By Wu Mingren, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the personification of memory. In ancient Greece, prior to being written down, stories were recounted orally. Due to that, memory played an important part in the life of an ancient Greek storyteller. Thus, it is not too surprising that the concept of memory was given the form of the goddess Mnemosyne. In addition, the Greeks also invented ways to improve their memories. One of these was the Method of Loci, which was used for a long time in the Western world.
Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory
Mnemosyne was a Titaness / Titanide, who was one of the 12 children of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). Her siblings include Cronus and his wife, Rhea, Oceanus and his wife, Tethys, Iapetus, and Themis. Mnemosyne was also believed to be the mother of the Muses.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus (who was Mnemosyne’s nephew) slept with Mnemosyne for nine consecutive days. As a result of this union, the Muses were born. These were the nine goddesses responsible for providing inspiration to those involve in literature, science, and the arts. The nine Muses and their respective domains are as follows: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (music), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy) and Urania (astronomy).
A River and Palace for Memories
Additionally, Mnemosyne was the name given to a river in the Underworld. The ancient Greeks believes that before the souls of the dead are reincarnated, they would be required to drink water from an Underworld river known as Lethe. The name of this river means ‘forgetfulness’, and drinking from it would cause a soul to forget about their past lives. Conversely, the river Mnemosyne, which flowed parallel to Lethe, caused one to remember. According to the writer Pausanias, drinking from two fountains of water, one named Lethe, and the other Mnemosyne, was part of the rituals at the “oracle of Trophonios (Trophonius) at Lebadeia in Boiotia (Boeotia)”.
One of the methods invented by the ancient Greeks to improve their memories was the Method of Loci. This technique is known alternatively as the Memory Journey, the Memory Palace, or the Mind Palace Technique. According to the Roman orator Cicero, this technique was discovered by a Greek lyric poet by the name of Simonides of Ceos. Cicero goes on to relate a story in which the sophist was invited to present a lyric poem at a banquet in Thessaly. Shortly after he presented the poem, Simonides was called outside, during which the roof of the banqueting hall suddenly collapsed. The other guests were crushed to death, many of their bodies mangled beyond recognition.
This made it difficult for the identification of the dead, which was required for their proper burial. By consulting his visual memory of where the guests had been seated around the banquet table, Simonides was able to identify the dead. It was from this experience that Simonides realized that it would be possible to remember anything by associating it with a mental image of a location, thereby developing the Method of Loci.
Visualization to Enhance Memorization
The Method of Loci relies on mentally visualizing the things that one intends to remember. These objects are placed in a particular order in various locations along a familiar route through a place, e.g. a city, house, workplace, etc. A mental journey with a starting and an ending point is made. Therefore, when you wish to remember, for example, a shopping list, or the points of a speech, you only need to go on this mental journey in order to remember each element. This memorization technique may be further enhanced by making the images more vivid. For instance, the mental images may be accompanied by mental smells and sounds.
The Method of Loci memorization technique was popular in the ancient world and was used up until the middle of the 17th century. It was eventually superseded by phonetic and peg systems. However, recent research has shown that the memory palace technique can be very effective.
As the Guardian reported:
“After spending six weeks cultivating an internal “memory palace”, people more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later […] after just 40 days of training, people’s brain activity shifted to more closely resemble that seen in some of the world’s highest ranked memory champions, suggesting that memory training can alter the brain’s wiring in subtle but powerful ways.”
So, it may be worthwhile to create your own memory palace after all.