The term mnemonics (the art of improving the memory) comes from the name of the Greek goddess Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The Greeks used personification as a means to improve recall. From what we know today, Aristotle was the first philosopher to apply himself to the phenomenon of thinking, which consequently involves memory. In his essays on the soul, he wrote that it is not possible to think without images, an observation that people have studied again and again.

Memory Training

According to tradition, the route method, or “loci-method” (locus is Latin for “place”), was developed by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos shortly after the beginning of the fifth century b.c. He was thought to be a great memory artist himself. This method, uses fixed, three-dimensional points for memorization and was applied by Roman orators such as Seneca, allowing them to master the art of speaking without notes. In his confession, Saint Augustine, a fourth century father of the church and the last and most important heir of the ancient philosophers, described the memory as a palace, whose numerous chambers are filled with treasures to be used.

Today we know that the memory is not static but highly dynamic, since it is constantly stimulated and reconstructed by new experiences. However, it is astonishing how route-method techniques were described with great precision and detail so long ago. Stories of exceptional feats of memory were handed down by the Roman poet Pliny the Elder. In addition to King Cyrus, who knew all the soldiers of his army by name, Pliny also lists Cineas—an envoy of King Pyrrhus—who, after just a single day, was able to name all the nobles in Rome.

Unfortunately, like many Roman skills, the technique of memorizing information was forgotten for centuries following the downfall of the Roman Empire. It was only in the twelfth century when the subject again aroused interest, and outstanding feats of memory are listed in the encyclopedia compiled by Panckoucke dating from 1791. Th e Jesuit Ménestrier supposedly remembered and recalled three hundred unusual words in the presence of the king of Sweden.

Since then, many memory techniques have been developed to support brain functions. The common attribute of these techniques is that they generate links between known facts and new information, and by doing so, they assist the memory function of the brain. The arrangement of the information provides the brain with far greater accessibility to the individual memory store. This means that the desired information can be recalled through other nerve connections if the direct connection happens to be blocked.

I’m sure you can remember situations in which you had something on the tip of your tongue but were unable to recall the word you were after. For example, you can’t think of the word grapefruit. It is only when you try to link other information with the item you are trying to recollect that you remember the word for which you’re searching. In this case, by remembering the pleasant breakfast of a grapefruit served on a glass plate that you had on your last vacation, voilà—there you have it. You remember the word effortlessly. Or perhaps you recall the bitter, sharp taste of the citrus, and grapefruit springs to mind.

Existing memory techniques range from simple systems, such as converting the numbers 0 to 10 into images or letters of the alphabet, to more demanding methods that require a great deal of practice. Simple memory systems are mainly suitable to help you occasionally remember something in everyday life and to improve your memory. However, if you want to train your memory and receive more overall benefit in the long run, you will have to invest time just as you do for physical fitness and apply yourself to the master system in addition to the route method.