Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

The system of Simonides was based upon the idea of position–it was known as “the topical system.” His students were taught to picture in the mind a large building divided into sections, and then into rooms, halls, etc. The thing to be remembered was “visualized” as occupying some certain space or place in that building, the grouping being made according to association and resemblance. When one wished to recall the things to consciousness, all that was necessary was to visualize the mental building and then take an imaginary trip from room to room, calling off the various things as they had been placed. The Greeks thought very highly of this plan, and many variations of it were employed. Cicero said: “By those who would improve the memory, certain places must be fixed upon, and of those things which they desire to keep in memory symbols must be conceived in the mind and ranged, as it were, in those places; thus, the order of places would preserve the order of things, and the symbols of the things would denote the things themselves; so that we should use the places as waxen tablets and the symbols as letters.” Quintillian advises students to “fix in their minds places of the greatest possible extent, diversified by considerable variety, such as a large house, for example, divided into many apartments. Whatever is remarkable in it is carefully impressed on the mind, so that the thought may run over every part of it without hesitation or delay…. Places we must have, either fancied or selected, and images or symbols which we may invent at pleasure. These symbols are marks by which we may distinguish the particulars which we have to get by heart.”

Many modern systems have been erected upon the foundation of Simonides and in some of which cases students have been charged high prices “for the secret.” The following outline given by Kay gives the “secret” of many a high priced system of this class: “Select a number of rooms, and divide the walls and floor of each, in imagination, into nine equal parts or squares, three in a row. On the front wall–that opposite the entrance–of the first room, are the units; on the right-hand wall the tens; on the left hand the twenties; on the fourth wall the thirties; and on the floor the forties. Numbers 10, 20, 30 and 40, each find a place on the roof above their respective walls, while 50 occupies the centre of the room. One room will thus furnish 50 places, and ten rooms as many as 500. Having fixed these clearly in the mind, so as to be able readily and at once to tell exactly the position of each place or number, it is then necessary to associate with each of them some familiar object (or symbol) so that the object being suggested its place may be instantly remembered, or when the place be before the mind its object may immediately spring up. When this has been done thoroughly, the objects can be run over in any order from beginning to end, or from end to beginning, or the place of any particular one can at once be given. All that is further necessary is to associate the ideas we wish to remember with the objects in the various places, by which means they are easily remembered, and can be gone over in any order. In this way one may learn to repeat several hundred disconnected words or ideas in any order after hearing them only once.” We do not consider it necessary to argue in detail the fact that this system is artificial and cumbersome to a great degree. While the idea of “position” may be employed to some advantage in grouping together in the memory several associated facts, ideas, or words, still the idea of employing a process such as the above in the ordinary affairs of life is ridiculous, and any system based upon it has a value only as a curiosity, or a mental acrobatic feat.

Akin to the above is the idea underlying many other “systems,” and “secret methods”–the idea of Contiguity, in which words are strung together by fanciful connecting links. Feinagle describes this underlying idea, or principle, as follows: “The recollection of them is assisted by associating some idea of relation between the two; and as we find by experience that whatever is ludicrous is calculated to make a strong impression on the mind, the more ridiculous the association is the better.” The systems founded upon this idea may be employed to repeat a long string of disconnected words, and similar things, but have but little practical value, notwithstanding the high prices charged for them. They serve merely as curiosities, or methods of performing “tricks” to amuse one’s friends. Dr. Kothe, a German teacher, about the middle of the nineteenth century founded this last school of memory training, his ideas serving as the foundation for many teachers of high-priced “systems” or “secret methods” since that time. The above description of Feinagle gives the key to the principle employed. The working of the principle is accomplished by the employment of “intermediates” or “correlatives” as they are called; for instance, the words “chimney” and “leaf” would be connected as follows: “_Chimney_–smoke–wood–tree–_Leaf_.”

Then there are systems or methods based on the old principle of the “Figure Alphabet,” in which one is taught to remember dates by associating them with letters or words. For instance, one of the teachers of this class of systems, wished his pupils to remember the year 1480 by the word “BiG RaT,” the capitals representing the figures in the date. Comment is unnecessary!

The student will find that nearly all the “systems” or “secret methods” that are being offered for sale in “courses,” often at a very high price, are merely variations, improvements upon, or combinations of the three forms of artificial methods named above. New changes are constantly being worked on these old plans; new tunes played on the same old instruments; new chimes sounded from the same old bells. And the result is ever the same, in these cases–disappointment and disgust. There are a few natural systems on the market, nearly all of which contain information and instruction that makes them worth the price at which they are sold. As for the others–well, judge for yourself after purchasing them, if you so desire.

Regarding these artificial and fanciful systems, Kay says: “All such systems for the improvement of the memory belong to what we have considered the first or lowest form of it. They are for the most part based on light or foolish associations which have little foundation in nature, and are hence of little practical utility; and they do not tend to improve or strengthen the memory as a whole.” Bacon says that these systems are “barren and useless,” adding: “For immediately to repeat a multitude of names or words once repeated before, I esteem no more than rope-dancing, antic postures, and feats of activity; and, indeed, they are nearly the same things, the one being the abuse of the bodily as the other of the mental powers; and though they may cause admiration, they cannot be highly esteemed.” And as another authority has said: “The systems of mnemonics as taught, are no better than crutches, useful to those who cannot walk, but impediments and hindrances to those who have the use of their limbs, and who only require to exercise them properly in order to have the full use of them.”

In this work, there shall be no attempt to teach any of these “trick systems” that the student may perform for the amusement of his friends. Instead, there is only the desire to aid in developing the power to receive impressions, to register them upon the memory, and readily to reproduce them at will, naturally and easily. The lines of natural mental action will be followed throughout. The idea of this work is not to teach how one may perform “feats” of memory; but, instead, to instruct in the intelligent and practical use of the memory in the affairs of every-day life and work.

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