Simonides of Ceos – The Art and History of Memory – Mnemonic Devices

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How did mnemonic devices, or memory aids, develop? Learn the history of Simondies of Ceos the “Father” of the mnemonic device and the Art of Memory!

The historical development of mnemonics and mnemonic devices begins with a poet named Simonides of Ceos in fifth century B.C.

Simonides of Ceos

After being invited to a banquet to recite a poem, the poet Simonides of Ceos (556-448 B.C.), called the “honey-tongued” , chanted a lyric. But his host, Scopas, stated he would only pay him half of what was owed, the rest would have to be paid by the gods – to whom he dedicated half his lyric. A moment later Simonides was given a message two men were waiting outside the banquet hall for him, so Simonides went outside. Shortly after leaving the banquet hall, the roof crashed in upon Scopas and his guests, killing them all. The victims were not identifiable, yet Simonides was able to remember them by means of recalling where they sat at the banquet.

Logical Arrangement Fundamental to Mnemonics

This is the beginning of mnemonics – or at least the first written record we have of the art of memory. There are several notable feature of Simonides’ ability to recall the necessary information. First, the event showed him that orderly, logical arrangement was necessary for recall, “Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realized that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.”

Second, by means of recalling the location of where the guests sat at Scopas’ banquet, Simonides memory was cued to recall who they were and was able to identify the bodies. Commenting on Simonides Yates says, “The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places.”

Third, visual prompts are necessary for recall of information. Without Simonides’ visualization of the guests, and their seating arrangement, he would not have been able to identify the bodies, “…Simonides’ invention of the art of memory rested, not only on his discovery of the importance of order for memory, but also on the discovery that the sense of sight is the strongest of all the senses.”

Imagery and Memory Recall

Along with Simonide, Aristotle places a high value on imagery within man as a means of recollection. Yates quotes Aristotle in his work De anima, “Hence, ‘the soul never thinks without a mental picture’; ‘the thinking faculty thinks of its forms in mental pictures’; ‘no one could ever learn or understand anything, if he had not the faculty of perception; even when he thinks speculatively, he must have some mental picture with which to think.” These observations are important as they will serve as the basis for impressing the memory with images.

The Dialexesis

While Simonides did not codify these teachings into as a treatise, a half-century later a treatise on memory called the Dialexesis (400 B.C.) put down the basic principles of a trained, or artificial memory. It is the earliest known work of its kind on developing an ‘artificial’ memory. The Dialexesis give three basic rules for memory: a.) pay attention b.) repeat often what you have heard, it solidifies what is heard into memory c.) to place what you hear on what you know. This third maxim points to the necessity of placing visual imagery upon loci.

Yates comments on the Dialexesis, “The skeleton outline of the rules of the artificial memory is thus already in existence about half a century after the death of Simonides. This suggests that what he ‘invented’, or codified, may really have been the rules, basically as we find them in Ad Herennium.” It is suggested that the art of trained memory was invented as a necessity for the student of rhetoric for a speech was remembered, not written.

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