Four Aspects of the Art of Memory

Four Aspects of the Art of Memory

Order and Organization and the Art of Memory

What is order? We tend to take it for granted. Why? Because almost everything we experience is measured in some way against our past experiences. When we see something “new,” we compare it to what we already know. “Order” is a process of comparison. Our ability to “distinguish,” depends on how well we observe, become aware of, notice, are conscious of, see the differences and similarities among objects, things, ideas, in space and time. Recognizing similarities and differences efficiently is how we learn. When we have “experienced” enough, we can become independent learners.

The idea of “order” and organizing is essential to memory and learning. How it is used in the “art of memory” and in learning is basic to learning itself. Information, procedures, lists, technical data, etc. must be in “sequences,” “steps,” “series,” etc. or it could not be taught and learned. Without organization and order, no school or business or organization could function.
The word order has a number of meanings. Knowing them, and how many words in our language relate to order and organization will help you to associate and be aware of the existence of “an order, sequence, ranking, difference, similarity, etc. Order exists in “time” and “space.” Knowing that give you the ability to use the “inner space” in your mind to “put your memories into a form that you control and can recall when you want to.”
Order means—is defined– by these words and phrases: The way things are arranged; a procedure or way of doing or acting; an arrangement of things, objects, items, thoughts words; the use of categories—names, rows, columns, pages, chapters, volumes. Order is a condition (of being in time, space, a container or location, on a page, contained in something, containing some thing or things.

As we discuss learning and memory in more detail, we will provide more detail on how the idea of order is essential to using mnemonics—techniques that help you to remember more easily.

Thinking and the Art of Memory

The idea of “paying attention” is one of the first things children learn in school. But long before that, parents have understood, usually through experience with their newborn child, that to teach anything, a child needs to focus on what is being taught. In other words, must learn to pay attention.
Most of us have our own experiences with attention. In school, teachers expect attention and try to get and keep it in many ways. In airports, announcements are preceded by a request for attention. Why? It’s simply because so many things can distract people that the announcement would be ignored without it. In the military, the first command before all others is, “attention!” Still, its importance is too often overlooked, or assumed. To learn well, attention to the right things is absolutely essential. Some definitions of attention can be helpful, because they provide synonyms and words for mental states and actions that appear to be various “kinds of attention.” Among the most common are concentration, and focus. Various dictionaries define attention in these ways. “the act of keeping one’s mind closely on something or the ability to do this; mental concentration, mental readiness for such concentration, notice or observation, care or consideration. Source: WordNet (r) 1.7 . attention the process whereby a person concentrates on some features of the environment to the (relative) exclusion of others.

These are all explanations and descriptions of the idea and activity of attention. But we can explain it even further. “Doing attention” is a decision we make, or is made for us by our bodies. How so? Our senses, as you know from a little thought, are always “on.” What does that mean? Basically, it means that our bodies have developed ways of “experiencing” what is outside of (and also inside of) them, and to deliver that data, that information, to our brains. The brain recreates images (not just pictures, but sounds, tastes, smells and touches) to record in our “minds” (we’ll try to explain mind elsewhere). If we “recognize” the images our senses deliver, we associate it with what we are doing, while we are doing it, and take action, or not, as necessary.
Whether or not we “consciously” pay attention to something that affects our senses, we are in some way “aware” of it. Our consciousness of something depends on both how intense the “sensation” (sense detecting—e.g. seeing, hearing, etc.) is. We may ignore it. However, if it is “strong” enough, we must “pay attention,” and then decide what, if anything we need to do. Examples are: an auto horn, thunder, lightening, a shove in the back, the taste of tabasco.
We can “use” our memories of the way we feel (our emotional responses) about what we “sense” to learn, and then take action in ways that we want to so that we have “control” of our feelings, our attention and what we DO about them. That is the purpose of having senses and being able to use our attention to learn and be in control of what we think, feel and do
This is a brief descrisption. The concept of “attention” is basic to all learning, as we shall learn.

Thinking as Mental Processing
The process of thinking is a topic of hundreds of books and thousands of research reports. Below is a brief summary of one such book, and some comments from others. This summary merely scratches the surface of the subject.

