The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

The Art of Memory: Why It’s Just About the Coolest Thing Ever, and Why You Should Learn It Today

When I was an undergraduate in the film department at the University of Colorado many years ago, a visiting lecturer (unfortunately I no longer remember his name) recommended that I read a book called The Art of Memory, by a woman named Frances Yates. He said it was the most interesting book he’d ever read. That sounded like a pretty good recommendation. I headed over to the university bookstore and picked up a copy.

Reading it that evening at home, I was entranced. I felt like I had been initiated into something truly mysterious and wonderful — a whole new way of thinking not only about the mind and history, but also film, visual arts, literature, psychology. It was really one of those life-changing reading experiences.

We speak today of the “reading experience,” but for people in the ancient world and Middle Ages—the main time period of Yates’ study—books were precious, rare objects, and the aim of reading – if you could read – was not diversion. It wasn’t about having a fleeting or passing experience with a book before moving on to the next one. If you were a traveling student or scholar studying a book in the library of some wealthy patron, you may never get another chance to look at that book again. If you were a monk or priest, your opportunities to read the Bible would be limited at best.

The astonishing thing is, though, that learned men in ancient Greece or Rome, or in the Middle Ages, actually knew many books by heart; their minds were well-organized libraries of texts that, in their studies and travels, they had had the good fortune to hold and read and study.

When Yates wrote her pathbreaking book decades ago, her approach to the subject of the forgotten techniques that enabled these mnemonic feats was a bit distanced and skeptical. She evoked a sense of wonder at the skills of the ancients, but she doubted they could be relevant in our era of easily accessible media. More recent scholars like Mary Carruthers, following in Yates’s footsteps, have the added benefit of contemporary discoveries in psychology and neuroscience and are far less dismissive of the power of these ancient arts. We now know the scientific reasons why these techniques worked, and we also are coming to understand just how important the art of memory was in shaping the evolution of literature and the arts in the West, even into the modern era.

We also know that these ancient arts can still be relevant. Even with facts at our fingertips, even with Wikipedia, people still need to learn things. Medical students cannot use PDAs to substitute for comprehensive memory of human anatomy; there are no Matrix downloads for learning a foreign language or how to fly a helicopter. Learning will always be with us. And the tools of artificial memory, honed through practical use from time immemorial, is an astonishingly effective amplification of the brain’s normal learning processes.

There are also numerous side-benefits to practicing the art of memory. One of these is making the mind more creative and flexible. And the best part is, it’s actually fun — in fact, fun and play are the whole point, because these are the foods the memory feeds on, so to speak. There is now evidence that memory training can help people in the early stages of Alzheimers, and there is even some evidence that an actively trained mind can promote mental longevity.

With that in mind, what follows is a brief historical guide and primer for the art of memory.

The Origin Myth of the Art of Memory

The basics of the art of memory can be found in its origin myth. It goes like this. A certain nobleman of Thessaly, named Scopas, was giving a banquet, for which he had commissioned the poet Simonides of Ceos to give a poem. Simonides delivered a lovely lyric poem largely in praise of his host, but he also managing to get into his verse a word of praise for the gods Castor and Pollux. Afterward, Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the agreed fee, and that he should ask his friends, the divine Twins, for the other half.

During the meal that followed, a message was delivered to Simonides stating that a pair of young gentlemen had arrived outside and wished to speak with him. The poet excused himself from the table and went outside, finding nobody. However, in his absence, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, killing Scopas and all the guests. Simonides was was the only survivor of the feast.

When the aggrieved and horror-struck relatives arrived at the house to collect the bodies of their dead for burial, it was impossible for them to tell which body was which because the remains were all mangled beyond recognition. But Simonides found he could readily identify the corpses from where they had been sitting around the table. It was then (the story goes) that the poet realized what a valuable thing it was to recall things according to their places, and so he then laid out the rules that became the art of memory.

If you were a defense lawyer, for example, and needed to remember all the evidence in a case to lay out your argument, you first created a vivid mental image to stand for each piece of evidence. Second, you “placed” each of those images, in sequence (that is, according to the argument you were going to deliver), in some building or physical environment that was familiar to you. You did this in your imagination, as you mentally walked through that environment. Then, when the time came to recall what you had remembered – that is, when delivering your impassioned plea on behalf of the accused in court – you just took a mental stroll through that same building, visiting each vivid image in sequence and laying out the facts they stood for.

