Skip to main content

Blog entry by Dave Perton


Many current principles used to strengthen our memories can be traced back hundreds or even thousands of years. And although I don’t think it’s necessary to learn everything some of the wisest minds have written about memory over the years, some familiarity with their approaches and their concepts makes it easier today to understand and strengthen your memory.To the ancients, memory was not just a means of preserving the past, but was considered a tool for what we would now call creative thinking. By constructing within the mind a structured and orderly memory, the ancients thought it possible to forge new thoughts and establish original and creative connections.Commenting on the depth and power of his memory, Saint Augustine wrote: “The vast mansions of memory were treasured in innumerable images brought in from objects of every conceivable kind perceived by the senses. In these mansions are hidden away the modified images we produce when by our thinking we magnify or diminish or in any way alter the information our senses have reported. In the immense court of my memory sky and earth and sea are available to me, together with everything I have ever been able to perceive in them.”The Greeks were among the first to use special techniques to perfect the faculty of memory.The key discovery can be traced to the collapse of a banquet hall. The poet Simonides (556–468 B.C.) was performing at a banquet and survived the collapse of the building (luckily he had been called outside a few moments before the collapse). Using his memory, Simonides was able to identify the dead based on his recall of the places where each of them had been sitting during the banquet. Traditionally, many have claimed that he was not only able to envision and name the positions of the attendees, but could identify what they were wearing and other indicators that differentiated one attendee from another. This remarkable performance suggested some of the principles of the art of memory. Here is Cicero’s description of Simonides’s insight:“He inferred that persons desiring to train the faculty of memory must select places [the seats at the banquet hall] and form mental images of the things that they wish to remember [the identity of the banqueters]”.By restoring the images of the banqueters sitting at their places at the banquet table, Simonides made it possible to use the order of the places as a means of preserving the order of the individual banqueters. The key principle of Simonides’s memory method was the formation of mental images coupled with their orderly arrangement.