Order and The Art of Memory (Introduction)

Order and The Art of Memory (Introduction)

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 process of memory depends on the processing and comparing new experiences with what we already know. Our “natural” memories give us a “head start.” Infants are born with many neurons and synapses that are specifically used to remember the all-new experiences they have as they mature. We all learned very quickly how to do certain things that kept us alive during our first few years of life. As we developed “habits,” we found we didn’t need to “pay as much attention” to things we did often, and could “focus” on new experiences. Eventually, we had so much experience to remember that we needed to “pay more attention” than our “natural” memory was capable of doing.
When we noticed that we “needed to pay attention” was the beginning of the “loss” of natural memory for everything that happened, and the beginning of “habits” that made remembering easier. It also began the need to “learn how to learn.” By the age of 5 or 6, most children have begun this process. Schools are places where children are taught what is needed to begin learning the things they will need as adults. Schools are supposed to work toward making every student an “independent” learner, able to, at some point, be able to learn without a teacher.

Learning independence is an important goal for every student. It is also the goal of every good teacher. What both students and teachers want is the same thing: the student will have learned what the teacher has taught. Basic to learning independence is the ability to recall what was taught when it is needed. That requires memory skills. The memory aids, available in today’s schools did not exist in the ancient world. No workbooks, electronic devices, video and audio aids, notebooks and pens, copy machines, just a teacher and his memory, and students with theirs.
Students learned how to remember, and if they did not, they did not learn at all. Young children have added memory power that they lose as they grow older unless the find ways to enhance it. The earliest record of the ancient “art of memory” is the story of a Greek poet, in 500 BC named Cimonides. He wrote a long poem about a Greek noble named Scopus, who had commissioned the poem, to be delivered at a banquet. Scopus refused to pay the full fee because the poem was not only about him but two Greek gods, the Gemini twins. Scopus told Cimonides to get the rest of his fee from them.
During the banquet, Cimonides was called away for a moment, by two young men asking for him. As he met with them outside the banquet hall it collapsed, killing everyone inside. Relatives of the dead tried to find them in the rubble but it was difficult. Cimonides, who remembered all the guests’ names and where they sat, helped to identify them all. This feat was described in a book called Ad Herennium, which also explained the memory process Cimonides used.
The ancient “Art of Memory” was a process that used four mental activities: attention, order and organization, imagery, and meditation. For centuries it was attributed to the Roman orator Cicero, who used it to remember hundreds of pages of legal work, speeches, and other things. In those times every learned person used some type of memory scheme, usually involving a process of placing the “thought or image ir idea” to be remembered in some “location,” in a building, room, palace, neighborhood, or other sequentially connected place. It was called the “method of “loci.” Meaning location or place. Today, most “memory masters” use some form of mnemonics involving similar techniques.
The Art of Memory is described briefly as having four main actions: They are, Order, Attention, Imagery, and Meditation(mindfulness and concentration).

Why do we address order first? Order, as one of the four basic elements of the “art of memory.” is so obviously part of our everyday lives that we take it for granted. Order and organization are so very much part of most things we experience. The most obvious are the way we recognize: A-to-Z, 1-to-10, top-to-bottom, near/far, larger/smaller, brighter/darker, good-better-best/ higher/lower, sweet/bitter, etc.
Of course, the numbers, names and symbols we use to identify most places and things in our lives are basic uses of “order and sequence in space and time”. Your iphone would be useless without its own number and the ability to reach the millions of others with their own unique numbers. Every home has an address that places it in a specific location, and that address differs from every other.
TV and radio broadcasts have their own identifiers—letters and radio frequency numbers. Every published book has its own identifiers. Your clothing has a size number, as do your shoes, hat, gloves, etc. The hours of the day and night have numbers and letters, days of the week are numbered, months are named, years are numbered. Every automobile has its VIN number, and its owner has a registration number for it, as well as a personal license, with its identification number as well.
Putting things into an order that you can use to recall what you have remembered more easily involves “identifying” what it is and “associating” that memory with something else—is the essential aspect of memory and recall. Order is not the first thing you do, but it is the one that you follow up with so you can more easily remember when you want to. We will get to what precedes order—the process of attention—in due course. But first some information on the process of order and how it permeates everything involved in what we learn is necessary.

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.

A recent book gathered a number of lists of things and organized them into categories. (Kipfer, B.A., The Order of Things: How Everything in the World is Organized…Into Heirarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders. Random House: NY 1997).
This book is unique. Its bibliography lists 73 references from which the writer took the information. It explains very little (80 diagrams do show processes and relationships). Rather, it lists the words, numbers, letters, symbols and orders in which they can e understood, how they are related to each other.
The Preface says…the Order of Things is an attempt to cover all those things that we ourselves have organized, or what we have found naturally organized into: hierarchies, structures, orders, classifications, branches, scales, divisions, successions, sequences, rankings.
Everything in our daily lives is in some way “organized.” Why? So we can “find it” among the millions of things—objects, places, ideas, events,–in our lives. Kipfer combined the information from the 73 references into thirteen sections: The first five are: Earth Sciences and Geography, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Technology Mathematics & Measurements. The next seven are: Religion, History, Society & Social Institutions, Business & Economics, Arts, Domestic Life, Sports & Recreation. The final section is General Knowledge & Philosophy
Just knowing this reference exists is an important piece of information. One important idea about “order” is to understand that when we don’t recognize an existing order, about “something” we will find it very difficult to understand “where it fits” into our “experience.” How important something is—to us personally—is how it may “affect” us.

We can only KNOW that when we “notice” it, and “pay attention: to it, that is, “recognize HOW it relates to US, and in what WAYS—good, bad, indifferent. An obvious example: In London, vehicle traffic drives on the opposite side of the street from the US and many other countries. Americans unaware of this may (and do) look the wrong way when stepping into the street, risking serious injury.
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 function of order in using our memory is no less important. The ability to use it well is essential to becoming an independent learner. Learning how to use “the art of memory” will involve order in many different ways. As we shall see.

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.

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