I’m teaching an upcoming course on the Art of Memory. It’ll be an hour a week for five weeks starting on July 10th at 10:00 am on Saturday mornings. I’ll be using the online learning platform Hyperlink.Academy. I hope you’ll have the chance to join me and a group of people interested in exploring the topic.
I’ve had a personal memory practice since I was about eleven years old. I started with an old correspondence course from the 1940s that I found on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty expansive. I’ve realized that the original system I learned was only a small fraction of some of the powerful techniques that humankind has created and evolved over the last 20,000 years. Sadly, the majority of this knowledge, which was once commonplace, has disappeared in Western culture.
As a kid, I used the techniques as they pertained to magic and parlor tricks like counting cards and Rubic’s cubes. Later I learned how to bend and apply them other methods. I learned new methods and used them to memorize material for classes. I discovered I could remember vast troves of information both for pleasure and for work.
Since then, I’ve been researching into the history of mnemotechniques in Western culture. I’ve been uncovering the practice in other oral and indigenous cultures. As a result, I’ve seen and experimented with dozens of other methods. Some are better and more flexible than others.
It’s rare that I encounter people familiar with even one or two of these methods. There are lots of books and internet fora dedicated to some of them. They’re generally esoteric, incomplete, or both. On the whole, they’re difficult to discover, and often even harder to learn—much less practice.
In 2011, Joshua Foer ignited some interest with his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He describes the magic of some of the extant systems and nibbles around the edges. But he doesn’t detail how to enter the space and leaves the topic as esoteric as he began. His book motivates the “why”, but doesn’t describe the practical “how”.
I have seen and read scores of hucksterish and facile approaches. They usually outline a handful of memory “tricks” which some people use intuitively. Most touch on only one or two aspects of a much larger and richer memory tradition.
I’ve also followed some of the bigger memory-related sites online. They discuss many pieces of the whole. But they don’t help newcomers get a bigger picture of what is possible or how to start a practice. Most people want something more practical for daily life. Many start out with interest, but they don’t get very far before abandoning the idea because they don’t find the benefit.
I know there is an easier way.
Based on my experience, I’d like to provide a solid overview and history of the topic. My goal is to give beginners a practical entry point. We’ll look at and practice the bigger and most useful techniques. We’ll also discuss some of the lesser known methods and where they can be applied.
I encourage students to bring a practical list of things they’d like to memorize for use in the course.
After a few weeks, students should have a solid base of knowledge upon which to found a regular memory practice for the rest of their lives.
Those interested can read a copy of the syllabus. If you have any questions about the course or want to discuss if it’s right for you, please reach out.
If you can’t join us for the first cohort this summer, I’ll likely offer it again in either the Fall or Winter.
I’ve thumbed through it quickly and done some targeted searches of the text. From all appearances, it looks like she’s approaching the topic of memory from a neuroscientist’s perspective and talking about broad psychology and culture.
There are a few references to the method of loci and a tangential reference to the phonetic major system in chapter 5. She approaches these briefly with a mention of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein and his PAO system (without using the word Person-Action-Object), but dismisses all too quickly.
But you would have to do a lot of memorizing before you can actually use these techniques (and others like them) to remember the stuff you’re interested in remembering. If the thought of doing this kind of mental labor sounds exhausting, I’m right there with you. I don’t have the dedication or time. Unless you’re motivated to become an elite memory athlete or your life’s dream is to memorize 111,700 digits of pi, I suspect you don’t, either. Most of us will never want or need to memorize that kind or that amount of information. But many of us would like to be better at memorizing the ten things on our to-do list, our Wi-Fi password, or the six things we need at the grocery store.
I’ll try to delve into the rest of the text shortly, but I was really hoping for more on the mnemonics front. I mnemonists won’t get much out of it on the techniques front, but might find it useful for an overview of the neuroscience or psychology fronts from Hermann Ebbinghaus onwards.
I’ve been a proponent and user of a variety of mnemonic systems since I was about eleven years old. The two biggest and most useful in my mind are commonly known as the “method of loci” and the “major system.” The major system is also variously known as the phonetic number system, the phonetic mnemonic system, or Hergione’s mnemonic system after French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Hérigone (1580-1643) who is thought to have originated its use.
The major system generally works by converting numbers into consonant sounds and then from there into words by adding vowels under the overarching principle that images (of the words) can be remembered more easily than the numbers themselves. For instance, one could memorize one’s grocery list of a hundred items by associating each shopping item on a numbered list with the word associated with the individual number in the list. As an example, if item 22 on the list is lemons, one could translate the number 22 as “nun” within the major system and then associate or picture a nun with lemons – perhaps a nun in full habit taking a bath in lemons to make the image stick in one’s memory better. Then at the grocery store, when going down one’s list, when arriving at number 22 on the list, one automatically translates the number 22 to “nun” which will almost immediately conjure the image of a nun taking a bath in lemons which gives one the item on the list that needed to be remembered. This comes in handy particularly when one needs to be able to remember large lists of items in and out of order.
