When it comes to Harry Kahne, there’s almost no information at all. With mnemonics, there’s almost too much. And why not? The ars memorativa (the Art of Memory) is almost three thousand years old, with a history that touches names like Napoleon III, Aristotle, and that Greek, Simonides. Cicero wrote of it in De oratore, St. Thomas Aquinas recommended it for meditation purposes, and the Puritans banned it for “promoting sensuous and lewd thoughts.” (I am not making this up.)
So why have you never heard of it?
Well, to start with, you have. Most of you remember Roy G. Biv from physics class, and almost all of you remember Every Good Boy Does Fine. Some of us could probably still sing along to this. Or this. Or, for the med students, this one.
The other reason you haven’t heard of it is twofold: First, cheap notebooks and writing supplies are available. Second, for mnemonics to actually pay off (besides one-offs like Roy G. Biv), you have to put a lot of work into it. Like, say, at least three months’ worth.
But why bother, really? We have calculators to free us from arithmetic, Outlook to free us from remembering our appointments, and as to anything non-smartphone-related, there’s an app for that. According to James from the Thoughtscream, a Stross/Doctorow-style augmented reality is just around the corner, rendering most kinds of present information-sharing and -storage moot. Well, I can think of at least five good reasons:
Reasons to Practice Mnemonics
1) I don’t have a smartphone (it’s true).
2) They haven’t invented an app for finding my damn keys.
3) Some of us need to learn a foreign language, for business, pleasure, or because the alternative is starving to death on the streets of China.
4) Facial recognition software is still primitive and flawed.
5) Every so often, in the rustic information-sharing confines known as a university, there are these things called “tests.”
(If you have more, feel free to add them to the comments section! Snark encouraged!)
And even when we’re all wearing contacts that link us to the Facebook profile of everyone we meet (and offer us discount prices on their fine leather jackets), being able to remember jokes, speeches, and the particular words the locals use to insult you will remain viable skills(1).
So how does it work and why can’t we just come up with funny acronyms or songs about everything? Well, we kind of can. Funny acronyms are easy to remember, because they’re either funny, or weird, or politically incorrect, or sexy, or something. One of my favorites involves Sarah Palin waking up naked in the Arizona desert next to an (equally buck naked) Bill Clinton (2). And that’s the key. Hook it up to something easy to remember. All mnemonic systems work on this basic principle.
For Learning to Think, I’m going to be working through the Memory Master course, at about two lessons a week. I’m also going to be liberally borrowing from, referencing, and discussing Harry Lorayne, Tony Buzan, Dominic O’Brien, the Rhetorica ad Herrenium, ludism.org, and whatever else I come across that’s relevant. A lot of the mnemonics literature is very similar, and the principles don’t change much.
In addition, as with simulflow, I’m going to establish a testing procedure and put a video up of me making an ass of myself. At the beginning, first month mark, second month mark, and end, I’m going to do a slightly-modified version of Harry Lorayne’s test. That is, I’m going to see and try to remember:
1.) An unordered list (just a list of objects)
2.) A list in order (the Presidents of the United States)
3.) A set of names and faces
4.) Ten words in an unfamiliar language (in my case, Spanish)
5.) A short but intricate joke
6.) A long number (the Golden Mean)
7.) A set of names and phone numbers
Home Game players! Same rules apply. I want to see you stumbling over who came after Lincoln or being unable to recite your boy/girlfriend’s phone number. Each video wins a no-prize, and all four together gets you a free story commission from Yours Truly, with illustrations.
A full PDF of Memory Master is available here.
1 – that last one in particular never goes out of style.
2 – I’m never forgetting “Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas.” No matter how hard I try.