I’m old enough to remember a time before we knew that birds were just a modern form of dinosaurs. Like many children in the 1970s, I thought dinosaurs were the coolest things ever, partly because they were so remote in time, so very extinct. But to later find out what palaeontologists were just then realising, that these ancient monsters were still around us everywhere, always audible outside the window, was mind-blowing and inspiring in a whole new way.
Something similar is true of much ‘ancient wisdom’. Lore that we may assume has been long forgotten often turns out to have just morphed into something different. In some cases, it still survives in places, or in disguises, that we might least suspect. This is true of my favourite piece of ancient knowhow, one that has been centrally important in my life and learning for three decades: the astonishingly effective memorisation method practiced by scholars and orators in pre-literate, pre-Gutenberg times.
Few know about this technique anymore, but I was lucky to read about it when I was in college at the University of Colorado in the 1980s. A lecturer recommended I read a book called The Art of Memory by Frances Yates,1 saying it was literally the most interesting book he’d ever read. That sounded like a pretty good recommendation – so I headed over to the university bookstore and picked up a copy. Reading it that evening at home, I felt like I was being initiated into a whole new way of thinking, not only about the mind and history, but also about film, visual arts, literature, psychology. It felt like an initiation, and was really one of those life-changing reading experiences.
We speak today of the ‘reading experience’, but for people in the ancient world and Middle Ages – the time period of Yates’ study – texts were precious, rare objects, and the aim of reading, if you could read, was not to have a fleeting and diverting experience with a book before moving on to the next one. A travelling scholar studying a rare volume in the library of some wealthy patron may never get another chance to look at that book. Even a monk or priest would have very limited opportunities to read the Bible. But amazingly, learned men in ancient Greece or Rome, or in the Middle Ages, actually knew many books by heart; their minds were well-organised libraries of texts that, in their studies and travels, they had the good fortune to hold and read and study. In debates, they could assemble and arrange evidence, quoting long passages by heart, without a scrap of paper in front of them.
The method was actually easy: If you wanted to remember an idea or fact, you just needed to break the fact down into its parts, substitute each part with some other thing it called to mind for you, and then assemble those things together into an arresting little tableau or scene. To remember a whole speech or sermon, you just ‘placed’ a sequence of those images, in your imagination, along a route through a familiar or well-memorised environment like your home or public plaza. Then, when the time came to deliver your discourse, you took a mental stroll through the same space, visiting each vivid image in sequence, ‘retrieving’ the facts or ideas you had planted there.
Here’s an example: A college student needs to learn a long list of major milestones in European history for an exam. The study handout lists names and dates and facts that might be on the test like “The Normans invaded England in 1066.” On their own, the bare facts, Normans, England, 1066, may mean little or nothing to the student – she doesn’t know what a Norman invader looks like; like most numbers, the date 1066 might as well be a random string of digits; and she has never been to England, although she has a lot of impressions from TV and magazines constantly showing Prince William and his wife and children. If she is lucky, though, our hypothetical student may have been taught the basic tricks of the art of memory by a teacher or adviser at some point: The idea is to use all her random, stupid, personal associations and make a mental picture from them.
So, say our student is a maven of 60s rock trivia and knows the years of every Bob Dylan album like the back of her hand. The year 1066 thus might immediately call to her mind 1966, the year Blonde on Blonde was released. And while she may not know what an actual historical Norman looked like, she does have an uncle named Norman. Instead of repressing such absurd and irrelevant connections as they occur to her while she’s staring at her study handout, a clever, mnemonically-trained student will actually allow her naturally playful mind to make and even embellish those associations on the fly – allowing, perhaps, a mental image of a weirdly blond-haired version of her uncle (who in real life has black hair), wearing a cheap Darth Vader cloak and mask (i.e., ‘in Vader’; the ‘cheap mask’ instead of a full helmet allows us to see his blond hair) slicing Prince William in half with a stroke of his light sabre. For all the other events and dates on the study sheet, she creates a similarly bizarre and, yes, idiotic image, using the same principles, and then mentally plants these little dioramas at intervals along some familiar route, such as the path from her dorm to her history class.