Almost two thousand years later, the learned were still utilizing the same basic principles supposedly discovered by Simonides, but they also elaborated and expanded on those principles. Instead of using real buildings and environments for their memory palaces, the memory wizards of the Renaissance designed elaborate grid systems on paper – essentially abstract memory buildings or “theatres” – by which far vaster quantities of knowledge could be stored and cross referenced in the manner of a modern Excel spreadsheet. The roots of today’s computer databases – indeed, the roots of modern computing generally – can be traced to the mnemonic grid systems devised by men like Ramon Llull and Giordano Bruno during the “rebirth” of European civilization.

Although the art of memory evolved over the centuries, its basic principles are always the same: Create a vivid image to stand for each individual item to be remembered, and “place” that image in some kind of structure. Recall then becomes a simple matter of imaginatively revisiting your memory places and retrieving the vivid images you had placed there earlier.

Memory works by breaking things down into chunks and putting them back together. So lets break the art of memory down into two chunks: the vivid imagery part, and then, later, the space/structure part.

Vivid Imagery and Puns

If you’ve ever tried to memorize a set of facts straight, like a list of dates for a history exam, you know how brutally tough it can be. Your eyes can see the facts in the textbook ten times, a hundred times, but they just don’t stick. Try as you might, the details blur together, the information finds loose purchase, and a lot of guesswork enters in when actually trying to recall the material for the final exam.

Unless, that is, you have associated those facts with unrelated things you already know. Luckily, our brains do this for us automatically. Even if you aren’t practicing a memory technique, your brain does its best to build associations for the material you are trying to commit to memory. If you didn’t utterly fail that exam, and if you weren’t consciously applying the art of memory (which you probably weren’t), it is because your brain nevertheless managed to find ways to link the new, unfamiliar material you studied to familiar stuff already in your head.

The art of memory is just taking this principle and consciously directing and amplifying it.

Creating a memory image is a simple matter of substituting the thing you are trying to remember with something familiar, albeit unrelated, that it reminds you of. That’s it. If it is a complex idea with several parts to it, you break it down into those parts; substitute each part with some association that comes to mind, and create a little vignette or scenario with each of those associations. Once you do this, there is no more effort required in remembering. The resulting images will be crazy, and crazy images stick in the head all by themselves, without any further effort; it is no problem going backwards, reconstructing the original material later from those vivid images.

Here’s a very mundane example. A few years ago my friend Karen moved into a big apartment building. Before I visited the first time, she told me the apartment number, 504, and the key code to dial her apartment so she could buzz me into her building, “55.”

Instead of pausing to make a mental note of her apartment/code, I made the natural mistake of thinking that the coincidental reappearance of the digit 5 in both her apartment number and key code would make it easy to remember both of them when I arrived at the front door of her building. In fact, the opposite was the case. I’m pretty dyslexic when it comes to numbers, and when I visited the first time I found myself stymied by the long list presented next to the intercom: Did she live on the sixth floor and did her code have a six in it? Did she live in room 404 and her code was 45? There seemed to be several possible candidates on the list. Embarrassed, I had to call her on my cell phone to ask what room she was in.

Now, Karen, like me, is a fan of the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, and on that first visit she provided me with the mnemonic I needed: “Just think of ‘Joey Nichols – Joey Five Cents!’” – a line from the movie.

I’ll never forget her code now, precisely because this mnemonic pairs the number 5 with something completely utterly unrelated (and moreover, amusingly stupid). Instead of searching some mental ledger for her apartment code, I just recall the image of Joey Nichols slapping a nickel to his forehead and delivering that line, and the young Alvy Singer walking away saying “What an asshole!”

The art of memory utilizes the principle that, if you want to remember something you don’t already know (which is the point of memorizing), link it to something you do know. Link the unknown to the known. The more personal the better, because there is nothing you know better than your own experiences. And the more unrelated the better, because absurdity is the basis of memory.

Creating memory images uses the same imaginative devices used by artists, poets, and comedians from time immemorial: metaphors, rhymes, alliteration, and puns. Basically, these things all have the following process in common: They link unrelated things together based on some superficial or trivial thing they share. It may be how they sound – a rhyme or double-entendre – or some pattern or structure common to both of them, which is what a metaphor is.

