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By Carl Malamud, All Over the Map Archives»

Cicero Memory Palaces

A Millennial Metaphor?

       In the ancient Greek arts of rhetoric, memory was a science. The science has an origin in what is surely myth. The poet Simonides of Ceos was hired by the noble Scopas to attend a formal banquet as a paid performer, singing a poem of praise of his host. As was the custom, Simonides began by first praising a pair of gods. After the performance, Scopas informed the poet that he would only get half of the agreed-upon fee, the other half he should get from the gods who had stolen the limelight.

       At that point, a messenger came in and told Simonides that a couple of athletic men on horseback were outside waiting for him. Simonides went outside, but nobody was there. But, while he was outside, the gods destroyed the banquet hall to teach Scopas a few lessons about respect. (The lessons being pay the poet; don't mess with the gods; and, memory palaces are a gift from above.)

       The banquet hall was so badly destroyed that none of the diners could be recognized. Simonides was able to remember the exact location of every guest at the banquet, using the principles of the Method of Loci, the science of memory. Later, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) wrote a few pages on the science in his classic work, De Oratore. [See De Oratore, II. lxxxvi. 350-353]. The definitive treatment in Greek literature, however, is the work of an unknown author previously attributed to Cicero in the classic work Ad Herennium.

       The principles of the science are fairly simple, at least using our modern hindsight. A person who wished to memorize a large work, say an address after dinner or the closing argument of a legal proceeding, would begin by constructing a memory palace. While novices constructed a palace by going to a real one and memorizing the rooms, the memory palace could just as easily be any structure that can be imagined.

       The advantage of starting with a real palace, of course, is that it already exists. The student would carefully walk through the halls, remembering every room. For training (and for examination) the student would go someplace else and then attempt to describe the palace.

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The Science Of Memory
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Memory Palace
On top of the foundation of the memory palace, the student must place distinctive objects in each room. The objects can be thought of as memory coat hooks: places where things to Memory Palace be remembered will be left. For example, in the great banquet hall, I might place a fish in a corner, a crystal on the stairs, and a spear in another corner.

Image courtesy of Chance Wheeler

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       The memory palace was the foundation. Once that is in your head, you can begin practicing the science of memory. (See "The Science Of Memory," at right). While the palace never changes, the objects inside of a room certainly can change. The strategy, when presented with a large text to memorize, is to walk into the first room of your memory palace and place the first stanza of your address next to a distinctive object, the second stanza next to another object, and so on.

       Rehearsing (or indeed delivering a speech) consists of walking back through your memory palace, remembering each of the distinctive objects in the rooms, and then walking past each object and collecting the stanza of text associated with it.

       Spatial positioning of thoughts as an aid to memory turns out to mirror our natural thought processes of cognition. (A good description of this is presented by independent researcher Dr. Robert Skoyles in Chapter 10 of his book Odyssey.)

       What is fascinating about the arts of memory is how this science, like much of the wisdom of the Greeks, faded from the public view. Memorization was still important, though, and it caught the attention of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, who listed the development of artificial memory and memory-enhancing techniques under the virtue of Prudence. Thomas Aquinas based his work on a few allusions in a surviving work by Aristotle, De memoria et reminiscentia. According to St. Thomas, the arts of memory and of placing verse on images is the very essence of remembering: "Man cannot understand without images; the image is a similitude of a corporeal thing, but understanding is of universals which are to be abstracted from particulars." [Quoted in Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (University of Chicago Press: 1966), p. 70.]

       After the endorsement by Thomas Aquinas, the memory arts became almost a fad. Of particular note was the monk Giordano Bruno, who received intense training in a Dominican convent and later became one of the most famous practitioners of the memory arts. Later burned at the stake for heresy, Bruno left the Dominican order and wandered throughout Europe, telling the secrets of memory to all he could find. In addition to his consultations to itinerant occultists and magicians, Bruno published from 1581 to 1591 a series of books including his landmark The Shadows of Ideas.

       To me, the arts of memory are always linked to the image of Giordano Bruno letting out the secrets of the memory arts to a mass audience. When I worked with Mike Schwartz, then with the University of Colorado, to put all the International Telecommunication Union standards on the Internet in 1991, we named our machine Bruno, and for a while was one of the better known machines on the net. (The story of putting those standards on-line is told in my book Exploring the Internet.)

Trystero        The idea of a shadowy underworld of magicians and outlaws who learned (and practiced) the secret arts inspired an obsession by some of the noted authors of the 20th century. Thomas Pynchon, in particular, used the Giordanistis as the model for the shadowy world of an underground postal service in The Crying of Lot 49. Continuing our Giordanisti metaphor, when Marshall Rose and I established The Phone Company ( in 1991, we named the machine "trystero" and used the posthorn of the Trystero guild as our logo. [For more on, there are a series of 5 RFCs on the subject.]

       The image of the rebel Giordanistis, medieval hackers, is an appealing one, and certainly fit the culture of the early Internet. But, the images of the memory palace are relevant to the Internet in a more fundamental way. We've created objects such as web pages, mail messages, and all the other things we can find on the net. But, finding those things has become the real challenge.

       Placing objects in places to find them again is the very essence of how we navigate the real world. Memory palaces are maps of thoughts and are used to navigate the world of ideas just as cartographic maps are used to navigate the world of things. With our modern computer networks, the imaginary and the real world merge into a new place, the Internet.

For Further Reading

Chambers for a Memory Palace
by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore

      Chambers for a Memory Palace (MIT Press, 1996). Two distinguished architects adopted the Memory Palace metaphor and wrote a beautiful gem of a book that consists of an exchange of letters on the subject of how we view our world and how we make our world. This is one of the better books on the art of place-making. (Charles W. Moore was one of the most famous teachers of architects, serving among other duties as the Dean of Yale's School of Architecture and is best known for his work on Sea Ranch with Donlyn Lyndon and two other architects.)

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
by Jonathan D. Spence

      The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Viking, 1994). In 1583, Father Matteo Ricci of the Jesuit order went to China to spread the faith. To try and entice young Confucians to listen to him, Ricci used the Memory Arts as a hook, teaching them the Method Loci so they could pass their examinations. He got a willing audience and became one of the first Western monks to learn Chinese well enough to have an idea about the country he made his home.

The Art of Memory
by Frances A. Yates

      The Art of Memory (University of Chicago, 1974). This book is one of the classic history texts, a scholarly work on a subject that had not received much attention, yet written in a way that it has become a lay classic. Yates was also famous for her biography of Giordano Bruno.

 Copyright © 1999, 2000

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