She will, I promise you, ace the test.
When Yates first wrote her book (also in 1966), she took a somewhat sceptical attitude: Although there was clearly something magical about this technique, and while its famous practitioners like the Hermetic freethinker Giordano Bruno boasted amazing feats with it, it didn’t make sense to her. She assumed creating new images to remember facts would actually require more effort at memorisation, not less. But the psychological study of memory over the last half century has revealed why the ancient methods really did work a lot better than cramming stuff into our heads by rote repetition.
Memory works by association – the linking of information not by logic but by how things look or sound alike (for instance puns and rhymes); where they fit in some arbitrary sequence like a list or a song; or even what we were doing, where we were, or how we felt when we learned about them. When searching our mental archive for information, we find what we need by quickly following trains of very personal and idiosyncratic links – like what we were eating for breakfast when we heard a particularly interesting piece of news on the radio. It’s that associative illogic that, counterintuitively, makes our memories strong, because it enables us to quickly access needed information by many alternative paths. Your cortex is a vast multidimensional net of illogical interconnections, spanning the length and breadth of your experience on earth.
When that college student is creating an image of her uncle in a Darth Vader costume killing Prince William, she isn’t really creating anything new she needs to remember along with the historical fact of the Norman invasion; she is taking stuff already in her memory, the first associations that just naturally and effortlessly pop to mind, and hooking them to each other by slightly distorting them, the way you might attach two lengths of wire by bending the ends. It’s like a little playful mental art project. It takes little effort to concoct such images, and it takes zero effort to remember them. Because of their absurdity, they stick in mind automatically.
The biographies of modern geniuses like Einstein show that, even when they don’t know they are doing it, they are essentially using the art of memory, treating information as toys or materials to be creatively transformed, not intimidating data to be crammed into the head by brute force.
The Royal Road
Like I said, it is always exciting to learn about the wisdom of the ancients – I’ve been practicing the art of memory for decades and it has paid off in countless ways, along with the thrill of feeling like I’m privy to an ages-old secret. It is even more exciting, though, to realise this ancient wisdom is still alive in the most unexpected places. What if we are all memory wizards like Giordano Bruno, and don’t even know it? Consider: Uncle Norman attacking Prince William while wearing a Darth Vader costume is just the sort of surreal image we might encounter at night in our dreams. Is there some connection between dreaming and the art of memory?
The strangely sensible bizarreness of dreams has led reasonable people at all times and in all cultures to assume that these nightly visions and visitations have some kind of important role to play in our lives. In 1900, Sigmund Freud famously wed the folk wisdom that dreams are symbolically meaningful with the then-new scientific study of mental process in his masterpiece The Interpretation of Dreams.2 He argued that dreams are symbolic tableaux staging the fulfilment of our repressed wishes. It was the keystone of his big idea that the unconscious mind contains secrets that can make us ill, or at least make us confused and unhappy, until they are brought out into the light of day. Dreams, he said, were the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious.
Freud’s theory is hard to test scientifically, though, and with the assumption that there is some secret desire being expressed, it is easy to twist Freudian dream interpretations to mean whatever the patient, or doctor, wants them to mean. The ‘wish fulfilment’ idea is also a bit of a stretch, which even Freud began to realise later in his life, when studying the dreams of war veterans: Some dreams are thoroughly unpleasant – definitely not showing us our deep desires. For these and other reasons, psychologists and brain scientists in the second half of the 20th century mostly rejected Freud and went in a totally different direction, searching for a biological basis of dreaming. In doing so, they tried hard to discredit the mystical-sounding idea that dreams contained symbolic meanings that you could interpret like a poem, or decode the way a spy might extract the hidden meaning from a cipher.