You may (like me) hate puns – that is, the linking of two totally separate ideas simply because they sound alike (like “Nichols” and “nickels” in the Woody Allen example). But in fact puns are a large basis for how the mind works. The brain is a punning organ; the puns it uses to create associations are visual, auditory, tactile, probably even involve taste and smell – they are much more complex, in other words, than the bad puns of your roommate freshman year. (Dreams, which reflect the process of memories being consolidated, consist of elaborate multisensory puns, a fact that can be detected readily if you make a habit of recording your dreams.)

It has been suggested that the reason most people react with such distaste to puns is that they have the feel of a biological function, something that we intuitively feel is best left unseen and unsaid, like evidence of our digestion. But if you want to gain control over your memory, you must make a friend to this process, and become good at associating unlike things, using whatever superficial similarities they immediately present to you. But comedians and writers like Shakespeare have always understood the power of the pun.

Your Inner Monty Python: The Mind at Play

Having read it once, you probably won’t have any trouble remembering the amazing story I related above, about the poet and the ungrateful host, and how the poet “discovered” the art of memory by trying to identify the bodies of the other guests after they’d been crushed to death. It’s a vivid story, and vivid stories stick in memory readily, with virtually no conscious effort. But—and I did tell you there’d be a quiz later—do you remember the names of the poet and his host? Do you remember where it took place?

If you do remember these details, it is because your brain mentally linked those names and details to something more familiar to you. And I’ll warn you at this point: Memory is never pretty. In fact, the process of memory, of association, is always rather, well, silly.

In my case, to remember the story about how the art of memory was first discovered, all I need is a single mental image: In front of a ruined banquet hall, Paul Simon idly ‘simonizes’ his car with one hand (Simoniz was some sort of car wax or sealant they used to advertise on TV when I was a kid); with his free hand he is idly twirling his car keys. Sticking out of the rubble behind him is a crumpled telescope that was once its owner’s pride and joy; it is surrounded by thistles so you can’t retrieve it without getting pricked.

It sure is stupid, but you sure will remember it – and thus have a hard time not remembering that Simonides of Ceos (with a hard “C” it sounds a bit like “keys”) invented the art of memory after a banquet hall collapsed, and that his proud, ill-fated host was a man named Scopas (the telescope), a nobleman of Thessaly (the thistles). These are just the first associations that lept to mind for me; you would doubtless produce other ones (a friend or relative named Simon, etc….), and your memory image would be totally different, but equally absurd or stupid, and it would work just as well.

Memory images are always surreal. I find that they frequently resemble the absurdist comedy sketches of Monty Python. This is because art of memory uses the imagination, which is just the ability to play with words and images in your head and thereby form new associations. Some people use their imaginations very easily and naturally. Children do. Artists do. Some people very readily see figures in objects – a swan in the number 2, for example (an example from the number mnemonic—explained later). It is the same quality that sees faces or other objects in cloud or rock formations; it is certainly helped by meditation and other relaxed mental states.

Vivid imaginations have always been eschewed and distrusted by conformist and button-down minds—we think of growing up as setting aside our imagination for the cold and ordered world of reality. A common theme in the biographies of exceptionally creative or brilliant individuals like Einstein is that such people are unafraid to use their imaginations; they don’t feel hemmed in with rules of thought or worries about what it is proper to think about.

Even people who have long been out of the habit of consciously using their imaginations possess this ability to free associate and to project mental images onto things perceived. We do this all the time, and in fact it is essential to learning. The word projection in fact is misleading: “Projecting” the stuff of our imaginations onto things in the world is really how we introject—that is, mnemonically digest—our experiences. The brain automatically engages in such a process when we sleep; the vivid associative images of our dreams are in all likelihood actually memories being made (more on this here). The art of memory is a matter of exerting conscious control over the imagination when we are awake, in order to vastly accelerate the process of learning.

The Place Mnemonic

To remember a whole sequence of things – an argument, a book, whatever – you just need a way of stringing together a bunch of crazy memory images. You need a memory structure, in other words. That structure could be a physical, spatial structure, or it could be a structure in time. We’ll see examples of both, as applied to the art of memory.

