Friday Profile: Simonides of Ceos and the Invention of Memorization Mnemonics

The history of the art of memory begins with the Greek orator, Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.C.). Legend says, Simonides invented the system of visual memory mnemonics after attending a banquet and later leaving as the sole survivor. During the banquet, Simonides was called outside, and after stepping out the door, the banquet ceiling collapsed on the guests, leaving a group of unidentifiable bodies still at their assigned seats at the table. Simonides was asked if he could identify the bodies, and to do so, he created a visual replica of the banquet hall and the guests in his mind and was able to identify each body.
This memory technique is known as the method of loci or spatial palaces. Simonides figured out that if he could conjure a mental image of the banquet hall and guests in order to retrieve a name, he could use the same method when memorizing any large amount of information. For instance, in the New York Times article, “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” science journalist Joshua Foer explains how memory athletes use Simonides method to bring home the U.S.A. Memory Championship trophy. At the competition, competitors must complete tasks like memorizing an entire deck of cards in under 5 minutes.
Ask a memory champion and they’ll probably tell you they have a “normal” brain — and  there is neurological research to back up their claim. What they do have above most of us is technique, and when it comes to memorizing a deck of cards, you’ll find their technique relies on spatial palaces.
To memorize a deck of cards:

  • Take a familiar space like your childhood home, your school, the mall, or in Simonides case, the banquet hall. You can also create an imaginary space or the route you take to work.
  • Then, take the first three cards and link each of them to someone famous doing something bizarre. In Joshua Foer’s essay, he “walks” into his childhood home and  “Inside the front door, the Incredible Hulk rode a stationary bike while a pair of oversize, loopy earrings weighed down his earlobes (three of clubs, seven of diamonds, jack of spades).” As this example shows, the more ridiculous and creative picture you conjure up, the more likely you will be to remember it.
  • After getting through your deck of cards, you go back to the front door, in Foer’s case, and recall all the cards by the images you linked to them.

Want to see it in action? Below, watch the video of the world champion in speed cards, Andi Bell, revealing his techniques in a clip from the BBC documentary, “Get Smart.”

How could you use the method of loci or spatial palaces to make studying a fun activity? Have you ever used this or similar techniques to study? Share your story in the comment box below.

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