Thinking Tools:
Mental and physical “tools” used by people who use them in their careers or professions are described in many ways. The body, mind, emotions and intellect work together, the “tools” the mind and body use can be described separately. That is, when one’s mind is “paying attention” to something, it is using the body, too, but decides to “pay attention” in a certain way. It can use more than one tool at a time, but whenever the mind “pays attention,” it is DOING ATTENTION with some kind of mind-tool. What are those tools?
Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein in Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, (Houghton-Mifflin Co. Boston & New York: 1999) have a list.
These are the thirteen tools. Notice that each one is the name of an activity that is done with the mind or the body or both. They all depend, of course, on the data brought to the brain, and then the mind, by the senses. Then the mind “works” on the data with these “tools.” Observing, Imaging, Abstracting, Recognizing patterns, Forming patterns. Analogizing, Body thinking, Empathizing, Dimensional thinking,
Modeling, Playing, Transforming, Synthesizing.

Some of these tools are “pre-verbal” or symbolic, for example, body-thinking—that happens through sensations and awareness of muscles, sinews and skin. Empathizing is related to this because one feels emotions. Others use the “tool” to work on something the senses earlier put into the mind—the data-base. For example, Imagery is recalling what one has previously experienced, and Abstracting is looking at the “essentials” of something more complex. Each of these tools is a very specific way of thinking about something that makes it into something in some way different. The Root-Bernsteins quote Werner Heisenberg, a physicist, who called abstracting “the possibility of considering an object or group of objects under one viewpoint while disregarding all other properties of the object. The essence of abstraction consists in singling out one feature, which in contrast to other properties, is considered to be particularly important.” (p. 72)
Picasso sought “the minimum visual stimulus that can be put on canvas and still evoke recognition without spelling everything out.” (p. 93) This means, as I see it, that we recognize both what is left in and at least part of what has been omitted. The term abstraction when applied to words means that the word does not name a specific observable object, but describes one feature of a class or group. For example existence means being something or somewhere, but not specifically any one thing or even group. It means everything that is. Compare that to something less global, such as the word democracy. We will go into detail elsewhere on many other abstract words, and their importance in thinking.

Some writers see intelligence as comprising separate abilities. Howard Gardner suggests there are nine or more elements of intelligence: among them are Linguistic, Musical, Logical-mathematical, Spatial, Kinesthetic, Intra-personal, Inter-personal, and Social. Each of these “abstract” words represents a kind of intelligent activity that can be observed and measured. For example, musical intelligence is obviously the ability to do those things that musicians and composers of music do. As with the “thinking tools” discussed above, being able to DO something with the intelligence is what one’s mind does—using its “music” tool.

Another recent book by Michael J. Gelb, How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, (Dell-Random House, Inc. NY: 1998), also lists seven intelligences, but gives them different names. He refers to Gardner’s list, and then describes DaVinci’s seven “talents,” they overlap and perhaps explain the application of the intelligences. Gelb’s list, translated and explained, includes these:
Curiosity: (this includes attention, observation and more), wanting to know, learn and try to understand.
Demonstration: testing knowledge to be sure it is true and good, and being willing to make mistakes.
Sensation: (the senses), using the senses, especially sight, with careful attention and observation, to discover what is not known.
Uncertainty: accepting that some things are uncertain or not knowable, and some things may not have clear explanations.
Art and Science: using imagination (creativity) and science together to advance knowledge and culture.
Body-thinking: using one’s senses and physical ability to DO things and to discover others, and to develop fitness and confidence.
Systems and Organization: knowing how things work, together and separately and associating and using them creatively.
Gelb explains how Leonardo DaVinci used his great intelligence to discover and create principles, ideas and inventions that are even now being used to expand human knowledge. He urges us to use our own genius to gain control of our lives and to master applications of Leonardo’s ideas in problem-solving, creative thinking, self-expression, enjoying life and one’s world, setting goals, balancing one’s life between work and enjoyment, and bringing one’s mind and body into harmony. A tall order, but objectives we can all aspire to reach.
“Body-tools” and “mind-tools,” and the many ways they are described can be useful. We’ll also look more closely at those that are most useful to learning and memory. As we will explain, attention, breathing, and relaxation are basic. Among words that identify other important learning “tools” are these:
Imagery, Association, Order, Meditation, Zoning, Brainwaves, Emotions, Anchoring, Blocking, Control, Mnemonics, Cycles, Music
We have called them tools, but they are, as you now understand, actually ways your mind and body work together to learn and remember. Learning more about how to understand and use them helps to increase confidence and independence as you become more able to control your own learning processes.