In ancient Greece and Rome, practitioners of the art of memory made a habit of “collecting” places for use in their art. Every new town they visited, they would find suitable buildings (they were best if they were brightly lit, not too cluttered or noisy or crowded) and they would walk through them, taking them in and memorizing them, and marking off places at regular intervals (usually in groups of five or ten) that would serve later as memory loci. Then, when memorizing something like a speech or a legal discourse, they would mentally walk through that space and plant their vivid imagery at each locus. Recalling the material when needed was simply a matter of taking a mental stroll through this remembered space, collecting the vivid tableaux deposited at each mental locus.

The use of the place mnemonic is a natural outgrowth of the way memory for facts is keyed to our physical surroundings. For nonliterate societies, the places of the physical world become a sort of lived-in memory space. I stayed for a while in a remote village in Papua New Guinea, surrounded by rainforest. To my eyes, the forest was dense and beautiful, but without variety. Space had no meaning there. But my local companions and guides would often stop and point at some bent root, some certain small rise or gulley, and laugh, remembering something funny so-and-so had said in that spot, or remembering a particular pig they had killed there. The jungle was, for them, a familiar landscape of memory.

Our urban and suburban environments work the same way, even if we’re not conscious of it. When trying to remember material you read or hear, it is very helpful to notice your surroundings, the weather, the sensory details like smells, noises (children playing, a work crew outside), what the lecturer is wearing (if it is a class), and the physical location you are sitting in. By extension, the “place” on the page, if you are learning the material from a book, is also an important part of helping you remember. We’ve all had the experience of trying to hunt down some fact in a book, remembering that it was in the lower left corner of some page. The art of memory simply utilizes and amplifies the way the mind naturally keys memories to the details of setting and circumstance.

We now know that Medieval illuminated manuscripts, with their giant colorful initial capitals and their florid decorations and their bizarre marginal drawings, were conscious applications of art of memory principles. Scribes were not merely attempting to make their pages beautiful tributes to God; their designs had a practical purpose. Illumination made each page unique, and moreover created a vivid visual structure that would assist readers when later recalling the material they were reading.

The same principles are at work in modern design. A well-designed Web page is a structure with varied elements and visuals that guide our attention and structure our memory. Designers tend not to think in terms of “memory”—their watchwords will be things like “visual impact”—yet impact and memory are really the same thing. An ad that catches our attention and tickles our funny bone is, put another way, just finding ready purchase in our memory. It is creating a ready-made association for a named product, implanting it in our comedic unconscious, where it just may have an influence on our buying behavior later. An advertising jingle is, in fact, doing the same thing as a trip through a mental building: Creating a kind of “memory place” for a product.

Poetry and Song

You taught me the names of the stars overhead
That I wrote down in my ledger.
Though all I knew of the rote universe
Were those Pleiades, loosed in December.
I promised you I’d set them to verse
So I’d always remember
That the meteorite is the source of the light
And the meteor’s just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid
Of the fire that propelled it to thee

–Joanna Newsom

Songs are actually the best-known and perhaps oldest of memory devices, and they work on essentially the same principles as the place or grid mnemonics we’ve already seen. A meter with a rhyme scheme is like a familiar path from an origin to a destination; it serves as a very simple way of linking short bits of information into an order, creating a linear structure. Add to that rhyme scheme a melody, which further distinguishes each line of text, and suddenly it’s not hard at all to rattle off in your head a series of words and images that are either emotionally moving, or strange, or both, in the correct order. It is relatively easy for us to remember the lyrics of songs without even trying.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

There’s no chance, in the above text, of mixing up the order of these lines (you just can’t open with “All that glitters is gold,” for example). You may get a few words wrong here or there, but if you grew up in the seventies, whether you liked Led Zeppelin or not, those images, whatever they mean, are indelibly keyed to a certain melody and thus are unforgettable. Like it or not, you can probably sort of vaguely picture the “lady” and her stairway, and the stores, and the glittering gold.

