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"Mnemonics Neatly Eliminate Man's Only Nemesis (Insufficient Cerebral Storage)"


Owing to the fact that the faculty of memory has always been more neglected than any other, attention was from the earliest times directed to the devising of methods to assist it. As one of the earliest instances of such aids I may cite the erection of memorial stones to the children of Israel, described in Exodus xxviii, 9 to 12 verse, and in Joshua iv., 1 to 24. Others will readily occur to the Biblical student. The numerals of Pythagoras were purely mnemonical. "They were," says Porphyry, "hieroglyphical symbols, by means whereof he explained all ideas concerning the nature of all things. Among the Jews it was the practice to abbreviate words, and also to form words from the initial letters of other words, as memory-aids, as Rambam for "Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon." The Jews also made use of natural words to represent numbers, similar to the Roman numerals, and used them for the purpose of dating their Bibles. At the corner of the veil used in the Jewish synagogue during prayer were strings, each with five knots to suggest the five books of Moses, a fact which suggests the old-fashioned custom of tying a knot in a handkerchief, or a thread round the finger as a reminder. "When this you see remember me," is another memory-aid, generally used as a ring-posy, and we find it thus used in 1673, by the Rev. Giles Moore, who records in his diary the fact that he presented Ann Brett with a ring bearing this inscription. In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the custom was also common, and it is thought to have originated with the Romans, who gave their lady-loves gems with "Remember" and other mottoes cut upon them.

The earliest attempt to assist the memory by a methodical system was made by Simonides, the Greek poet of Cos, who flourished about 500 B.C., and who invented what is termed the topical or locality memory. Simonides was engaged to recite a poem at a banquet, given by one of his patrons, and after doing so the room fell in, burying all in its debris, and disfiguring the bodies so as to render identification impossible. Simonides, however, had noted the position each guest had occupied, and was thus able to point out the remains of each. Cicero and Quintilian both refer to his system and advocate its use; and we may add that it is the basis of most modern methods. Simonides found that to fix a number of places in the mind in a certain order was a great help to the natural faculty. His plan was to form in the mind a building which was divided and subdivided into distinct parts arranged in a certain order. The order of these parts were to be thoroughly learnt. As many words as there were parts were then symbolised by the images of living creatures, and when a number of things were to be committed to memory in certain order, mental images representing them were to be placed regularly in the several parts of the building. Thus, the porch, the hall, parlour, rooms, walls, and objects in the building were arranged consecutively, and objective images, representing persons and things, were connected with them. From this systen we are said to take the phrases used in dividing a discourse - "In the first place," "in the second place,"


Mnemonics are essentially storage devices for information in the human mind. They work because they take advantage of the chemical and neurological process of the brain and the formation of memories. The best way to learn things is to associate them with other things. Related thoughts are connected in the brain via neural pathways. Thus, in people's mind, "apple" will often be associated with "red" and "round." By remembering the concept of "red," the memory of "apple" will also be triggered. Mnemonics capitalize on this principle by creating more entry points to different pieces of information, and with it more neural pathways to different parts of the brain.

At first glance, mnemonics may seem rather counter-intuitive in that they require you to remember a multitude of information in an attempt to solve the problem of remembering something else entirely. Rather than just remembering one date, 1492 for example, mnemonics ask that you remember a poem, "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." More information is required in an attempt to forge an initial piece of information in one's mind. While it seems rather contradictory to do this, however, it is a necessary requirement of the way the brain functions, and ironically is the most efficient way of retaining and retrieving information. A useful metaphor may be that the mnemonic system becomes a file in which to store the important information.

In many mnemonic systems, when it comes to the specifics of the "extra" information, however, much of it is entirely arbitrary and can be adapted for each individual. Much like pre-packaged cake mix, a basic structure is offered, however the particular words and connections that will best serve the individual can be fit into the pre-determined structure. For example, a common strategy for remembering the order of things is to remember the first letter of each word and put together a new sentence in which each of the words starts with one of the letters needing to be remembered, in the proper order. So if one wanted to remember biological taxonomic classifications from broadest to most specific (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Variety), one need construct a new sentence in which each subsequent word starts with the next letter in order (K,P,C,O,F,G,S,V). Each individual might have a different sentence that works best for him or her, however. So while one student might find it most advantageous to remember "King Philip's Classic Order: Family Genius - Special Value'" another might find it easier to remember "Kindly Place Cover On Fresh Green Spring Vegetables." All mnemonic systems work in this manner. This flexibility makes mnemonics an incredibly useful set of strategies, and the failure of it working is essentially more dependent on the arbitrary information filled into the system. If someone fails to remember the order of the taxonomical classes it is only because the sentence used is not the best for the user.

