The assumption of the Art of Memory is that we are predisposed to remember things in the context of place, even where there is no significant connection between the thing remembered and the place where it is located, so that recalling the space is a powerful trigger to the recall of the associated information.
According to Cicero's De Oratore, the poet Simonides invented the Art when called upon to name the unrecognisable victims of a physical disaster the demolition of a building full of dignitaries from which Simonides himself escaped through the intervention of the gods. He was able to name the victims by recalling where they had been seated.
Such spatial mnemonic techniques were used subsequently during the Middle Ages (it has been argued by Yates and others that the Cathedrals were organised as aids to remembering the scriptures) and later, in the Renaissance, by such as Giulio Camillo (1480-1544), Ramon Lull (1235-1316, his works revived in the 15th Century), Giordano Bruno (1548-1592?), Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and Robert Fludd.
Many practitioners of the Art combined what we would now regard as magical nonsense with what we would now regard as fruitful cognitive theories. As with the present-day memory performer on stage or television, the techniques were guarded secretively in order to enhance their impressiveness. This obfuscation tended to lead to the denigration of the theories with the rise of scientific rationalism, which proposed an alternative model (see below), in the 17th Century.
The basic method of the Art is to imagine a space, perhaps schematic but usually architectural, which contains the various things to be remembered. Specific ideas can be contained within other more general ideas, by virtue of being in niches within rooms. Rooms may be badged by the statue of a saint, for example, representing some important principle. Some advocates of the Art devoted much energy to devising structures which in themselves had special meanings, so that the shapes of room and the ways in which they are connected take on semantic importance a three-dimensional semantic net, perhaps, but made memorable by being given form as an imaginable physical building.
Importantly for any consideration of VR is the fact that, rather than simply imagining these architectural structures, most of the leading mnemonists had plans to actually build them! Camillo built a memory theatre described thus:
They say that this man has constructed a certain amphitheatre, a work of wonderful skill, into which whoever is admitted as a spectator will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.
Viglius Zuichemus, writing to Erasmus, 1532, quoted Yates 1966, p135
The Art seems to make use of two or three aspects of spatiality:
One possible advantage of architectural models of conceptual structures is that the omission of any part leaves an obvious 'gap' in the structure. For something organically random (like a semantic net) there is little help for the user who forgets some major chunk of the structure (a uniformly branching coral is not structurally odd if part of it is missing), whereas when information is mapped to a finite, structured environment, omissions are obvious.
Against this we must set the disadvantage that our information structures are now routinely too complex to be mapped onto memorable architectural spaces.
In practical terms, what has the Art of Memory to offer us in the design of virtual environments? A number of the debates which polarised academic communities in the Renaissance are still of relevance today:
Memory perhaps enhanced by memorable spaces based on some of the ideas of the Art has a great deal to offer in terms of assisting learners to find information. For example, experiments have been undertaken using 3D spatial organisation to assist users in forming cognitive maps of information (Shum 1990). By improving their abilities of recall, users may be helped both to recall information when not using the system, and in refinding information in the system on future occasions. The whole subject of wayfinding in real environments and the role of memory in the process has been discussed by Passini (1992).
It is interesting to note that memory has become almost an occult skill in our own education system. For example, the idea of rote learning is deeply unfashionable, but perhaps the deprecation of discredited methods for instilling memory skills has accidentally spilled over into a deprecation of memory as such. Books on memory are regarded with embarrassment by most academics and are felt not to be part of serious scholarship. Such an attitude would have astonished most previous centuries, and maybe we should begin to question it.
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