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See Inside June 2005

Your Own Hall of Memories

Want to improve your recall? Borrow a trick from the Greeks and Romans


The main dinner course was just being served in the massive, ancient Greek hall when the expansive ceiling collapsed, crushing every one of the many guests in their seats. Not a single attendee survived, except for the poet Simonides, who had left the room just before the tragedy. In the days that followed, workers who lifted the heavy rubble found that the victims were so horribly disfigured that they were impossible to identify. But Simonides was able to help. By mentally walking alongside the long table, he found he could reconstruct which guest had been sitting in which place. Based on where the bodies lay, he named each one of the deceased.

Four hundred years later Roman rhetorician Cicero (10643 B.C.) related Simonides story in one of his instructional books on learning and memory. Whether the diners' deaths actually happened is not clear, but according to legend, Cicero wrote, the ceiling collapse motivated Simonides to develop a visual memory technique that still prevailed in Cicero's day, used widely by the Roman Empire's politicians and lawyers. These professionals were looked down on if they could not memorize the long speeches they often had to give; it was important for them to recite complex strains of an argument in moving oration.

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