Imagery and the Art of Memory

IMAGERY, the use of imagination, is one of the four elements in the “art of memory” passed down to us from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and to our own time. “Attention” means noticing details and being aware of what you are observing. The closer you “pay attention,” the better your ability to use imagery to recall what you know. Later we’ll learn how this works. The use of imagery to improve learning, memory and recall is an important, perhaps the most important, use of our sense of sight. What actually IS imagery? According to Steven Pinker, (How the Mind Works, WW Norton Co. NY: 1997) imagery may be simply “pictures in the head.” He then describes, in almost a hundred pages, how the mind works to “use” these pictures. He explains that some researchers believe that mental images are “faint experiences” of the real thing. There is evidence that mental images do not pick up fine visual details.
Our concern here is not to study “how the mind works.” Rather it is how we can — USE the images we recognize, and how we can make them more useful in learning and recall. We know the mind “fills in” details in mental images, sometimes incorrectly, when it “thinks” it needs to. That causes errors. But the better we become at USING the images our minds provide, the fewer errors we make, and the more useful the images are.
Visual images (there are other kinds, you know—images we “hear,” “feel,” “taste,” and “smell,”) are what we can call “mental copies” of what the eye “sees.” They are not “real,” just as seeing a map is not looking at the land itself, or knowing the name of a thing is not the same as the “thing” itself. Yet having a map, and knowing the names of things is important and helpful, just as it is helpful to understand how to use our “mind’s eye” and the images it provides.
Pinker says, though many images are fragmentary, we can take parts and rearrange them in our minds. Because we can DO that, our minds can invent new images and uses for them. What can images be used for? Here are some ways to use them.
· To relax, imagining yourself feeling good, muscles not tense, in a place you enjoy—perhaps a “special place” where you feel secure and can “get in touch with yourself, your “inner space,” or your wiser self.
· To “visualize” yourself doing something WELL. To see yourself making the “right” moves, saying the right things, performing perfectly. This programs your mind and actually your muscles, too, so you improve your performance.
· To prepare for things you can’t easily practice. For example, to relax before making a speech, imagining yourself doing it helps. Some speech teachers suggest, when you face an audience, you “imagine someone in the audience without clothes or in a funny costume,” to release your tension.
· To “slow down” an action so that you can study how it’s done is another use of imagery—seeing yourself doing the action, step by step.
· To overcome the feeling that “I’ve never done this before.” Imagining yourself doing it reduces the anxiety.
· To practice when you can’t actually be there, use equipment that isn’t available, are injured or have no time, etc., you can “imagine” yourself going through the moves, the activities, the procedures.
· To perform better at sporting activities. Jack Nicholas, perhaps the best golfer in history, “imagines” doing everything he actually will do before he does it, even seeing the ball leave the club and land where he expects it to. He does this every time he plays, for every golf shot.
· To “feel” or “sense” your body and mind as it DOES what you will actually do, before you do it. This gives you confidence and increases your expectations.
You can improve skills you already have by imagining yourself doing them, and prepare yourself for learning new skills as well by imagining others you have observed and breaking down the action into steps before you try them yourself.

This is the least-taught skill, in most schools, and requires more effort to become proficient. We will address this in future posts.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

One Comment

  1. Steve Sawmelle says:

    Great blog post, thanks! Gelb is riveting on DaVinci. Attended one of his presentations live, and he inspired me to learn to juggle (a right and left brain enhancement tool!). One of his books has a one-page how-to instruction on getting three balls in motion, and now I practice every day.

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