveries about how our brains encode and recall information. In fact, Foer’s text marries these two aspects of memory studies—the art of memory and the science of memory.

       Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of remembering Everything (2011) tracks Foer’s journey from a young journalist to America’s Memory Champion. His interest in the art of memory began after attending a small local memory competition in New York City to do research for a feature article; this local competition sparked his obsession to know whether or not one’s memory could be improved as much as memory competitors claimed [1]. He found that human memory can be improved, “within limits,” and that knowledge of skill acquisition—a field of psychological inquiry—and mnemonics are critical for expanding one’s capacity for remembering; thus, the science and the art of memory were equally important to his training regimen [1]. Despite his in-depth study of the art of memory, and his discussion of the science of memory, his book seems to lament the current state of memory, suggesting that we are at “the end of remembering” because of our technological dependency on instruments that schedule, plan, remind and navigate for us [1]. Foer’s assessment of technology’s impact on our capacity to remember is complicated, however, when he points out that our biological memory systems actually work in very similar ways to our external memory systems and therefore perhaps, “we should view them as extensions of our internal memories. After all, even internal memories are accessible only by degrees,” and our external memory aids need context and a starting point from which to direct us to the appropriate information [1]. Therefore, through the haze of nostalgia and anxiety that permeates his text, he argues that the art of memory has been transformed by the science of memory, and that recent scientific and technological discoveries has opened up entirely new ways of thinking about the interface between external and internal memory. Perhaps internal and external memories are co-dependent, perhaps they are not as different as they seem to be?

       Although Foer calls the art of memory a “curiosity at best” because it seems to be studied only for obscure purposes such as the World Memory Championship, his book and all of the scientific research he cites about memory and skill acquisition suggests otherwise. The cognitive revolution in the twentieth century and the emergence of neuroscience has made it possible for us to look at the brain while it is engaged in the process of learning or remembering. As Foer notes in his lecture, “The End of Remembering,” scientists can see what parts of the brain light up when a person is involved in committing information to memory and they have discovered that different regions of the brain, such as the visual cortex, light up when trained mnemonicists are engaged in memory tasks [1]. While there is still a lot of work to be done on studying mnemonics and the cognitive processes underlying memory, technology has transformed the art of memory into the science of memory. Both the classical tradition of mnemonics and the recent science of memory studies are important to understanding how memory does or does not work. Mnemonics in the twenty-first century continues to thrive and its uses have developed beyond those of ancient rhetoricians: it has become part of sport, therapy, pedagogy, art, and science. The physiological processes underscoring mnemonics, and memory more generally, reveal our brain’s amazingly creative capacity for learning, adapting, and connecting vast amounts of seemingly disparate information in ways that external memory devices are incapable.  — Genie Giaimo


[1] Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

—-. “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer: How I trained my brain and became a world-class memory athlete.” New York Times Magazine, 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2011.

—-. “The End of Remembering.” LSE Public Lecture. London, England. 5 April 2011. Web. 16 June 2011.

[2] Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory: Selected Works, Volume III. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.



This entry was posted on August 11, 2011 by in Issue Zero and tagged , , , , , , .


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