The Memory Palace

May 10, 2012

When I was in eighth grade, our civics teacher informed us that we were responsible for memorizing all the departments of the Cabinet of the U.S. President and the names of the then-current holders of each office. We all groaned, at least inwardly, at the news. But then he proceeded to give us a whole series of utterly silly ways of remembering the entire list. My sense of the appropriate revolted at the outrageous images he used. But, to this day, I still remember almost all of that Administration’s secretaries of this or that.

I have been vaguely, but only vaguely, aware of the tradition of the memory palace, whereby what to most moderns appear to be great feats of memory are methodically — and even easily — mastered by use of spacial memory. The celebrated example of the 16th-century Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who used the same method whereby Cicero had memorized his orations to teach the Chinese about Christianity had a certain amount of recent currency because of a popular book published in 1983. But I had never considered pursuing the general methods of memorizing by means of spacial visualization until now.

The reason for my change of mind is this TED Talk, one of the most stimulating of the many I have watched. I highly recommend it.

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