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The method of loci or Ars memoriae (art of memory) is a technique for remembering that has been practiced since Classical times. It is a kind of mnemonic link system based on places (loci, or locations), used most often in cases where long lists of items must be remembered in order. It was taught for many centuries as a part of the curriculum in schools as part of Rhetoric. It enabled an orator to easily remember a sermon or speech. There are many techniques involving a method of loci; indeed in medieval schools, as in Aristotle (Topics, Bk. 8), 'ars memoriae' was considered to be equally a part of Dialectic (reasoning) as of Rhetoric.
In simple terms when you think of an item or idea and save it in a location or with an object that is familiar to you, you are in fact making a new link between the item of recall and the item already stored into your long term memory. For example if you try to remember a teddy you would have one link to your long term memory, due to deterioration you could lose the item.
However if you use the method of loci and think of a destination or household location and you put the teddy there, there are more links to prompt you into recall of the teddy even if you lose the link directly from the teddy to your long term memory.
Loci as architecture and the "memory palace"
In ancient advice, the loci were physical locations, usually in a familiar large public building, such as a market or a church. To utilize the method, one walked through the building several times, viewing distinct places within it, in the same order each time. After a few repetitions of this, one should be able to remember and visualize each of the places in order reliably. To memorize a speech, one breaks it up into pieces, each of which is symbolized by vivid imagined objects or symbols. In the mind's eye, one then places each of these images into the loci. They can then be recalled in order by imagining that one is walking through the building again, visiting each of the loci in order, and viewing each of the images that were placed in the loci, thereby recalling each piece of the speech in order. In the Middle Ages, this ancient method was changed, probably under the influence of Jewish meditational traditions, to envisioning the structures described in the Bible, all idealized: the Tabernacle of Exodus, the Temple of Solomon, the visionary Temple of Ezekiel the prophet, the Heavenly City of the Apocalypse. Such visionary architecture strongly influenced the actual building programs of medieval monasteries, pilgrimage churches, and cathedrals (Carruthers, 1998).
In all mnemonic arts, advice is given that the mental places should be well lit, clearly set out in a particular order, at moderate intervals apart. The more architectural elaborations of rooms, passages and niches it has the better — in the sixteenth century, the sequence of architectural loci was sometimes called a "Memory Palace." But the loci were also to be grouped or "chunked" in "brief" sets of items, no more than what the mind's eye can encompass in one glance: this is the medieval equivalent of we now call "working memory" (Carruthers, 1990, Dudai 2002). Loci can actually be used to remember more than one set of ordered things. The images may be replaced by new ones--the loci are the "wax tablet" or "page" on which one writes the images, as one can write with a stylus onto a more permanent surface. The characteristics of the images one uses are very important. They should be unusual, vivid and striking, and it is good if they have emotional content as well. Humorous, obscene or sacrilegious ones (as they may seem to us) are often used. The goal is to make a uniquely memorable picture (Frances Yates 1966, Small 1997).
Because one can readily imagine moving through a memory structure starting at some arbitrary point, one can easily recall the list starting from any point in it, and even recall it easily in reverse order. Prodigious memory feats have been attributed to this method. The art of memory is an art of composition, not an aid to rote memorization. In the Middle Ages, it was carefully distinguished from rote, for with rote memory, one must always go in the same order. The use of loci within a system produced a sort of memory which one can enter from an infinite number of places, and thus one can work with it-- change it about, shuffle, go backwards or forwards or jump around (Carruthers 1990; Carruthers, Ziolkowski 2002).
According to Cicero's De Oratore, the method was invented by Simonides of Ceos. As the story goes, Simonides was attending a dinner with a number of notable Greeks, after which he had stepped outside. Suddenly, the roof of the building collapsed, killing everyone inside. During the excavation of the rubble, Simonides was called upon to identify each guest killed. He managed to do so by correlating their identities to their positions (loci) at the table before his departure.
The method comes down to us through a work in Latin by an unknown author, called Rhetorica ad Herennium in about 85 BC, though it is unlikely that it was original with this author. The author of this textbook of rhetoric examines each of the five parts of rhetoric, including as the fourth part memoria in which he explains the method of loci. It is the only complete source from the classical world to survive, although there are brief references to the method by others, including Cicero and Quintilian, the chief teachers of rhetoric in the ancient and medieval worlds, and later in the Renaissance. It was much used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when it was mistakenly attributed to Cicero himself, though Cicero does describe it in his work "On Oratory" [De Oratore].