Your head is full of songs that you’ve never had to try and remember, you just do. Studies show that people can easily remember whole songs, often after just one or two hearings. This was the original purpose – or part of the original purpose – of song and poetry: Verse creates a structure in which vivid images assume a certain place in a linear sequence; in all cultures everywhere, poetry is sung – it’s how the poet remembers the poem. That is how complex information – myths, genealogies, laws, and history – are encoded and passed on in oral traditions. Homer’s Odyssey was sung, for example. In fact, one of the oldest poems in the English language is a poem that had specifically a mnemonic purpose; you probably know it: “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November…”

The Grid System

In the middle ages, practitioners of the art of memory largely abandoned the use of architectural spaces – it had been a fashion of the ancients – and substituted mental grids, either square, circular, or semicircular on the model of an amphitheater. Like building interiors, a grid of rows/columns consists of regular groups of loci (cells) that can be filled with content. Unlike the various parts of a building, however, there is nothing intrinsically distinct and memorable about cells in a grid, so the key to this system is using a cross-referencing code system.

In the grid system, the dimensions or axes of the grid — the rows and columns — are different known series, be they numerical, alphabetical, or whatever. If each cell has a row letter and a column number, that two-character combination becomes a hook for the mental image that goes in the cell. Each mental image simply incorporates the code for that cell.

This was essentially how the memory masters of the Renaissance — men like Giordano Bruno — worked to store and encode vast amounts of knowledge. They typically were intimately familiar with many list-like sequences to which cell rows and columns could be keyed – the zodiac, pantheons of classical deities, Biblical genealogies, etc. These things came readimade with vivid associations to help in fashioning memory images, although theoretically a memory grid could be constructed using simple number- and alphabet codes.

It is possible to create vast mental spreadsheets using this method. And the only limit to the number of dimensions of such a system would how many natural series of things you can use for coding. There’s the alphabet – a series 26 items long that almost everyone knows by heart – and the numbers; even just using the digits 0-9 (or 1-10) plus the alphabet gives you a grid with 260 cells – more than I’ve ever needed (but I’ve never needed to memorize a book). Multiply that by the 12 months of the year and … well, you get the idea.

The grid system is a very direct ancestor of modern computer memory, which functions the same way: Every bit of information has an “address,” a localization in a grid, which enables it to be accessed and found.

Making Room for Memories

Brains function very differently from anything you will find in your computer, such as a CPU or a hard drive, where bits of information occupy discrete locations on a magnetic disk. When neuroscientists scan the brains of experiment participants engaged in memory tasks, disparate areas are activated in tandem — areas involving perception and emotion and language and everything else. A memory is not a discrete thing like a notecard, filed away in a certain place in your head. It is a confluence of multiple processes, images, and associations.

But for all its complexity, the brain does have this in common with a computer: Memory storage space is limited. Because it can only handle so much information, the brain has to find ways of compressing information into the smallest possible volume, both to take up the minimum of storage and to make it faster to transmit and process.

Compressing information by finding redundancies is basic to information theory: Computers have all kinds of algorithms for compressing information by finding data that is repeated or common to separate things and then having those things share that data, rather than recording the data multiple times — thus freeing up space on the hard drive or other magnetic media. A century ago, Sigmund Freud realized that something like “data compression” is also at the root of many of the unconscious mental processes he had identified. Take humor, for example: There is the saying “brevity is the soul of wit,” but Freud actually determined that it is economy, saying a lot with a little, that makes things funny. If you unpack and examine most any really funny joke, you will find that much of its power resides in how much information, how many associations, are conveyed in a small little package.

Jokes clue us in to the mind’s constant effort to find ways of compressing information: Our delight at a good joke is our brain finding a particular piece of information particularly nutritious – because it contains a lot, in a small package. Metaphors, the building blocks of thought and memory, are a more general and pervasive example of the same principle. Like jokes, metaphors are economical. They enable us to think about big complex subjects using simpler terms we are already familiar with. For example, a country is metaphorically like a person: Both have a body, organs, “arms,” and a head that leads the whole. (For more on metaphor and how they structure the way they think, see the groundbreaking work of cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, especially Metaphors We Live By.)

If your hard drive is full, you erase material you don’t need (internet sites you’ve visited, first drafts of files, old pictures you don’t want to keep) to make room for new stuff. The brain is much subtler in the way it works. First of all, the brain has the quality of plasticity — the ability to change throughout life. With a finite number of neurons, though, how can new material be added to old material indefinitely? Mustn’t new material somehow displace the old?

