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Simonides of Ceos: The Art and History
of Mnemonics

Defined in broad terms, a mnemonic is a device, procedure, or operation that is used to improve memory. Defined in narrow terms — and what is usually meant by the word — a mnemonic is a specific reconstruction of target content intended to tie new information more closely to the learner's existing knowledge base and, therefore, facilitate retrieval.

The historical development of mnemonics and mnemonic devices begins with a poet named Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. Simonides, as the tale has it, was hired to recite an ode at a nobleman's banquet. In the fashion of the time, the poet began with a few lines in praise of divinities — in this case, Castor and Pollux — before going on to the serious business of talking about his host. The host, however, objected to this diversion of the flattery, deducted half of Simonides' fee, and told the poet he could seek the rest from the gods he had praised. Shortly thereafter, a message was brought to the poet that two young men had come to the door of the house and wished to speak to him. When Simonides went to see them, there was no one there — but in his absence the banquet hall collapsed behind him, killing the impious nobleman and all the dinner guests as well. Castor and Pollux, traditionally imaged as two young men, had indeed paid their half of the fee.

Tales of this sort were commonplace in Greek literature, but this one has an unexpected moral. When the rubble was cleared away, the victims were found to be so mangled that their own families could not identify them. Simonides, however, remembered the places they had been sitting and so was able to identify the dead. Such was the discovery of the method of loci (or locations). It became so much a part of the study of rhetoric that the most venerable of the Roman orators used the method of loci for memorizing their speeches. Their procedure was as follows: First, a series of locations (loci), such as those in a public building, were memorized. Second, some object was thought of to represent each important part of the oration, such as a spear to represent the tenth topic, war. Third, the image created for each topic was combined with the image of its corresponding location. The spear might be imaged as penetrating the tenth locus, a door. While making his speech, the orator thought of each location in turn and used the image seen in his mind's eye as the prompt for the next part of his address. After a few days, the images from the speech would fade from memory, but the more highly learned loci could be used to memorize a new speech.

There are a variety of mnemonic techniques, including keywords, pegwords, acronyms, loci methods, spelling mnemonics, phonetic mnemonics, number-sound mnemonics, and Japanese "Yodai" methods. An example of an acronym is to remember the word HOMES to recall the names of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. The purpose of number-sound mnemonics is to recall strings of numbers, such as telephone numbers, addresses, locker combinations or historical dates. To use them, learners must first learn the number-sound relationships: 0=s; 1=t; 2=n; 3=m; 4=r; 5=l; 6=sh, ch, or soft g, 7=k, hard c, or hard g; 8=f or v; and 9=p. To remember the date 1439, for example, the learner uses the associated consonant sounds, t, r, m and p, and will insert vowels to create a meaningful word or words. In this case, the word "tramp" can be used. Spelling mnemonics is intended to help us remember the spelling of words. In order to remember that the word "cemetery" is spelled with three e's, for example, one can picture a lady screaming 'E-E-E' as she walks past the cemetery.

The peg system is a well-known mnemonic technique for memorizing lists. Items to be remembered are pegged to, or associated with, certain images in a prearranged order. The idea behind the peg system has been traced to the mid-1600s, when it was developed by Henry Herdson, who linked a digit with any one of several objects that resembled the number (for example, "1 is candle"). The system gets its name from the fact that the peg words act as mental "pegs" on which you can hang the information that you need to remember.

1. Candle
6. Pipe
2. Swan
7. Flag (on a pole)
3. Fork
8. Hourglass
4. Sail (of a boat)
9. Balloon (floating on a string)
5. Hand (a hand has five fingers)
10. Hole on a golf course
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