Personal Memory House or Landscape


Want to have a place to put your lifetime of learning? Organize your mind with a personal memory house.   You effectively decorate your memory scenes with ideas and thoughts.  You can then remember anything simply by walking through your memory scenes.  In Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion, Jay Heinrichs writes about how the ancients used these personal memory villas to deliver great speeches and store a lifetime of learning.

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Organize your mind by constructing a personal memory house or landscape
  • Create a place for your ideas and put your ideas in their place
  • Walk through your memory, scene by scene
  • Visualize the scenes of your speech rather than memorize the notes or words
  • Build your personal memory villa over a lifetime

As simple as the idea sounds, I know it’s effective.  I’ve used a similar idea in a very small scale.  I never thought to have multiple landscapes or really elaborate houses or scenes filled with ideas.   I can very much imagine hanging specific paintings on the walls of various rooms or having specific trees or bushes mean certain things.  The real beauty of this technique is that it’s a forcing function that automatically improves your memory (simply by creating the memory) and it improves your imagination and visualization.

Creating an Inventory of Thoughts
Heinrichs writes that the ancients had effective techniques for storing their ideas:

Cicero called memory, "the treasure-house of the ideas supplied by invention."  Like other rhetoricians, he had his own methods for creating an inventory of thoughts and ways of expressing them.  The ancients had wild ideas about memory, employing pornography, classical architecture, primitive semiotics, abusive classroom techniques, and exercises that orators continued throughout their lives.

Construct an Imaginary House or Scene to Fill With Ideas
Heinrichs writes that you should create an imaginary house or scene to fill with your ideas:

It went like this: every rhetoric student would construct an imaginary house or scene in his head, with empty spaces to fill with ideas.  One rhetorician was extremely specific about it:

The backgrounds ought to be neither too bright nor too dim, so that the shadows may not obscure the images nor the lustre make them glitter.  I believe that the intervals between backgrounds should be of moderate extent, approximately thirty feet; for, like the external eye, so the inner eye of thought is less powerful when you have moved the object of sight too near or too far away.

Your Personal Memory House or Landscape Lasts a Lifetime
While your memory structure may take a years to build, Hienrichs writes that it can last a lifetime:

It might take years to create a personal memory house or landscape, but the resulting mnemonic structure could last a lifetime.  The student then created his own mental images to fill each space.  Each image would stand for a concept, an ideal or commonplace, or a figure of speech.

An Indoor Shopping Mall Example
Heinrichs illustrates a personal memory scene using a shopping mall example:

Imagine an indoor shopping mall with stores that hold figures, commonplaces, particular concepts, and argument strategies.  Some of the stores never change their merchandise, while others supply ideas that can serve a particular speech.  You arrange the stores according to the classic outline of an oration, with items useful to your introduction, narration and facts, division, proof, refutation, and conclusion.  For example, the introduction section can have all the devices of ethos in them.  One of them, the "doubt trick" (dubitatio) — the one where you pretend not to know where to begin — can be a mirror in the shape of a question mark.  Another, the one where you seem to have come to your choice reluctantly, after considering all the opponent’s arguments, can be a painting with a picture on both sides of the canvas.  Each picture can stand for an opposing argument.

Ancient Practices
According to Heinrichs, pornographic pictures helped memory:

If we really wanted to follow the ancient practices, we would make the picture pornographic, and fill some of the stores with naked men or women doing very interesting things.  Rhetoric teachers found that their students — all young males – tended to remember these images especially.

Daily Walks Through Your Memory Villas
Never get lost in your speech.  According to Heinrichs, Roman speakers could simply visit the particular memory scene they need to draw from:

Even if they didn’t have to give a speech, Roman gentlemen were supposed to walk through their "memory villas" at least once a day, visiting each section and imprinting the images in their heads.  Then, when he did have to speak, the Roman could simply walk through the villa and visit the sections he needed.  Instead of memorizing an outline and phrases, the way we might, he only had to remember the route for that particular speech, along with a few new images — stored in the appropriate place — that spoke to the particular issue.

Architectural Memory and Parallels to Today
Heinrichs writes that PowerPoint is a parallel with architectural memory:

Strange as this may seem to us today, we do have parallels to this architectural memory.  Take PowerPoint for instance.  Each slide often contains an image — a picture, a chart, or graph — that conveys a particular concept.  By looking at the slide along with the audience, the speaker can remember what to say.

A PowerPoint Experiment
Heinrichs provides an experiment you can test to visualize your next speech, rather than relying on notes or slides:

If you had the time and the inclination, you might experiment by combining PowerPoint with the ancient memory technique.  Write down all your thoughts.  Now put each thought on a PowerPoint slide.  Find or create a graphic for each slide.  Print the slides in thumbnail and view and cut them out with scissors.  Now create a kind of board game, like Snakes and Ladders, where you follow a path through a kind of landscape and encounter each slide.  Place the slides in the order you want along the path, beginning with the introduction and finishing with the conclusion.  Stare at your "board game" for an hour or two, focusing on the pictures (you won’t be able to read the type anyway).  Could you give the speech without notes or slides?  At any rate, that’s what the Roman’s did, only they had the advantage of years of practice.

Romans Had to Speak for Hours and Were Constantly Interrupted
Heinrichs writes that while he doesn’t need to use the approach, the Romans would give long speeches and were interrupted along the way:

In my case, since my talk is only fifteen minutes long and I intend to speak plainly, I can do it without notes or rhetorical mnemonics.  But the Romans had to speak for hours, and their audiences interrupted them constantly.  In a pinch, they could always duck into their memory house and pull out something, well, memorable.

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  1. J.D.

    This is an interesting concept. I think memories are so important and try to make memories whenever I can.

    Having lost loved ones, it’s the memories that keep them alive in my heart and often make me smile.

    I’ll be back to study this post more carefully and see if I can make a memory house/landscape of my own.

  2. Memory house or landscape functions better with the addition of visual representation of objects that we intend to store. Good concept. I like it a lot.


  3. Hey Barbara

    I’ll be very curious to hear how your landscape goes. I’m starting with images of my favorite rooms. Then adding collections of ideas to them — one treasure chest or picture frame at a time.

  4. Had to smile at “Rhetoric teachers found that their students — all young males – tended to remember these images especially.” Of course they did. But it does make sense to use images that would be especially easy to remember.

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