A couple of thousand years ago Greek orators faced a major memory challenge. To make faultless speeches lasting several hours, and lacking such modern memory aides as cue cards or TV autocue machines to guide them, they were obliged to develop powerful and practical ways of remembering and recalling vast amounts of information.
Not surprisingly this led some entrepreneurs to develop and market a number of mnemonic devices for aiding a flagging memory. Named after Mnemosyne, the personification of memory in Greek mythology, they create in the mind an artificial structure that allows disassociated ideas to be brought to mind more easily.
First off the mark which such a system was a fifth century BC Greek lyric poet named Simonides of Ceos. He developed a mnemonic technique known as loci et res, from locus meaning a familiar structure and res the thing to be remembered. It was a simple yet powerful device that allowed the lengthiest of speeches to be remembered with relative ease.
How he came to devise this approach is an intriguing story that well illustrates some of the key aspects of Sensualisations.
Simonides – The World’s Commercial Memory Man
While attending a banquet in a luxurious marble hall, Simonides was unexpectedly called outside to meet two messengers. No sooner had he left the building than an earthquake caused its collapse and everyone remaining inside was killed. So crushed were their bodies by the gigantic falling pillars that even their next of kin were unable to recognise them. In despair they begged the sole survivor of the catastrophe to help identify their loved ones. So many of his friends and neighbours had attended the banquet that, at first, Simonades felt unable to help. He simply could not remember where each of his friends had been sitting.
Then he realised that by recreating an image of the banqueting hall in his mind’s eye he could place each of the guests in his seat and so recall their names.
Sitting quietly he focused on picturing the banqueting hall at the moment he was called away. “Walking” through this imaginary chamber he was able accurately to name each of the victims so that grieving relatives could remove the crushed remains of their loved ones.
Later it struck him that this same approach could prove of great value to orators – and so one of the world’s first ever memory enhancement courses was created.
Even today, more than 2,500 years after the event, the method of loci remains a staple technique in many of the memory training courses you see advertised in newspapers and magazines.
The Method of Loci
Simonides instructed his students to imagine themselves strolling around a familiar building, such as their own homes, mentally locating each key idea or fact in a specific location. One, for example, might be mentally fixed just inside the front entrance, the second on a table, a third by an ornamental fountain in the courtyard and so on.
To recall those ideas or facts the speaker had merely to retrace his footsteps around the same location – in his mind’s eye of course – and, as it were ‘pick up’ the information where he had previously positioned it.
The same approach works just as well today. To remember a shopping list, for example, try visualising each item at a specific place in your own home. You might put a bag of sugar on the hall table, a half kilo of apples on the TV in the drawing room, potatoes on the dining room table and so on. To recall the list simply retrace your steps around the house.