by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 29, 2003
IN THE THEATER OF MEMORY: SARDINE, HAT, GLOBE...
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Why I associate it with London I am not sure. Perhaps it was because we were living in London in the late Sixties, early Seventies, and I seem to recall an article, probably in the TLS, in which someone argued that the design of Shakespeare's Globe Theater showed the influence of an ancient technique for remembering a complicated series of things, such as all the points and the subpoints in one of Cicero's orations.
Here in a nutshell is what I am talking about:
There was a Renaissance mental discipline for remembering a series of items more complicated than the names of the Great Lakes (HOMES, right?).
It consisted simply of calling to mind the visual image of a well-known structure that was sufficiently complex to abound in nooks and crannies, none of them hidden from view.
If you were standing, say, on the stage of a theater and looking out into the space before you, you would see rows of seats, arranged in tier above tier, with arches and columns galore, to say nothing of aisles and special boxes for the most favored customers, etc. etc.
The etc., etc. is not a cop-out. It means that it is your theater inside your brain and you are at liberty to elaborate it to suit your needs.
Okay. You have the picture in your mind. Now this is what you do.
You "place" the items that you want to recall one by one in various locations in this theater in your head. When you have placed them all, you take a final mental snapshot of the whole...and that's it.
Later, when you want to recall the series of items, you simply walk (mentally) through your theater and pick them up one by one.
This works! Try it.
To return to London for a moment, I will explain my confidence. I first tried it on myself.
The theater did not work for me. But when I substituted for the Renaissance theater the infinitely more familiar entrance to my house on Moore St. in Princeton, it worked.
I first created a list of wildly unrelated things (a lottery ticket, a sardine, a fireman's hat, our cat Max, a candle, a globe, a sack of mushrooms, a pencil sharpener - but you get the point) and I placed these things, one on the first step, the next on the next, the third on the door sill, the fourth on the hall carpet, and so on.
But the real reason why I know it works is that it worked for my children (then subteens). They were astonished and delighted to play the game of recalling a crazy series of things so simply.
I have recently tried it with grandchildren (now subteens), and they consider me even more of a magician than they already thought me to be.
It is not a reputation that I deserve, for it is a very ancient technique, which I wish I knew more about. I made the mistake of asking Google to enlighten me on the topic "Theater of Memory" and was rewarded, as always, by an avalanche of information that I will leave it to you to absorb.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.