Thursday, March 10, 2011

Count Mark Twain among Joshua Foer’s many “memory palace” builders

Joshua Foer opens his entertaining new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by describing how 2,500 years ago Simonides of Ceos identified the mangled corpses crushed by the collapse of a banquet hall by inventing the “memory palace” technique of recall. Using reconstructive visualization, Simonides could guide surviving relatives to the places in the rubble where their loved ones lay. “At that moment,” Foer writes, “according to legend, the art of memory was born.”

When Foer’s era-spanning chronicle of the “art of memory” arrives at “the age of the ‘get smart quick’ scheme” in the nineteenth century, a familiar character takes charge of a number of pages:
[Mark Twain] was continually experimenting with new memory techniques to aid him on the lecture circuit. . . . During the summer of 1883, while he was writing Huckleberry Finn, Twain procrastinated by developing a game to teach his children the English monarchs. It worked by mapping out the lengths of their reigns using pegs along a road hear his home. Twain was essentially turning his backyard into a memory palace.
Building effective memory palaces involves creating strikingly vivid images. Twain discovered this trick himself after trying many ways to remember his lectures—a process he reveals in “How to Make History Dates Stick.” He first began by dividing a lecture into eleven sections and writing each section’s opening phrase on a note, but then . . .
Once I mislaid them; you will not be able to imagine the terrors of that evening. I now saw that I must invent some other protection. So I got ten of the initial letters by heart in their proper order—I, A, B, and so on—and I went on the platform the next night with these marked in ink on my ten finger-nails. But it didn’t answer. I kept track of the fingers for a while; then I lost it, and after that was never quite sure which finger I used last. . . To the audience I seemed more interested in my fingernails than I was in my subject; one or two persons asked me afterward what was the matter with my hands.

It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away. In two minutes I made six pictures with a pen, and they did the work of the eleven catch-sentences, and did it perfectly. I threw the pictures away as soon as they were made, for I was sure I could shut my eyes and see them any time. That was a quarter of a century ago; the lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I could rewrite it from the pictures—for they remain.
This pictorial approach inspired not only the backyard memory palace Twain invented to help his children learn the English monarchs, but an indoor version that involved creating an odd but memorable image for each king or queen (‘whale” for William the Conqueror, for instance). Twain’s enthusiasm for his technique led him, in 1885, to patent “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” He had high hopes for his invention. As Foer relates, “Twain imagined national clubs organized around his mnemonic game, regular newspaper columns, a book, and international competitions with prizes.” Unfortunately, it failed to catch on and Twain abandoned it. “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game,” he later wrote to his friend William Dean Howells, “don’t.”

Previous Reader's Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 volumes); Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (paperback); Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi (paperback)

1 comment:

  1. The focus of this blog is American writers, not memory and mind, but the creation of images was exactly the strategy that gave Solomon Shereshevsky his eidetic memory, as detailed in A.R. Luria's "The Mind of Mnemonist." He was, according to the account, a near-total or total synesthete, who registered visual, auditory, and tactile sensations (and sometime those of smell and taste) with each piece of information he tried to remember. This led to an infinite number of unique combinations of senses that made any and every single of his memories indelible.

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