The History of Memory Techniques From 500 BC-2014 AD

Posted on April 8, 2014





The history of memory training began around 500 BC. This is because, prior to 500 BC, nobody did anything that had to be remembered. From one million BC to 500 BC, everyone killed things and ate them, raised things and ate them, and then died well before they got bald or developed back fat. For that reason, it would have been silly to say “Oh, the world is getting so complicated and scary. It was so much simpler two years ago when I was a young person.”

There was, of course, Noah and that whole build an ark/continually have to explain to your wife why you weren’t going to work or mowing the lawn/get pairs of animals/survive the flood thing. But after the flood, no people were left to remember anything anyway and the animals just left, with the exception of squirrels who were busy destroying the ark in order to build their nests, which is why we can’t find the ark today.

Thanks to Lumosity, an online service that provides brain training for people who have lost theirs, we now know how memory techniques began.

There was a dinner party somewhere in Greece. The Greek poet Simonides stepped out of the party to receive a message (the common pre-texting technique for receiving messages). When he returned, he found the roof caved in and every other guest crushed among the ruins. Worse still, the bodies were so disfigured that it was impossible for family members to identify their dead. Simonides put aside his grief at having missed the best part of the meal (an outstanding baklava dessert) and offered to name every single person at the dinner. He was able to do this because he remembered the positions they’d been seated in around the table. Thus was born the method of loci, the world’s oldest and most famous memory technique.

Simonides’ method of loci (from the Latin for “place”) is based on one simple insight: people have a far better memory for the tangible (physical spaces, images) than they have for the abstract (numbers, words, ideas). To employ the method of loci, simply pick a physical space and populate it with vivid representations of whatever you want to remember. And because you’re wired to notice new, unusual things, the odder these images, the better.

Lumosity gives us an exercise: “Let’s say you have a simple to-do list: buy a bag of oranges, then pick up a dog at the pound. First, imagine your house. Now imagine a man in a skin-tight orange jumpsuit standing by your front door with a bag over his head (that’s your bag of oranges). Beyond him in the next room, picture the world’s tiniest, one-pound dog sitting on a scale. You’ve now created a “mind house” that will make your to-do list very hard to forget — and you can use the same technique to create mind schools, streets, or even palaces.” (Life in the Boomer Lane enthusiastically tried this technique to remember her own to-do list but could not get past the image of a man in a skin-tight orange jumpsuit. In fact, everything in LBL’s life is now represented by that man wearing a skin-tight orange jumpsuit).
In 2003, equipped with brain scanning technology, a researcher named Eleanor Maguire studied ten mental athletes in her University College London lab. When asked to memorize some simple facts, both mental athletes and normal people activated areas of the brain linked to memory. Of course, there was no surprise there. But oddly enough, the mental athletes, wearing skin-tight orange jumpsuits, also activated two brain areas related to visual memory and spatial navigation, confirming what Simonides had discovered thousands of years earlier.

Now, basic loci exercises have been modified to the wonders of our technological age. There is no longer any need to memorize where a bunch of old Greeks are sitting at a dinner party, or to eat Greek food like entire fish with their eyeballs staring at you. Most importantly, you can now take all of your messages and calls right at the dinner table, with no need to absent yourself from the fun and frivolity around you. And, if the entire room gets caved in on and all bodies look like they do in True Detective and Breaking Bad, and, if you are the only one still alive because you had to temporarily absent yourself from the room to get better cell reception, you can remember, if not where they were seated, at least what they were wearing: skin-tight orange jumpsuits. Your valuable information will allow families to better visualize their loved ones’ last hours on earth.