Over the decades, brain scientists have produced many, usually pretty dull theories about why we dream – for instance, they are just random brain noise, or they somehow prepare us to deal with threats. But circumstantial evidence has accumulated gradually, from lots of different sources, that there may be an inner logic in dreams after all, and that logic has something to do with reinforcing old memories and making new ones.
In laboratory experiments, people who have been exposed to new information remember it better after ‘sleeping on it’ than if they don’t; and studies also show that during sleep, complex material learned during the day is simplified, made easier to understand. Animal species most dependent on their parents at birth, like birds and humans and many other mammals, show much more REM sleep than species born fully able to function, like reptiles. (In other words, the more an animal needs to learn in order to survive in the world, the more its brain is active at night, and the more it dreams.) Rodent studies have shown that brain areas activated during daytime exploration and learning are reactivated during sleep. We additionally know that the hippocampus, long recognised to play a key role in making new memories, is extremely active while we slumber.
There is also growing evidence that important episodes and upheavals in our day are metabolised at night, specifically during the roughly two and a half hours we spend during REM sleep, when we are dreaming most vividly. It thus makes sense that the vividly bizarre images in dreams could directly reflect this nightly process of memory-making. Yet, the fact that dreams are bizarre and usually don’t realistically relate to events in our daily life has been a sticking point in figuring out what their exact connection to memory might be.
A big part of the problem is that scientists are usually too busy (and science-minded) to venture out of the science stacks in their library. It was only in 2013 that a psychologist named Sue Llewellyn at Manchester Business School realised that the ancient art of memory, well known to cultural historians, might be the missing piece of the puzzle of dreams.3 She saw that the bizarre content in dreams seems to bear the same relationship to real-life events in our lives that a scene of Uncle Norman in a Darth Vader costume attacking Prince William bears to the fact of the Norman Invasion in 1066. Dreams, she suggested, are basically just the ancient art of memory operating automatically while we sleep. They don’t literally re-present events that happened in our day; instead they show us our private associations to those events. Those associations are the new connecting material being formed nightly in our brains, linking those recent events to older, deeper priorities and older memories.
The new mnemonic theory of dreaming makes brilliant sense of several old commonplaces about dreams, such as why they so often involve sex, why they so often contain clever witticisms and puns, and why they are usually so hard to remember.
Because dreams have so much sex and suggestive genital symbolism in them, Freud thought they must be basically about our repressed sexual desires. But if dreams actually serve a mnemonic function, then we might expect sexual motifs to be so prevalent simply because exciting emotions make things more memorable. This is a well-known fact about memory; in fact, sex was an important part of the ancient art of memory for exactly that reason. Most of the teachers kept quiet on this aspect of it, but one Renaissance memory teacher, Peter of Ravenna, admitted that sexy imagery was one of his trade secrets: “I usually fill my memory-places with the images of beautiful women, which excite my memory,” he said. “If you wish to remember quickly, dispose the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory places; the memory is marvellously excited by images of women…”4
In our more enlightened day, you can of course substitute ‘whatever turns your crank’ for Peter’s “beautiful virgins.” The point is not that women are sex objects, but that whatever for you is a sex object is also an ideal memory hook.
Another common feature in dreams is brilliant wordplay, especially puns. For instance, a friend of mine once told me a disturbing dream in which she attended a dinner party thrown by her older sister, where she was horrified to see her sister’s head resting on an appetiser tray. I knew my friend was annoyed by her sister’s recent accomplishments, such as getting married and purchasing a home (neither of which my friend was close to doing), so there was nothing really mysterious about my friend’s dream image: Her sister was ahead. Her jaw dropped when I pointed this out.
The puns in dreams often link multiple associations and enlist all our senses, not just the sounds of words. There are sight gags, as well as emotional and multisensory puns and situations that ‘rhyme’ with those in real life. Of course, witty wordplay is central to the consciously applied arts of memory too: Using Uncle Norman to stand for the Norman invaders is a kind of pun, as is putting Norman in a Darth Vader costume to make him an invader.