Researchers who work on memory have realized that memory is constantly being, not lost, but distorted, altered to fit ever-newer paradigms of how we see ourselves. It is subject to suggestion and reshaping, continual editing and shifting. Instead of throwing old experiences away, the plastic brain shifts and changes them, saves space by creating associations among existing things that make sense of, and make space for, new ideas. (Maybe “making sense of” and “making space for” are the same thing, in the brain.) In the process, memories, past experiences, are distorted, altered. They are not lost, but neither are they retained in pristine condition.

Remembering and forgetting are not two separate things (as they are in a hard drive). Instead, think of the brain as a malleable clayey substance. It can be imprinted, pulled and pushed and reshaped. An imprint will remain, but as the clay is pulled in this or that direction, the imprint distorts, features shift in importance.

Memory, in other words, is a process of change and transformation, not one of acquisition and loss.


Memory naturally involves the pairing of unrelated things — i.e., associations. Pairing unrelated things is crucial in designing one’s own systems of artificial memory. This always must be kept in mind, because there is a natural temptation to pair things that are related. But natural coincidences don’t work for memory. Artificial pairings do.

If you are studying art history, for example, it may seem like a great idea to utilize a familiar art gallery as a memory space. This is a mistake, though. Since art naturally belongs in galleries, its presence in your mental gallery won’t have the contrast and drama needed to make it memorable, and the contents will blur and fade. Galleries make great memory spaces, but not for anything related to art. (The logic is universally extended: Your garage makes a great memory space, but not for anything related to cars or mechanics; churches work great for anything but religion.) Pick a memory space that is as wildly inappropriate to the subject matter as you can imagine. (Even if – especially if – it means mentally sullying your church with unseemly mental imagery like a naked people and animals.)

Your retrieval scheme is simply a matter of what links to what. And in memory, as in rhetoric and drama and other arts, contrast is key. Linking unrelated things creates firm and stable structures. You might think this would create a confused and haphazard mind, but in fact the opposite is true.

Imagine angled or horizontal girders extending across the span of a big building, giving stability to the upright pillars carrying the weight. A mind in which different subject matter and interests were kept distinct and isolated, separate corners or islands of knowledge, would fall apart. Structure is the interrelationship among all things. It may look haphazard, but the more things cross and criss-cross, the more unrelated things link up with each other, the more firmly it will all hold together and, paradoxically, the more powerful your memory for each individual part will be.

Another metaphor than criss-crossing girders in a building is the criss-crossing of people in a village square, that is, the regular exchange, the intercourse, of people in a society. Society is association. And learning is association: creating a society of ideas in the brain. The association, or sociability, of ideas has often been allegorized as the coming together – that is, the intercourse – of people. It is no wonder that sexuality is such a powerful symbol. For Freud, everything was a symbol of sex. But sex is also a symbol, a symbol of nothing other than the processes of the mind – that is, association.

The Number Mnemonic

Here’s a simple memory device you can learn right now and begin applying today for any kind of list. After reading this, you will no longer ever need to write down a shopping list or carry a slip of paper with you to the grocery store.

You simply must decide on an object that each number from 1 to 10 reminds you of. Then for any list, just associate each item with the object representing its number, using a little scene or vignette. This is a widely used technique, described in many manuals. It’s very simple, and your digit sequence can be reused endlessly for new lists. I find it the handiest mnemonic device, and I use it almost every day for something – not just lists, but also things like PIN numbers and phone numbers. With practice, you can use it to memorize your credit card numbers.

Often, people choose a candle to represent 1 and a swan to represent 2. I generalize from these items a bit for variety – a candle burns, so for me, any use of fire represents the first item of the list; same with 2=swan – I generalize to any bird or even just “flying.” The image I use for number 3 is a naked, pregnant woman (she doesn’t have to be naked, but the more interesting or dramatic the object, the better). Somewhere I read that the number 4 reminded someone of a sail of a sailboat, so in my system, a boat or ship of any kind (even a spaceship such as the Starship Enterprise) serves to represent the fourth place. The number 5 looks like a hook, so I use a hook to represent that number. 6 looks like a coiled snake with raised head, so a snake represents that number. The first thing 7 reminds me of is a high cliff, so item 7 is generally in midair screaming for its life or dangling by its fingertips or some such (remember, something dramatic – make a little story). Some people use an hourglass to represent the number 8, and this works for me – but, by extension, I use any clock or timepiece. 9 is tough; some see in it a balloon on a string or stick, but to me, it looks like a big wide-eyed child grinning, so item 9 in my lists are always somehow incorporated into a mouth or into a grin (given a choice, positive images are better than negative ones; the mind more readily goes toward positive imagery). And 10 is often represented as a table setting, and that’s what I use.