Although mnemonics are incredibly efficient at storing information in packages that allow for easy retrieval, however they are rarely used today, in part because it is decreasingly relevant or important to remember things. As Nietzsche observed, "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." The way we interact with information has changed drastically since a time before writing, thus changing the way we think. To cite the oft-relevant Jonathan Crary, audiences need to be trained to use new mediums and technologies, and it seems as though our new technologies our shaping the way we seek out, take in, and digest information. In a time when memory was the only storage device or at least one of the most efficient, mnemonics were an obvious form of mediation, however, as new technologies have become available making it simple to find almost any fact in a few quick keystrokes and a quick skimming of a web page, those old strategies have become less necessary. Even before the internet our minds have begun changing. Writing became easier with the invention of new technologies and mnemonics began to fade.

Most of the mnemonic devices and techniques that remain are of simple, more standardized varieties. "Roy G. Biv" to remember the colors of the rainbow, "In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue" to remember major historical events, and "lefty, loosey; righty, tighty" to remember how tools work are some of the simple varieties still prevalent today. Despite the longevity of some of these devices, however, they are but a small suggestion of the much more complex and widespread mnemonic strategies of yesteryear.

Case Study or Trace Study of the Memory Palace

Memory Palaces are methods of loci which use an imagined architecture to structure a speech based on associations of symbols. They are a remediation of association. Before memory palaces were imagined, symbols were already being used to stand in for words or ideas, such as hieroglyphs. Memory Palaces abstract this notion of association of images with ideas and complicate it to allow one to remember hundreds of ideas and statements.

Memory Palace and Afterimage

The Memory Palace becomes a spectral extension of one’s own home. This extension is a frozen image which cannot be altered if it is to function properly. Its static and unchanging nature reveals that it is very much like a photograph, an archiveable and petrified image, and a dead copy of a live original. The memory palace, then is an afterimage and faint impression of the real house. “…the privileging of the afterimage allowed one to conceive of sensory perception as cut from any necessary link with an external referent. The afterimage – the presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus – and its subsequent modulations posed a theoretical and empirical demonstration of autonomous vision, of an optical experience that was produced by and within the subject.” (Crary 98) The afterimage of the memory palace is detachable, once it is created you don’t need the real house to evoke it, it can be evoked independently by the subject, independent of the real house as its originary referent. It’s static and spectral quality lends it to the space of the crypt and removes it from the space of the living. It is the dead memory that must be summoned by the speaker, called to as the missing Other, and resurrected into the present.

Artificial Memory

Hegel - Erinnerung and Gedächtnis (good memory and bad memory). Erinnerung is good memory for Hegel, it can be accessed and functions normally, also points to a missing Other. Gedächtnis bad memory, technologized memory is prone to forgetting, like writing (Plato, Derrida). Gedächtnis relies on a crutch and acts as a prosthetic or extension. It is the mechanical reproduction of memory. Memory Palaces fall under Gedächtnis, as they are a phantom crutch for remembering which can be easily dismantled and forgotten. It does reflect Erinnerung in that it calls to its missing Other but Hegel would likely consider it to be bad memory.


Memory Palaces must be practiced, otherwise they are prone to being forgotten. Meant to be remembered for a specific occasion, a specific speech, or event, once the event has passed, the memory palace recedes, shatters, erases itself into the depths of the mystic writing pad’s unconscious.

Mnemonic Expression: Writing Secrets and Speaking the Mind

While mnemonic techniques were designed for oral performance without visible written aid, they were, pace Derrida, systems of representation organized by writing. Rather than utilizing writing to externalize memory, mnemonics structured texts to correlate with the (variously imagined) inner mechanisms of the psyche. Mnemonics shaped poetics via rhyme and meter, for instance, rendering the text structurally uniform so that it might be more easily remembered and spoken. Mnemonic technique thus interfaced between speech and writing, presence and trace. In the same vein, mnemonics mediated between the interior mind and the external world, articulating both. From a media archaeological perspective, mnemonics become not just storage techniques but written expression, inscribing secrets of history and representing the persistently black-boxed functioning of human memory.