Freud thought that multilayered puns helped dreams say a lot with a little – the same principle in jokes – and here the mnemonic theory is in complete agreement. Freud might have suggested that my friend’s dream image brilliantly stated the case that her sister was ‘ahead’ along with the hope that the sister’s accomplishments were nothing but a trivial prelude (an appetiser) to my friend’s own later achievements – and maybe there was a little sibling ‘death wish’ thrown in as well. The multiple trains of association radiating out from a single dream image represent multiple paths in the brain’s associative network, which keep some idea – in this case, ‘I kind of hate my sister because she’s ahead of me’ – alive and available in the dreamer’s thoughts.
But why, if dreams’ purpose is memory, are they among hardest of our experiences to remember? We dream for about two and a half hours each night but are lucky to recall just one or two brief dreams every morning, if any. Unless you write them down, even those have usually faded by breakfast. It’s not so strange if you think about it: The thing we are supposed to remember is our memories of yesterday. Dreams make yesterday, the same way the stomach digests our meals and transforms it into the stuff of our bodies. Yesterday is more vivid to me today than it was before I slept, because of that activity of dreaming, which created and solidified the pathways in my brain that lead to those memories. Nature may not really mean us to see or remember our dreams per se, any more than it means us to see the contents of our stomach… and when we do, something may be wrong.
I like to think of dreams as the scaffolding and cranes at a construction site: They quickly dismantle themselves – they just vanish – once the building they are constructing is finished. The same is true of the images created in the art of memory: I can rattle off my debit card number over the phone without looking at my card, and I no longer even remember the weird sequence of images I used to remember it a few years ago – something about a sailboat and a big tongue, I believe. I think there were also some naked people. (For a guide to the art of memory, including a simple system to remember strings of numbers, see my online article, “The Art of Memory: Why It Is the Coolest Thing Ever and Why You Should Learn It Today” at thenightshirt.com/?page_id=186).
Get in touch with your inner dreamer. Write down your dreams in detail as soon as you can in the morning – every person, object, and situation, and every noteworthy or odd detail you notice. Then for every noticed element, take a moment to note the first one or two things or situations that pop into mind that it reminds you of. Be honest and don’t force it. With a moment’s free association, a dream element that may seem bizarre at first glance will usually point surprisingly to a recent situation or current preoccupation in your life, and going through this process for an entire dream will reveal astonishing connections to more distant memories, popular culture, and all kinds of forgotten stuff in your mental attic. You can fill pages and pages of journal on a single dream.
Dream-thought is so wild and brilliant, so beyond our daily button-down intelligence, that people unused to observing their dreams have a hard time accepting that their own ordinary minds could be responsible for creating these Shakespeare-worthy stories. This probably accounts for why dreams have often been felt to have divine origins, and why today many people don’t remember their dreams at all – that kind of playfulness and genius simply doesn’t fit into who we think we are or who we think we should be. But there’s no reason not to own it; it’s our brains doing it, and it is who we are.
And don’t limit your dreamwork to dreaming. Get in the habit of making your own dreams, by practicing the art of memory. It builds flexibility and creativity and can quickly turn you into an amazing storehouse of knowledge. People will wonder how you know so much, and more importantly it coaxes that childlike brilliance of dream thought into your daily life so you can apply it creatively to situations. With just a little practice, anybody can re-learn this playful attitude toward knowledge, becoming a memory wizard in the process.
Childhood didn’t really end, just like the dinosaurs didn’t really go extinct. It just went underground. Through dreamwork and the art of memory you can coax it to the surface very easily.
- Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Pimlico, 1996 (1966)
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Avon Books, 1965 (1900)
- Sue Llewellyn, “Such stuff as dreams are made on? Elaborative encoding, the ancient art of memory, and the hippocampus,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Volume 36, Issue 06, December 2013, 589-607
- In Paolo Rossi, Logic and the Art of Memory, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 22
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