The early monks adapted an art of memory as an art also of composition, as it had been taught in the ancient schools of Dialectic and Rhetoric and of meditation. It became the basic method for reading and meditating upon the Bible. Within this tradition, the art(s) of memory were passed along to the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance (or early Modern period). When Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian were revived after the thirteenth century, humanist scholars understood the language of these ancient writers within the context of the medieval traditions they knew best, which were profoundly altered by monastic practices of meditative reading and composition (Carruthers, 1990, 1998).
Saint Thomas Aquinas was an important influence in promoting the method when he defined it as a part of Prudence and recommended its use to meditate on the virtues and to improve one's piety. In scholasticism artificial memory came to be used as a method of how to remember the whole universe and the roads to Heaven and Hell (Carruthers, Ziolkowski 2002). The Dominicans were particularly important in promoting its uses (Bolzoni 2004). The Jesuit] missionary Matteo Ricci, who from 1582 until his death in 1610, worked to introduce Christianity to China, described the memory palace technique in his work, A Treatise On Mnemonics, but he misunderstood it as only an aid to passing examinations (a kind of rote) rather than as an instrument of new composition, though it had traditionally been taught, both in dialectic and in rhetoric, as an instrument of composition. Ricci was trying to gain favour with the Chinese imperial service, which required a notoriously difficult entry examination (Spence 1984).
Perhaps following the example of Metrodorus, described in Quintilian, in about 1582 Giordano Bruno used a variation of the technique in which the loci were astrological symbols of the zodiac. His elaborate method, based on the combinatoric concentric circles of the Spanish missionary preacher Ramon Lull, and filled with the images representing all the knowledge of the world, was to be used, in a magical sense, as an avenue to reach the intelligible world beyond appearances, and thus enable one to powerfully influence events in the real world. Of his five major printed works, three of them were treatises on this Hermetic occult system. Such enthusiastic claims for the encyclopedic reach of the arts of memory are a feature of early Renaissance (15th-16th century), but they gave rise as well to serious developments in logic and scientific method during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Frances Yates, 1966). Memory art came to be defined primarily as a part of Dialectic, and was assimilated in the seventeenth century, by Pierre Ramus and Rodolphus Agricola into the curriculum of Logic, where it survives to this day as a necessary foundation for the teaching of Argument(Rossi 2000, Bolzoni 2001}.
In 1584 a huge controversy over the method broke out in England when the Puritans attacked it as impious because it calls up absurd and obscene thoughts; this was a sensational, but ultimately not fatal skirmish. Erasmus of Rotterdam and other humanists, Protestant and Catholic, had also chastised practitioners of the arts of memory for making extravagant claims for its efficacy, although they themselves believed firmly in a well-disposed, orderly memory as an essential tool of productive thought (Carruthers, Ziolkowski 2002; Rossi 2000). The arts of memory as such were then largely dropped from the curriculum in schools and universities, and are now mostly taught and practiced informally, though, redefined as Argumentation, versions remain essential in college composition and logic courses. Arts of memory were also taught through the nineteenth century as useful to public orators, including preachers and after-dinner speakers.
A reference to these techniques survives to this day in the common English phrases "in the first place", "in the second place", and so forth.
All top memorizers today use this technique to a greater or lesser degree. Eight time World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brienadvocates this technique. His name for it is 'journey method'. Or the current World Memory Champion Clemens Mayer from Germany used for his world record in number half marathon, memorizing 1040 random digits in a half hour, a 300-point-long journey through his house.
- Yates, Frances A. (1966). The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 10226950018.
- Spence, Jonathan D. (1984). The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, New York: Viking Penguin. 0140080988.
- Carruthers, Mary (1990). The Book of Memory, Cambridge University Press.
- Carruthers, Mary (1998). The Craft of Thought, Cambridge University Press.
- Rossi, Paolo (2000). Logic and the Art of Memory, University of Chicago Press.
- Bolzoni, Lina (2001). The Gallery of Memory, University of Toronto Press.
- Bolzoni, Lina (2004). The Web of Images, Ashgate Publishers.
- Dudai, Yadin (2002). Memory from A to Z, Oxford University Press.
- Small, Jocelyn P. (1997). Wax Tablets of the Mind, London: Routledge.
- Carruthers, Mary; Ziolkowski, Jan (2002). The Medieval Craft of Memory: An anthology of texts and pictures, University of Pennsylvania Press.
- es:Método de Loci
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