Mnemonics as cryptography

As a mode of mediation, mnemonics represent a curious combination of semiotics and functional nonsense. Mnemonic signs (images, places, phrases) must be nearly evacuated of meaning in order to cue—but not replace—the desired information actively attached to (or associated with) them. From this perspective, mnemonics functioned as a storage technique comprised of arbitrary signifiers rather than a communicative semantic system (mnemonic vestiges like Roy G. Biv and King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti confirm this view). The seemingly nonsensical functioning of mnemonics, however, leaves open the opportunity for obfuscation. If mnemonics could be objectively coded for memory, then they could also perform as encrypted transmission.

Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar and peripatetic philosopher famous for his “amazing powers of recollection” (Zielinski 72) realized the cryptographic, communicative potential of mnemonics in the late 16th century. Bruno was eventually burned at the stake during the Inquisition for his use of magic and allegiance to hermeticism: a philosophy named for Hermes and based in Egyptian astrology, which, needless to say, clashed with Christian doctrine. In The Deep Time of The Media, Siegfried Zielinski links hermetic tradition (which persisted into the Renaissance but had to be promulgated secretly) to the “subhistory” stemming from “the passion for encrypting and deciphering texts runs through the sciences” since the 13th century (Zielinski 73). He also notes that cryptography made particular demands on memory and was thus bound to mnemonic ability (Zielinski 83). Bruno took this relationship one step further. In his writings and teachings, Bruno endeavored to both transmit and internalize hermetic secrets through mnemonic technique. “The secret was the combination of the Hermetic beliefs with the techniques of the art of memory” (Yates 305) writes the Renaissance historian Frances Yates, so that these “memory systems” became “a mode of transmitting a religion, or an ethic, or some message of universal import” (Yates 387).

Bruno’s system of “magic mnemonics” (Yates 223) hinged on his belief that the memorization of significant images enabled the "harnessing of the inner world of the imagination to the stars, or reproducing the the celestial world within" (Yates 215). Memory, for Bruno, was thus a dioptric medium, allowing the passage of the sublime order of the heavens into the individual psyche, "arriving at the vision within of the One light diffused through all" (Yates 230). His mnemonic techniques, based on intricate combinations of magic images, however, were catoptric (his first book on the art of memory is aptly titled Shadows). As Yates observes, there is “some Circaean mystification at the heart of this memory treatise” (Yates 247). Bruno’s mnemonic code thus had a dual function of “unifying the world of appearances” (Yates 229) through memory and remaining secret, decipherable only by those who understood hermetic principles.

Written in wax

Beginning with the classical art of memory, mnemonics were associated with wax. As Yates describes, “the art consists in places and images and is like an inner writing on wax” (Yates 19). Wax—the obvious inscription media undergirding classical rhetoric—was remediated in recording technology and psychoanalytic discourse at the turn of the 20th century. Through a brief comparison of modern and antique articulations of wax as the material substrate of memory, we may glimpse how the rise and fall of mnemonics is subject to the imagined materiality—and malleability—of the mind.

Antique imaginary: the obvious

Cicero describes a man “with almost divine powers of memory,” who “wrote down what he wanted to remember in certain places in his possession by means of images, just as if he were describing letters on wax” (Yates 19). This exemplary figure has internalized the wax tablet as a recording device, which Phaedrus famously concealed under his cloak in Plato’s dialogue. Vismann: Greek senate minutes inscribed in wax—the inscription medium that best synchronized speech and writing (Vismann 54). Wax was a malleable surface that sutures oral performance and written record. Mnemonics was imagined to do this internally.

Modern memory: the return of the repressed?

Kittler: Guyau’s theory of the phonograph and memory “What good are the poetic mnemonic techniques of rhyme and meter when wax rolls can store not only substance and tone but real sounds?” (Kittler 236).

Freud: mystic-writing pad Trauma and repression as the death of mnemonics (haunted by anxieties of controlling memory and forgetting)



  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, July-Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.
  • Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
  • --. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
  • Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

External Links

  • Mnemonics - a list of a number of standardized mnemonic devices