Why Medieval Memory

So, you walk into a bar. Immediately to your left is an old aardvark in a Japanese military uniform. He has a patch over one eye and is throwing back sake and telling war stories. Across from him at your 11 o’clock is an elephant. He’s several pints in, droopy-eyed, and devouring peanuts. Immediately in front of you is the bar and behind the bar is an iguana wearing dark shades and whipping up cocktails. He’s from Miami and speaks with a Spanish accent. On the bar in front of him is a small fishbowl with a fish inside…

This is a room in my memory palace. Having been subjected to (and having hated) mnemonics while learning Japanese as a child, I became fascinated with more complex and powerful memory systems while studying medieval forms of monastic learning when completing my doctorate at Cornell. There were scholars in the Middle Ages who could recite entire epics forwards or backwards and provide any line number at will; Thomas Aquinas is reported to have composed and dictated multiple books at the same time to multiple scribes. These and other feats of memory frequently reported in oral cultures seemed far beyond the realm of possibility until I started to uncover that such feats were trainable skills and that medieval scholars wrote explicit instructions for how to perform them. Hugh of St. Victor, for example, describes his mental framework for learning all 150 Psalms and recalling any line number at will. The success of these systems hangs on two important factors: using spatial and visual frameworks and having organised material.

We as human beings are very good at spatial and visual knowledge. A morning routine comprised of waking up, showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and going to work requires detailed knowledge of the existence and location of hundreds of individual items. We usually ignore our immense mental capacity to handle this kind of information; but it is truly immense. You can already — without any strain — recall thousands of details about your home, your neighborhood, and the places you have been, even if you have only been there once. This is the type of memory I use for learning complex systems, like languages.

Return to the bar. Through this scene, I remember that there are three conjugations of regular verbs in Italian: a-stem (aardvark), e-stem (elephant), and i-stem (iguana). There is a subclass of i-stem verbs called inchoative verbs that have an -isc- infix (fish) such as finire/finisco. The fact that these associations are physically located within a larger space is key.

When most people think of memory techniques, they think of mnemonics. What are mnemonics? Mnemonics are associations used to convert information into images that are easy to remember. The aardvark standing in for a-stem verbs is an example of a mnemonic. For most people, however, mnemonics is where memory techniques both begin and end, and breaking past this limitation is essential to storing complex systems.

Mnemonics are problematic for a couple of reasons. First, they are not transferable. My associations will not be your associations and vice versa. Perhaps you would choose an alligator instead of an aardvark, or something different altogether. The associations have to be strong and relevant to each individual, so attempts to pass on mnemonics usually don’t work in the long run. Second, mnemonics are themselves disorganised pieces of information. Once you start getting past twenty to thirty mnemonics, they can start to swim around in your head.

The key to medieval memory — and the component that can have the most direct impact on language learning — is the spatial framework, or memory palace. By using memories of physical spaces, we can assign locations to associations within the context of clearly defined regions. In my head, all the regular conjugations of Italian are inside the bar, and all the irregular ones are outside.

The amazing thing about the art of memory is that you already know how to do it. The only thing lacking is the mental framework.

By converting difficult grammatical knowledge into tangible associations and storing the details within the context of physical spaces, it’s possible to store all structural patterns of a language in a matter of weeks or even days. This includes the details of each and every form within verb conjugations. The benefit of this is that the entire language then resides as an immutable reference in your own head. While you might confuse an –ais ending in French with an –ait ending, you will not confuse your neighbour’s annoying dog with a spaceship. Problem solved.

Applying these techniques to language learning is not as straightforward as it may initially seem. Languages are complex systems, so they require large spatial frameworks to learn them. In order to set up those spatial frameworks, you need to know first how many pieces of information you’re going to need to store, which in turn requires a robust understanding of how languages work as systems. Otherwise, things get messy very quickly. The effective use of these spatial frameworks relies on clear organisation of information. A library with sections, shelves, and a catalogue system is useful; a massive pile of books is not.

This is why I have spent the last several years creating the systems and processes by which we can develop comprehensive and exhaustive maps of languages and their structural patterns. The map shows you how many rooms you need, how many divisions, and what shapes the mental frameworks need to be. The beautiful thing about this is that the frameworks are 100% transferable because they are based on the actual structure of the language. Each individual can then populate the memory palace with his or her own associations.

In the monasteries of medieval Europe, the faculty of memory or memoria was considered the faculty of composition and creativity; it was not rote. This is why grammatical tables are so beautiful. They are just the map, not the journey. When I look at a map of a language it is like looking at a map of the world: I don’t see the tedium of cartography but the vibrant spaces, images, and stories contained in my memory palace.


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