While searching for a digital copy of Cursus mathematicus (1634-67) by Pierre Hérigone (as one is wont to do), I serendipitously stumbled across Seth Long‘s (@SethLargo) brand new book Excavating the Memory Palace: Arts of Visualization from the Agora to the Computer (University of Chicago Press, December 2020). Naturally it was an immediate impulse buy. Looks like he’s also got some interesting papers on rhetoric/memory kicking around. These look pretty awesome in terms of substantiating some of the memory related work I’ve been looking at lately.

Sadly, I still need a clearer copy of Cursus. Is there an English translation out there? Any academics have non-published copies? Like to publish a copy? I’m happy to muddle through Latin or French especially if it’s an OCR/searchable copy, but it’s a stupidly long text for the assuredly short section on memory I’m seeking.

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Winter Counts and related holiday traditions

Some indigenous American tribes kept annual winter counts which served as both a physical historical account of their year, but served as visual mnemonic devices leveraging a bit of the idea of a drawn memory palace along with spaced repetition by adding a new image to their “journey” each year.

I was reminded about the idea over the weekend by a dreadful, cheeseball Hallmark Holiday movie A Royal Christmas Ball (2017) (please don’t torture yourself by watching it). The two main characters had a Christmas ritual of creating a holiday ornament every year for their Christmas tree with a design that represented something significant in their lives that year. Because most families generally use and reuse the same ornaments every year, the practice becomes a repeated ritual which allows them to reminisce over each ornament every year to remember past years. It’s a common occurrence (at least in Western society) for people to purchase souvenir ornaments when they travel, and these serve the same effect of remembering their past travels.

If others haven’t come across this idea as a fun mnemonic device for the whole family with built in spaced repetition, I recommend you give it a try. Just don’t everyone necessarily make coronavirus ornaments for this year.

Non-Christians could leverage a similar idea for their annual holidays, feasts, or events if they like. Of course, you could follow the Lakota tribe and make a more traditional winter count.

For those interested in some of the further history and description of the idea of an annual count in the framing of mnemotechny, I would recommend LynneKelly’s book Memory Craft or some of her more academic works.

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I’m not as well-versed in the history of educational technology as those like Audrey Watters, but after reading the opening of chapter 10 of The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, I’m prepared to call Pierre de La Ramée (aka Petrus or Peter Ramus) as the godfather of EdTech for his literal iconoclastic removal of the artificial memory from rhetoric and replacing it with his ‘dialectical order’.

To be clear, “Godfather of EdTech” is a perjorative.

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As I’ve been reading about Zettlekasten for part of the evening, it dawns on me that there are some likely overlaps with both my prior work on statistical mechanics and ideas of mnemonics and techniques like the method of loci. I’ll have to think of how to better memorize and specifically tag pieces of information into such a mental Zettlekasten. I wonder what might evolve?

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Expanding Ekphrasis to the Broader Field of Mnemotechny: or How the Shield of Achilles Relates to a Towel, Car, and Water Buffalo

If Lynne Kelly‘s thesis about the methods of memory used by indigenous peoples is correct, and I strongly believe it is, then the concept of ekphrasis as illustrated in the description of the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad (Book 18, lines 478–608) is far more useful than we may have previously known. I strongly suspect that Achilles’ Shield is an early sung version of a memory palace to which were once attached other (now lost) memories from Bronze Age Greece.

The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic.—Wikipedia

While many may consider this example of Homer’s to be the first instance of ekphrasis within literature (primarily because it specifically depicts an artwork, which is part of the more formal definition of the word), I would posit that even earlier descriptions in the Iliad itself which go into great detail about individuals and their methods of death are also included in a broader conception of ekphrasis. This larger ekphrasis subsumes all of these descriptions in an tradition of orality as being portions of ancient memory palaces within a broader field of mnemotechny. I imagine that these graphic, bloody, and larger-than-life depictions of death not only encoded the names and ideas of the original people/ancestors, but they were also quite likely to have had additional layers of memory encoded (or attached) to them as well. Here I’m suggesting that while an actual shield may or may not have originally existed that even once the physical shield or other object is gone or lost that the remembered story of the shield still provides a memory palace to which other ideas can be attached.

(I’ll remind the forgetful reader than mnemotechny grows out of the ancient art of rhetoric as envisioned in Rhetorica ad Herennium, and thus the use of ekphrasis as a rhetorical device implicitly subsumes the idea of memory, though most modern readers may not have that association.)

Later versions of ekphrasis in post-literate history may have been more about the arts themselves and related references and commentary (example: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn), but I have a strong feeling that this idea’s original incarnation was more closely related to early memory methods at the border of oral and literate societies.

In other words, ancient performers, poets, etc. may have created their own memory palaces by which they were able to remember long stories like the Iliad, but what is to say that these stories themselves weren’t in turn memory palaces to the listeners themselves? I myself have previously used the plot and portions of the movie Fletch as a meta memory palace in just this way. As the result of ritualistic semi-annual re-watchings of classic and engaging movies like this, I can dramatically expand my collection of memory palaces. The best part is that while my exterior physical location may change, classics movies will always stay the same. And in a different framing, my memories of portions of history may also help me recall a plethora of famous movie quotes as well.

Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.—Irwin M. Fletcher

Expanding Ekphrasis to the Broader Field of Mnemotechny: or How the Shield of Achilles Relates to a Towel, Car, and Water Buffalo was originally published on Chris Aldrich