A memory palace worth seeing

Wouldn’t you know it? I opened this month’s National Geographic and flipped to this page with this image.

"The Art of Memory" from National Geographic (March 2012)

A Memory Palace. Here in this magazine. An example of how someone really created a complex memory palace.

I never would have thought this was part of popular culture, or part of a whole subculture of memory competitors/champions. I KNEW it was part of history and part of the mnemonic history (mnemonic is from the Greek word for memory, by the way.) But that it was a method so widely used is a surprise to me.

I’m not great at memorizing, but this made me realize that I spent most of my educational experiences linking my learning with some sort of visual “map” of a sort:

  • I tapped into timelines for my learning of literature and history. I acquired new information and hung it on the proper hook in the timeline of history.
  • I remembered moments in math classes by thinking of each thing I learned as part of an elaborate dance and how each part of math could be connected to the other… like a quadrille or other form of complex dance with mu1tiple dancers (theories, formulas, disciplines).
  • I “saw” maps in my head when I studied particular texts or portions of history and located the “action” in a cosmographic way. I was learning about Rome, so I saw a map of Rome in my mind, where the Tiber River ran, where the major Roman roads were located and ran to, where the borders of the Roman Empire were at a give time. I located my learning on the earth in some way.

I’m always sharply aware that I am here. I am in Montgomery, Alabama. I see myself here. I see my friend in London, another friend in Arezzo, Italy, another in Oman, one in Oklahoma City. When I talk to a friend in Michigan, I “see” him in Michigan in the place he lives on the map. I know he’s there. I really don’t even think about it, but this sort of visual connection I have to what I know, to the knowledge I acquire, even everyday knowledge, is powerful and defines me and how I learn to a great extent. Pow. Ka-Bang. Smash. Crash. Zap. Ka-Blooie.

Made me stand up and take notice in a metacognitive way.

And I was thinking… If I didn’t have any other way to remember what I knew, I’d weave it into a tapestry.

Bayeaux Tapestry (1070s)

You’ll see in this above photo the full tapestry–230 feet long (about)–that was woven to commemorate events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conquerer. The Battle of Hastings was the deciding moment for William (1066). You may have heard of this before. I mentioned it the first day of class Fall term.

A portion of the tapestry (a little easier to see!)

But it’s apropos to mention again–because it’s a memory palace of a kind, isn’t it? We’re participating in a long and varied history of human thinking, textual creation, visual rhetoric. Now you see it.


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