Mnemonics: Why and How You Must Learn It

Mnemonics: Why and How You Must Learn It

Mnemotecnica  (or mnemonics) is an ancient term used to designate the set of rules and methods used to quickly memorize information that is difficult to remember.

In short, it is the set of all memory techniques who know each other.

In the last twenty years, many pseudo-experts have disgraced mnemonics by treating it with great superficiality and teaching - with a golden weight - to memorize relatively useless things, such as the shopping list or a few handfuls of two-digit numbers.

In parallel, our school system has completely ignored or even opposed it.

Forgetting that, for many centuries, mnemonics has been the domain of orators, philosophers and scientists.

So, in this article, we will see:

  • Why and how it is still important to study by heart
  • The roots of mnemonics
  • The famous mnemonists of history
  • Finally, how can you start your adventure in mnemonics

What it means to study by heart

“Don't memorize like a donkey” is the most misinterpreted memory phrase of all time.

In fact, it generated a huge misunderstanding in my whole generation (and in the professors themselves who pronounced it), since it was read as: "if you study by heart you are a donkey".

But what the phrase actually says is not “don't study by heart”, but “don't study by heart like a donkey”, that is, repeating the same thing 100 times.

Which, on the other hand, is the only strategy that the aforementioned professors have taught us.

And so the noble art of remembering things in clever way, that is mnemonics has been lost, leaving room for a learning system in which:

  • It stores as little as possible, thus losing some of the ability to do mental connections which is the basis of understanding and inductive and deductive processes.
  • When storing, it is done in the most mechanical way possible, limiting itself to the repetition 2-3 basic strategies (underline, repeat aloud, make patterns).

The beginnings of mnemonics

Of absolutely opposite opinion to that of many modern professors were, for example, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

For both, in fact, memory e knowledge they are an indissolubly linked binomial, without which a true progression of thought cannot exist.

And therefore, in the same way, remembering something you don't understand or understanding something you don't remember is difficult and almost useless,

Therefore they would never have dreamed of denying the importance of mnemonics.

Indeed, Aristotle himself lays the foundations of future mnemonics when he highlights the inseparable relationship between thought, memory and image:

"it is not possible to think without an image ... memory, even that of the objects of thought, is not without an image ... memory belongs to the same part as the imagination ... "(Aristotle, Memory).

This relationship became the basis of the memory techniques subsequently developed, and of the importance that creativity and imagination have within them.

It is this relationship that makes mnemonics work, as I write in the article “remembering through images”.

After the Greeks, and on a decidedly less abstract and more practical level, the great Roman oratories studied and applied mnemonics at the highest levels.

In fact, it is mentioned in the main treatises of that time, such as the "Rhetoric ad Herennium", the "Institutio Oratoria", and the "De Oratore".

The latter was written by Cicero himself, who was the first to explicitly describe one of the most used and effective memory techniques: the technique of loci.

Renaissance and Mnemonics

Centuries later we find, among the admirers of mnemonics, the great medieval thinkers, including for example Thomas Aquinas.

Ma it is in the Renaissance that mnemonics reaches its peak and produces real champions.

Among them, Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Tomai, Erasmo da Rotterdam, Ramon Lull ...

There is no Italian or foreign Renaissance humanist who does not know memory techniques, and the mnemonic abilities of some of them become legendary.

It is said, for example, that Pico Della Mirandola could recite the entire Divine Comedy in reverse and that Matteo Ricci, sent by the Jesuits to China to evangelize it, learned to converse in Mandarin in less than a couple of months.

During the Renaissance there was so much faith in mnemonics that the humanist Giulio Camillo Delminio came to conceive a project of enormous ambition, and of which he will also make a wooden model: the "Memory Theater " o "Theater of wisdom": a physical place in which to represent through symbols and mnemonic associations all the human knowledge of the time.

"The perspective of the organization of human wisdom, in its entirety, and of the understanding of the cosmic image within the finitude of a space marked by symbols, reproduced visions and images of the universe, and conceptions of knowledge, deeply permeated by symbolic meanings, synthesis of the most intense philosophical experiences of the European Renaissance: philosophical hermeticism, the Western kabbalistic tradition, Neoplatonism and astrology. Such an aspiration carries with it the traits of a typical utopian propensity of Renaissance culture, the constant striving for universal knowledge"(Cit. Wikipedia).

Champions of mnemonics: Giordano Bruno in Leibniz

And while Delminio pursued his utopia of universal memory and knowledge, Giordano Bruno  he ended up at the stake precisely for the accusations of witchcraft that are addressed to him - among other things - as a result of his enormous mnemonic abilities.