You can extend the list indefinitely by combining number-symbols together in sentence-like strings (see below); although for longer lists, I might switch to another format such as using the alphabet (simply think of a friend or person whose name starts with each letter, and for each item to be remembered, create a story/scene involving that item and that person).

Try it today. Over the phone your spouse rattles off a short list of items you need to pick up from the grocery store on your way home: “Get eggs, beer, Tylenol, and toilet paper. Oh yeah, also a few containers of lemon yogurt.”

The eggs are burning, popping and sizzling, frying right in their container, which has somehow burst into flames (the more little sensory details and dramatic elements that pop quickly and easily to mind, the better); a crowd gathers by the bank of a pond watching a white swan flop around drunkenly on the water, vomiting (you don’t need to be overly specific, I find: The reminder of alcohol—i.e. the swan’s drunkenness—will be enough to point you in the right direction, toward the beer aisle); a naked pregnant woman struggles to open a child-proof cap (again, anything related to pills or medicine will probably be enough to point you to the Tylenol); a tall three-masted schooner has been tee-peed in the night, toilet paper draped everywhere and the crew tries to get it cleaned up under the eyes of the angry captain; the last scene of Jaws – Roy Scheider tosses a cup of yoghurt into the shark’s mouth and shoots it, causing an explosion of yellow yoghurt and shark (hook connected to fishing and being in a fish’s mouth, but the shape of a typical yoghurt container connected it to the air tank in Jaws, so…).

To use the system to remember strings of numbers like a PIN number, create a story that links together the digits in a sequence. I find it helpful to think of a four-digit sequence as a sentence, in which the first digit is always the main subject-noun, the second is the verb or action, the third is the direct object of the sentence or something affected by the action of the subject, and the fourth is the place or setting. So, to remember 4168, I would just think of a burning sailboat sitting in a desert, which is actually the sand of a giant hourglass, with a bunch of snakes slithering overboard to escape the heat.

The first few times you do it, it will probably take a little longer to come up with associations for the items and numbers than the time it would take to just write them down; but with a little practice it becomes easy, so that eventually even time, not just paper, is saved. The real point is not to save paper, of course, or to prepare for some future in which books have been outlawed, as in Fahrenheit 451. Hopefully this will never happen. The point is to learn to train your mind, make it stronger, more flexible, and more receptive.

Free Ass-Sociate

Learning the art of memory means reacquiring the childish habit of being playful and even inappropriate in our approach to our experiences. If you concoct a memory image to remember some fact or some story, and really using associations that your own mind generates, the images will generally be crazy. They may be funny, they may be disgusting, they may be lewd. At the very least, they will likely be so stupid and asinine as to be virtually impossible to share with anybody else. The more idiosyncratic to one’s own experience and one’s priorities it is—and thus, the more strange or stupid—the better a memory image will work. The harder a memory image is to share with other people, the more effective it will be.

This curious fact about psychology has historically been one of the reasons that the art of memory has not always enjoyed a positive reputation. During the superstitious Middle Ages and Renaissance, memory techniques were often classified as “magic,” and the line between White or “natural” magic and the black arts was a fuzzy and ever-shifting one. Mnemonists like Giordano Bruno were having constantly to defend their practices against suspicions that it was somehow heretical. Teaching the art of memory is not on the list of offenses that got Bruno burned by the Inquisition in 1600, but the fact that this art invited thinking outside the mental boxes of the narrow and totalitarian Church always made it something potentially countercultural, something to be controlled and distrusted.

If you are a typical, mentally sound, responsible adult who has not had much recent practice consciously using your imagination to make associations, start now, with the number system. Don’t get elaborate. Use the standard images I have suggested unless there are other images that compellingly come to mind for you. If the number 3 reminds you of a woman’s ass – the image I reserve for the letter B – then by all means use it. Or a man’s ass. Either way, be dirty. Be asinine.

But resist the feeling that you need to be original. What works is what comes effortlessly and naturally to mind, and usually, like jokes, those are things we have gotten from others. Don’t put thought into making your images more original or unique to you. Always use what is first available, right at hand, whatever pops up – these are the “free associations” — free, meaning free of charge.

