- Spatial Memory:Variations on Classical Themes
In March 2012, Joshua Foer presented a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk to a mesmerized audience. As he began, Foer asked the audience members to close their eyes, and he proceeded to describe a scenario in which a series of striking images appeared as he talked his spectators through various architectural spaces in a house they were to imagine as their own. First, a group of nude bicyclists materialized at the front door, crashing before the very eyes of the bemused beholders, sending bicycle pieces flying in all directions. An encounter with Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster in the entrance foyer ensued, during which salient details of the Muppet’s appearance were described down to the smell of his constant companion, a cookie. Then a visit to the kitchen provoked the emergence of The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow from the oven, who proceeded to skip along the kitchen floor, now imagined as paved in yellow bricks. The demonstration halted there, and Foer explained to his audience that he had just provided a very small sampling of the workings of an ancient memory technique, sometimes called the method of loci, which utilizes spatial architecture and striking images as a means for recalling a series of items in order. These can be random things, or the topics of an argument, or any other sequence of elements one has reason to remember. Those who are proficient in this exercise can perform astounding feats suggesting a mind quite out of the ordinary. How do they do it? Is this an innate gift akin to the notion of “photographic memory,” which immediately comes to mind when one witnesses such a performance, or is this a skill that can be developed through practice and exercise?
Foer’s investigation quickly sent him to Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, published in 1966, which has become indispensable for scholars reflecting on the importance of memory as an educational, artistic, political, and social tool in classical Greek and Roman cultures (see Foer 89–105). Yates scoured ancient Greek texts searching for descriptions of memory techniques and discovered very few writings on the topic. The main problem, of course, is the fragmentary nature of the Greek manuscripts that have survived over the centuries. As Yates suggests, “There were certainly many [textbooks on rhetoric] in Greek but they have not come down to us, hence our dependence on the three Latin sources for any [End Page 27] conjectures we may make concerning Greek artificial memory” (Yates ch. 2) A potentially significant additional factor might play a role, however: the judicious use of memory is a skill, or better yet, a type of virtuosity. To become a virtuoso, as Joshua Foer did over the year following his first introduction to this memory technique, involves training with a mentor in the course of a sustained exchange. Such a relationship lends an air of mystery to the skill to be developed, poorly adapted to textbook descriptions.1 Finally, a prodigious memory in a competitive public recitation context, say, a political debate, is an asset one does not necessarily wish to share with opponents or emulators.
In the absence of substantial early Greek texts addressing in a detailed manner the question of how to develop one’s memory to use it effectively in public speaking or literary recitation, a highly emblematic anecdote recounted in Latin sources (Quintilian and Cicero, in particular) came to symbolize the technique that so fascinated Joshua Foer when he encountered it. It is the story of a miraculous escape by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 – 468 BCE) during a banquet organized by Scopas, a noble benefactor of Simonides, who had commissioned a poem that Simonides was to recite for the occasion. I want to begin with the description of this scene as it is found in Cicero’s De Oratore (55 BCE). Predictably, in a dialogue dedicated to the art of oratory, the great Roman philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and political theorist confronted the problem of ordering ideas and then recollecting them in the proper sequence, a skill the successful speaker...