But not before having written one of the most famous (and cryptic!) Mnemonics books of all time: "The Shades of Ideas".

After the Renaissance he is again a philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm of Leibniz, to give popularity to memory techniques in the scientific world, and in particular to that of the phonetic conversion of numbers.

This is no coincidence if we consider that, after the Renaissance, it will be the great moment of the disciplines "with a high numerical content" such as chemistry, physics and mathematics.

While in more recent times linguistics has thoroughly investigated the amazing results of the keyword method for language learning, and even the eclectic genius of Umberto Eco has repeatedly faced the world of mystery symbols and representations that mnemonics feed on.

Umberto Eco and mnemonics

Among the lovers of manuscripts and original works of Medieval and Renaissance mnemonics there have always been great collectors and scholars.

Umberto Eco was so passionate that he contributed to the creation of the Young Fund of the University of San Marino, the richest collection in the world of works on memory and mnemonics, with an estimated value of over 20 million euros.

And if you want to read something interesting, I really recommend "Mnemotecniche e rebus", by Umberto Eco.

So short that he probably wrote it on the Frecciarossa Milano-Bologna, but still very nice to read.

The presentation reads:

"The strangest images and the most imaginative associations have populated mnemonics since ancient times, producing mysterious verb-visual clusters whose interpretation is often a gamble ...

In order to juggle mnemonic figures and emblems, Umberto Eco then suggests addressing them as a puzzle, the key of which depends both on contextual inferences and on codified solutions…. "

In short, nothing to do with the large group of sellers of mnemotechnical vacuum cleaners, nor with the teachers who consider mnemotechnics a useless tinsel, completely ignoring their history.

And it is with an excerpt of a letter from Umberto Eco to his grandson that I like to reply to some teacher / or, so maybe, since he says so, a minimum of concern for memory comes to him:

“… .I wanted to talk to you… .. about a disease that has affected your generation and even that of older children, who may already go to university: memory loss.

It is true that if you want to know who Charlemagne was or where Kuala Lumpur is, you just have to press a few buttons and the Internet tells you right away.

Do it when you need it, but after you have done it try to remember what you have been told so as not to be forced to look for it a second time if by chance you have an urgent need ... ..

the risk is that, since you think your computer can tell you this at any moment, you lose the pleasure of putting it in your head.

It would be a little as if, having learned that to go from via Tale to via Talaltra there is a bus or a subway that allows you to move around without effort… you think that in this way you no longer need to walk…. "

(From the weekly "L'Espresso" Letter from Umberto Eco to his grandson: "Dear grandson, study by heart." With a reflection on technology and advice for the future: remember 'La vispa Teresa', but also the formation of Rome or the names of the servants of the three Musketeers).

How to learn mnemonics

“Ok, Anthony, you convinced me, with this whole story of famous mnemonists. But how do I learn mnemonics? "

As I told you, I do not recommend most of the memory courses that are sold around.

They just give you a smattering of mnemonics, and they are often too expensive. You can get better results by reading a good book, and by taking the time to think about it and start doing your first memory exercises.

My blog, GetPersonalGrowth, is almost a free memory course, where you can find lots of materials to think about and from which to start.

In particular, on the blog you can find

Articles on each of the main mnemonics:

  • The technique of Cicero's Loci
  • How to build a palace of memory
  • The Keyword Method for foreign words (and difficult words)
  • Leibniz's Phonetic Conversion to learn numbers.

Articles with specific exercises to start training and really understand something, such as: 

How to memorize a deck of cards

How to memorize a long list with the loci method

Articles with some ideas for putting mnemonics into practice in learning, such as

Memory techniques to study medicine: dialogue with a student

How to memorize a theatrical script

Visualize and Associate: the basics of memory techniques

9 articles of the civil code

A final warning on mnemonics

There are many who, when they realize the potential of mnemonics, try their hand at trying to apply them to learning.

However, more than 90% of them quit after a short time.

The reason is that using mnemonics is not at all easy. Indeed, one of the main reasons why they work is precisely the fact that they require a certain effort to be applied: the information must be digested, understood, translated into meaningful images, associated with each other ...

Trust, time and patience need to be used.

Regarding the first aspect, trust, I think the excursus made in this article should have convinced you: mnemonics is an ancient, effective art, developed and used over the centuries by some of the best minds in history.

For time and patience, however, it all depends on you. ; )

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