The following generalized chart, which can be found in a hoard of books and websites on the topic, is fairly canonical for the overall system:
Mnemonic for remembering the numeral and consonant relationship
s, z, soft c
“z” is the first letter of zero; the other letters have a similar sound
t & d have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
n has two downstrokes
m has three downstrokes; m looks like a “3” on its side
last letter of four; 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
L is the Roman Numeral for 50
/ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/
j, sh, soft g, soft “ch”
a script j has a lower loop; g is almost a 6 rotated
k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu
capital K “contains” two sevens (some variant systems include “ng”)
script f resembles a figure-8; v sounds similar (v is a voiced f)
p is a mirror-image 9; b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Vowel sounds, w,h,y
w and h are considered half-vowels; these can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value
There are a variety of ways to use the major system as a code in addition to its uses in mnemonic settings. When I was a youth, I used it to write coded messages and to encrypt a variety of things for personal use. After I had originally read Dr. Bruno Furst’s series of booklets entitled You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration1, I had always wanted to spend some time creating an alternate method of writing using the method. Sadly I never made the time to do the project, but yesterday I made a very interesting discovery that, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have been previously noticed!
My discovery began last week when I read an article in The Atlantic by journalist Dennis Hollier entitled How to Write 225 Words Per Minute with a Pen: A Lesson in the Lost Technology of Shorthand. 2 In the article, which starts off with a mention of the Livescribe pen – one of my favorite tools, Mr. Hollier outlines the use of the Gregg System of Shorthand which was invented by John Robert Gregg in 1888. The description of the method was intriguing enough to me that I read a dozen additional general articles on shorthand on the internet and purchased a copy of Louis A. Leslie’s two volume text Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method.3
I was shocked, on page x of the front matter, just before the first page of the text, to find the following “Alphabet of Gregg Shorthand”:
Gregg Shorthand is using EXACTLY the same consonant-type breakdown of the alphabet as the major system!
Apparently I wasn’t the first to have the idea to turn the major system into a system of writing. The fact that the consonant breakdowns for the major system coincide almost directly to those for the shorthand method used by Gregg cannot be a coincidence!
The Gregg system works incredibly well precisely because the major system works so well. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Gregg utilizes a series of strokes (circles and semicircles) to indicate particular vowel sounds which allows for better differentiation of words which the major system doesn’t generally take into consideration. From an information theoretic standpoint, this is almost required to make the coding from one alphabet to the other possible, but much like ancient Hebrew, leaving out the vowels doesn’t remove that much information. Gregg, also like Hebrew, also uses dots and dashes above or below certain letters to indicate the precise sound of many of its vowels.
The upside of all of this is that the major system is incredibly easy to learn and use, and from here, learning Gregg shorthand is just a hop, skip , and a jump – heck, it’s really only just a hop because the underlying structure is so similar. Naturally as with the major system, one must commit some time to practicing it to improve on speed and accuracy, but the general learning of the system is incredibly straightforward.
Because the associations between the two systems are so similar, I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the descriptions of why certain strokes were used for certain letters were very similar to the mnemonics for why certain letters were used for certain numbers in the major system.
One thing I have noticed in my studies on these topics is the occasional references to the letter combinations “NG” and “NK”. I’m curious why these are singled out in some of these systems? I have a strong suspicion that their inclusion/exclusion in various incarnations of their respective systems may be helpful in dating the evolution of these systems over time.
I’m aware that various versions of shorthand have appeared over the centuries with the first recorded having been the “Tironian Notes” of Marcus Tullius Tiro (103-4 BCE) who apparently used his system to write down the speeches of his master Cicero. I’m now much more curious at what point the concepts for shorthand and the major system crossed paths or converged? My assumption would be that it happened in the late Renaissance, but it would be nice to have the underlying references and support for such a timeline. Perhaps it was with Timothy Bright’s publication of Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588) 4, John Willis’s Art of Stenography (1602) 5, Edmond Willis’s An abbreviation of writing by character (1618) 6, or Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing (1626) 7? Shelton’s system was certainly very popular and well know because it was used by both Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.
Certainly some in-depth research will tell, though if anyone has ideas, please don’t hesitate to indicate your ideas in the comments.
UPDATE on 7/6/14:
I’m adding a new chart making the correspondence between the major system and Gregg Shorthand more explicit.
Furst B. You Can Remember: A Home Study Course in Memory and Concentration. Markus-Campbell Co.; 1965.