emorisation is a fascinating and seemingly complex subject. In this paper
I will start by looking at its history and then give simple systems that
each and every one of you can use with ease. For starters, while there are
numerous theories nobody is actually certain how memory is stored and accessed
in the human brain. Despite this, memory keeps doing what it does. In this
paper I want to cover systems used to memorise and recall things and even
give you some techniques you can use yourself.
Memory systems go far back in history to times when most of the population
was illiterate or writing systems did not even exist. We can only speculate
on who used them and what they involved. I believe the ancient bards, shamans
and tribal wise peoples employed them to maintain the annals of their people
and memorise rituals employed since time immemorial.
Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory
by Salvador Dali
One method used was creating ever expanding sagas, many of which are still extant.
Such sagas were usually in song or formal chants. I have encountered both types
in North Ghanaian peoples in Iron Age societies which are fast dying under
the influx of the modern world. In Ghana’s Ashanti Kingdom, however, this lore
remains preserved in the complex language of The Talking Drums (Lunna) and is still
in use today.
few young people those days were interested in taking up an aging lore master’s
mantle and much important local material is lost annually as
rock ’n roll and movies take over. This sorry situation persists worldwide.
such as Homer may have employed systems to create and memorise their tales
of The Trojan Wars. We stand on firmer ground when we come to the Romans.
They left copious records of techniques efficient enough to memorise whole
books for subsequent recital to audiences. The systems of associative memory
used then still remain valid.
they envisaged a large house room by room, one room for each chapter of their
tale. Next they mentally placed specific objects in each room: tables,
chairs, rugs and skins, weapons etc. From there they placed objects on floor
and furniture for association with specific incidents in the story. A small
statue of a soldier indicating a battle, others of a young man and woman for
a romance … And so the symbols grew. Making them ridiculous or erotic also helped
in memorising the whole chapter.
months ago the ABC Science programme “Catalyst” showed a movie in which a man
was given a shuffled pack of playing cards which he quickly looked over.
He then began naming the 52 cards one by one while a researcher confirmed
each was correct.
asked how it was done he explained that, rather than mentally create a house,
he walked all round historical London associating each card with a specific
building, statue, area. On memorising the pack he linked each card with the
appropriate artefact and called those to memory as he worked. A—a variant on
the ancient method.
were utilised by Renaissance scholars. Giordano Bruno actually wrote several
books on the subject and travelled Europe one step ahead of the
Inquisition teaching his methods. It was his expertise that led to his downfall.
Invited by the Doge of Venice to travel there and teach him and others Bruno,
a difficult character at best, quarreled with the Doge and was finally handed
over to the inquisitors. After years of harsh imprisonment they tied him upside
down to a stake and burned him alive. Sic transit Bruno!
During the reign of James VIth of Scotland William Schaw was appointed Mater
of the King’s Buildings. Schaw was instrumental in organising masons lodges
into some form of order even requiring each to maintain written records for
the first time. He wrote up a system of statutes governing all aspects of a
stonemason’s work, remuneration, duties, and conduct, producing a second version
a few years later. He is also on record as requiring each mason to undergo
regular tests of their memories. Those who failed had to pay stiff fines.
It is not clear what was involved in those memory tests, could it have involved
the lore and rituals of those early lodges and their symbolism? In many English
oriented lodges candidates in the degrees are given lectures pertaining to
all three involving symbols displayed on a large diagram. Solomon’s Temple
forms the core around which each lecture is written but it contains a great
deal of symbolism which arises from each portion of the Temple depicted. Remember
our Roman house? While Scottish lodges no longer use those diagram lectures
one can’t help wonder if simpler versions existed in the earlier days?
associative memory began to appear in Victorian British music halls and continue
to this day. In such an act a range of consecutive numbers starting
with ONE was displayed on a blackboard. Twenty was the usual total.
sat blindfolded while an assistant called for members of the audience to call
out any object to link with a given number. Once the list
was completed people called out any number and performer gave the object with
lightning speed. Any object called he gave the number. Finally he would recite
the entire list backwards or odd number forwards even ones backwards or vice
were some astounding acts over the years. In one such an attractive young lady
sat on stage while large European telephone directories from several capital
cities were passed around. Give her a name and address from any and she would
recite the number. Amazing memory? No amazing wireless communication with good
backup team yet it astounded audiences. Lovely lady had her long hair hanging
down one side of her face. Work it out.
must also be made of mnemonics which are invaluable to students in all disciplines. Here we create one or
more words from the initials of the
items to be memorised or even use puns. For example meet ROY G BI/. Who? Memorise
this and you will never forget the colours of the rainbow … red, orange,
yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.
planets? Men very easily make jugs serve useful necessary purposes. Great stuff!
Now you have in sequence Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn,
Uranus, Neptune, & Pluto.
