Places and Pictures: The Canon of Memory

Reading Time: 4 mins

The Memory Palace harmonizes with how God has made us, so we can more effectively proclaim to His people how He has made and saved them.

In his later years, Eugene Pauly could not remember his best friends or which day of the week it was, and he could not recognize photos of his grandchildren. He would rise in the morning to cook himself bacon and eggs, return to bed, and forty minutes later repeat the task. Eugene had experienced viral encephalitis, a condition which decimated his memory. While he was able to stay at home with his wife Beverly, doctors warned her she needed to keep a close eye on him at all times lest he wander off and get lost.

One morning the door to their San Diego home was left open and, as Beverly was getting ready for the day, Eugene slipped out. Frantic, Beverly began combing the neighborhood; knocking on doors, peeking over fences, asking strangers on the street if they had seen a man fitting Eugene’s description. After searching high and low for a quarter-hour, she hustled back to the house to call the police.

To her great surprise, though, she returned to find Eugene in his favorite recliner watching the History Channel. When a relieved Beverly asked Eugene where he had been, he responded that he had been sitting there watching the television. The pile of pinecones on the end table and his fingers, sticky with sap, betrayed him. Unbeknownst to Eugene, he had been out for a walk around the block.

For some time, Eugene and Beverly had gone on daily walks around the neighborhood. The path was imprinted on his mind beneath even his conscious awareness. Thus, while he could not remember he had been out for a morning stroll, he could nevertheless retrace the course effortlessly and make it back safely to his Lazy Boy.1

Eugene Pauly is an unwitting poster boy for the ancient art of Memory.

Wallpaper of the mind

Memoria is the fourth of the five “Canons,” or parts, of classical rhetoric (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Per the ancients, Memory is the process of learning one’s speech by heart so it can be delivered without the use of notes. This anecdote about Eugene Pauly illustrates the foundational insight of classical orators which enabled them to memorize their messages: The power of spatial memory.

As adults, we can dazzle our kids with the simple ability to climb in the car and drive to the grandparents’ house a half-hour away without so much as consulting a map (though the omnipresent GPS is fast removing the wonder of this). Places and spaces, especially those in which we live and move and have our being, become part of the wallpaper of our minds. We do not have to think about their existence, they are just there.

The ancients had an intuitive grasp of this. The Roman orator Quintilian remarked, “Memory can be assisted if localities are impressed upon the mind. Everyone will believe this from his own experience. When we return to a certain place after an interval, we not only recognize it but remember what we did there, persons are recalled, and sometimes even unspoken thoughts come back to mind.”2 The art of Memory leverages this human capacity in order to retain and recall information, especially (at least historically) for the purpose of public speaking.3

The art of Memory leverages this human capacity in order to retain and recall information, especially (at least historically) for the purpose of public speaking.

The technique that embodied the art of Memory came to be known as the Method of Loci (loci being the Latin term for “places”4). More affectionately, the practice has been dubbed the Memory Palace. Simply put, the Memory Palace is a mnemonic system of places and pictures, spaces and images, for the purpose of learning a speech by heart. It utilizes the mind’s exquisite recollection of locations in order to speak without notes. Here I will merely sketch out the basic outline of the Memory Palace and point interested readers (GRATUITOUS PLUG WARNING!) to my forthcoming book, Preaching by Heart, from Cascade Press.

Places & Pictures

The first step to the Method of Loci is to conjure in your mind a familiar location. It could be your house, your church, or even your neighborhood. Basically, any place you can traverse without a second thought. As Quintilian’s quote above suggested, your locus is simply the background. The key is not to have to think hard about it at all, but to be able to pass effortlessly from space to space.

For me, I most commonly use my old house. It was an old-fashioned Colonial with a nice geometric floor plan; four rooms encircling a central staircase. It does help for your location to have clear, discrete spaces. Open floor plans may be all the rage on HGTV, but they are unhelpful for the Method of Loci. Along these lines, it also helps for the spaces to be distinct. For this reason, a place like a dorm (which you may know well, but also looks similar throughout) is probably not the best choice.

The rooms or spaces of your location correspond to the different sections of your sermon. So, for example, the introduction may go with the foyer of your house. This aspect of the Memory Palace accounts for the familiar expression in public speaking: “In the first place, second place,” etc. These are a contemporary holdover from the classical practice in which the different mental movements of one’s message went along with different places in a location.

With your locus fixed in mind, the second step of the Method of Loci is to associate vivid images with the content of your sermon. If the fundamental insight of the Method of Loci is humanity’s attachment to places, its second is our predilection for pictures. As Aristotle famously quipped, “The soul never thinks without an image.” The Memory Palace exploits this inborn tendency for the task of learning by heart.

The process of doing this is rather straightforward. Basically, you are trying to “hook” the material of your message with unforgettable pictures. For instance, if in one part of your sermon you were discussing Holy Baptism and Luther’s teaching on, “Drowning the Old Adam,” your Memory Palace might have the Reformer (or perhaps Joseph Fiennes, who played him in the 2003 film) plunging Adam Driver underwater.5 You would not attempt to do this for every last point of your sermon as it is not ideal for word-for-word memorization, but this is very effective for thought-for-thought internalization.

Then, it is simply a matter of placing your images throughout the location. There they will patiently await retrieval as you perform the mental walkabout in the pulpit that is the Method of Loci.

Harmonizing with our nature

Taken together, locations and images, places and pictures form a potent Memory duo. In this way, the method honors our human nature as located creatures, made in the image of God. The Memory Palace harmonizes with how God has made us, so we can more effectively proclaim to His people how He has made and saved them.

1 Eugene Pauly’s story is recounted in Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York: Random House, 2012). This anecdote may be found on pages 10-11.

2 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 11.2 §17.

3 Recently the art of memory has experienced a modest renaissance among so-called, “Memory athletes,” as documented by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein.

4 Lutheran readers may recognize the term from Melanchthon’s theology textbook Loci Communes, “Common Places.” Like the Greek topoi, the concrete root came to have a metaphorical meaning. As an expert in rhetoric, Melanchthon may also have had the Method of Loci in the back of his mind.

5 Here you can see the value of incorporating concrete elements into your sermon composition, which we discussed in the previous post of this series. Such language naturally lends itself to visual depiction.