Copyright has no place in an art of memory, and any consideration for property, like any consideration for propriety, is just a needless fetter on the imagination. In the world of the mind and mental imagery, everything is free. No one owns anything. Wherever you got it from, if it’s in your head, it’s yours now. Giordano Bruno shamelessly lifted many of his images straight from earlier masters like Henry Cornelius Agrippa, but his execution at the stake was not for violating 16th-century intellectual property laws.

If you attempt to be original in your use of mental imagery, you are putting too much effort in and the returns diminish considerably. Remember: Memory is play, and play is effortless; the more you make memory into work, the less it will work.


Plato tells the story, in his Phaedrus, of how Theuth came to the ruler of Egypt, Thamus, essentially hawking various arts and sciences. When he came to writing, Theuth expressed considerable enthusiasm, touting it as a great aid to memory, and recommending it highly to the king. Thamus was not so easily sold, however. This art, he said, after some reflection, was not a tool for memory, but for reminding—a big difference. Memory itself, he said, would diminish, and with it, wisdom. People would become, he said, even harder to get along with, because they will think themselves wise without really being wise.

In hindsight, it’s hard to favor Thamus’s view. Literacy grants undeniable, countless advantages, and improves our lives in myriad ways. We would not want to be without it. But Thamus was right in one respect: All the knowledge available in books and encoded in the electronic aether will not function of its own accord. Reason and wisdom are properties of the user of knowledge, and all the information in the world will, in and of itself, not make us better or wiser at using it. Writing does not, indeed cannot, improve us. It is a gift to us, but it is not our gift.

Wisdom and intellect need the training that comes from memory. Things learned, the influences in one’s life, need to be remembered, gathered together, organized according to some system or other, so that they are accessible, and so that they can be both commemorated and understood. Commemoration and understanding are parents of memory, whose destinies the offspring unites into a common purpose.

It is striking that, in its origin myth, the art of memory was born from the need to identify the dead for proper commemoration. It is tempting to see in this story a reflection of the central Egyptian myth of Osiris.

Osiris, lord of the earth, is murdered by his brother Set, who entombs his body in a casket and sends it down the Nile, where it comes to rest on a riverbank and ends up enveloped in a great tamarisk tree. The tree is then cut down and used for the pillar of the house of a local king. Osiris’s queen, Isis, with the help of Anubis (the dog-headed god born of Osiris’s tryst with Nephthys), finds this house and becomes a nurse to the king’s children. Eventually, after much wierdness, Isis obtains the box with her husband’s remains, and hides them in a safe place. Later, Set happens upon the box and, recognizing his brother, cuts the body into fourteen pieces and scatters them all over Egypt. Isis sets out in a papyrus boat to recover the pieces of her beloved husband, and each time she finds a piece she builds a tomb. It is only through the love of the queen and various travails in the underworld (detailed in the Book of the Dead) that Osiris can be reconstituted and resurrected.

Part of the reason for the elaborate preservation of the body and its features in mummification was the importance of the dead person to retain his or her recognizable form. Thus in the underworld the physical body or khat would be reunited with the other components of the self: the ka (image or double), the ba (soul), the khaibit (shadow), the khu (shining spirit), the sekhem (power) and the ren (name).

It is helpful to think of Osiris as that which we want to remember, or, that which we want to grant eternal life. Is “eternal life in the underworld” not the same as memory? Set, the conniving brother of Osiris, represents the power of division, and one might think he is the enemy of memory: forgetting. But division is not all bad, considering that if the parts are recovered, individually enshrined, and given proper burial (i.e. entombment), the whole can be reconstituted – literally, re-membered, put back together – and sometimes this re-putting-together is an enhancement of the original. Death = Rebirth.

The artificial memory described above uses this ability to take apart in order to organize and focus the mind. In Medieval thought, there was no creativity without memory: imagination and recollection were two sides of the same coin. Without the ability to take things apart and put them back together, nothing would be remembered, and without memory, we cannot create anything new. I have argued elsewhere that dreaming, the wellspring of creativity, is actually the art of memory functioning automatically while we sleep, to help consolidate new experiences in long-term memory. But that’s another story.

–Eric Wargo