Complicated alas by the Powers that Be recently declaring Pluto is not a planet
but an asteroid.
can be applied to virtually anything, I used them to memorise constituents
of complex chemical solutions. Most being rather naughty I will not explain
A Modern Associative Memory System
I make no
claims of any role in developing this system which I have used successfully
onstage and privately since the 1950s. The techniques involved
Memory, as I stated, have been used since Time Immemorial, I ﬁrst came across
them as a child in a short American movie in WW2 years entitled “Memory Tricks”.
Too young to appreciate this I recalled its system of memorising ten objects
in my 20s when I started using different methods and found a rhyming method
that expanded that in the movie. I believe Dale Carnegie taught a memory
system as part of his course.
methods involve memorising a series of objects, then learning to link this
known foundation to random objects thrown at the presenter by
an audience. Nouns and common names are not generally accepted.
one performance I had to veto my assistant when he started rejecting Simulium
for number 2. As an entomologist this happened to be the insect
my life for many years. And a colleague in the audience threw it at me.
Being a biting ﬂy, I envisaged it attacking the shoe associated with 2 and
the audience by spelling it for my helper as well.
my act I had numbers 1–20 written on a large blackboard by my sidekick who
then invited people to call out any number and also any object to associate
with it. He then recorded this on the board. When the list was complete
out a number would get the relevant object called out by me, blindfolded
seated where I could not see the writing.
good well trained assistant is essential in stage performances as inevitably
some link may be forgotten. In such a case he moves on fast then later
goes back to invite people to call any object rather than the number.
as the performer
hears the forgotten one he’s off again.
I could do 40 in my heyday 20 is generally more than enough allowing for the
limited attention span of the average human. Tony Corinda ran
a magic studio
in Soho in the 50s and 60s. The system I use is taken from one of
13 very informative booklets in his Thirteen Steps to Mentalism series now well
out of print and
work best if the user has the ability to envisage, i.e. get mental images of
items in his own mind. Seems many people do not
have this ability,
can be developed. Using envisagement, mental pictures of each number
may easily be saved to memory.
this exercise. In a quite place, seated comfortably, close your eyes and try
to see the sitting room of your house in your
If you can
mentally, wander around looking at familiar objects, then move
to another room, and so on.
Now go to a favourite location: beach, fishing spot, meeting
room, and travel around it. Mate, you are well on your way!
you find this impossible to do all is not lost. Close your eyes and try envisaging
a pure white disk. This may take several
have it set it
spinning slowly, then faster. Change disk colour to red, blue,
yellow, back to white. Once you can do this move on to rooms
Finally I shall initiate you into the method I use. You can
Memorise the following items as given or vary to others which rhyme appropriately
and are better from your perspective. Once memorised stick to what you’ve
got. And away we go
is a GUN
is a SHOE
is a FLEA
is a SAW
is a HIVE
is a TRICK
GOES TO HEAVEN
is a GATE
is OUT OF LINE
is a PEN
COMES FROM DEVON
is a SHELF
is SWEET SIXTEEN
CAN’T BE SEEN
is IN THE SUN
is PAINTED BLUE
is OUT AT SEA
is ON THE SHORE
is BURIED ALIVE
is ON TWO STICKS
GOES BACK TO DEVON
is ALWAYS LATE
is ON THE LINE
So there you have 30 to play with!
eg GUN and you are given sausage. Shoot the sausage.
Once linked with picture forget it.
Squeeze whatever it is into a small SHOE.
A large FLEA bites the object.
SAW the thing in half.
Bees or wasps from the HIVE crawl all over it stinging
Envisage the object being pulled out of a TRICK top
Object ascends to HEAVEN held by two ridiculous angels.
Sit the thing on a GATE.
Envisage two pillars with your object between them
but OUT OF LINE.
Write rude words all over it with your PEN.
Take delivery of a large parcel with your object inside
COMES FROM DEVON.
(27 Same in reverse)
Stick it on a SHELF.
Hang it from the SKIRTING.
Envisage two lovers COURTING your object comes between
them when they kiss.
You are LIFTING the object.
SWEET SIXTEEN pour honey or treacle all over
Envisage looking all over for this lost
object which CAN’T BE SEEN.
You are BAITING the object by sticking
a hook through it.
My God! You loved
that object, you miss it, you are PINING from it.
A SENTRY stands on guard in full Guards’
uniform with bearskin. Impale
the object on his bayonet.
was onstage in the
1950,s when Liz
forth yet again and someone
gave me “The Royal Baby”).
The rest? That’s your problem …
try to use it, the more ridiculous the association the better. I’ll start you
with 20 you can do the rest.
off with 10 numbers on a pad and get your wife or trusted friend to try it
out with you. Once written down get the querent to call any number
away. Finally run in one of the complete sequences given above. Backwards
is a good start. Once conﬁdent go on to … 20, then 30 but generally stick to 20 for reasons given.
Have fun and astonish your friends!
Yates, Francis, The Art of Memory,
London: Routledge & Paul, 1966.
Robert D.L., Cracking the Freemasons’ Code, London: Rider, 2006
Phillipa & Robert D.L. Cooper, The
Masonic Magician, Watkins Publishing, 2008.