Metaphor and Memory


In the construction of a memory palace the fundamental skill required is the ability to create idiosyncratic associations between the information being learnt and the specific location within the memory palace itself. The cognitive effort necessary to build these associations; whether based on visual cues, word play or any other associative ‘hook’ is the critical step. What the exact neurological processes are when making these associations and why it is such an effective memory technique is still a matter of conjecture. However, as a practitioner of artificial memory techniques myself I have come to appreciate the similarity between these associations and the uses we make of metaphor.

Metaphor is a cognitive tool that we as a species have been utilising since time immemorial. It has even been argued that our capacity to think metaphorically forms the neurological basis of our uniquely human intellectual abilities. In Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind, (1996), he uses the image of a cathedral to describe our evolved capacity for ‘cognitive fluidity’, where “the mind acquires not only the ability but a positive passion for metaphor and analogy”. Mithen uses the term ‘metarepresentation’ to describe metaphorical thinking, which he then goes on to describe as the ‘superchapel’ of the mind. Thus, “when thoughts originating in different domains can engage together, the result is an almost limitless capacity for imagination.” Thus it seems the very architecture of the human mind itself gives rise to our capacity for making metaphorical associations between disparate things. A very similar skill, I would argue, is being utilised when practicing artificial memory techniques.

Metaphors work by harnessing our common knowledge and experiences and effectively ‘piggy backing’ our intended meaning. Thus when Shakespeare writes, “What light through yonder window breaks? ‘Tis the east and Juliet is the sun,” we make the association between the universal experience of sunrise and Juliet’s radiant beauty. The wonderful capacity metaphor has to express meaning simply and easily equips us with the cognitive shorthand to readily encode and then recall various concepts. Frances Yates’ influential The Art of Memory, (1966), makes references to many historical examples of those mnemonists (practitioners of artificial memory) who held metaphor in very high regard. Metaphor is described as having been, “invented in the Earthly Paradise”. Or that, “metaphorica ‘move the soul more and therefore better help memory’”. Even Aristotle is, I believe, referring to metaphor when he described imagination as, “the intermediary between perception and thought… Hence ‘the soul never thinks without a mental picture.’” Within the context of what Yates labels the ‘mnemotechnics’ of various memorisation traditions it is clear that our metaphorical predisposition lies at the heart of how these methods actually work.

Metaphors are allusive however, and highly culturally specific. Often loaded with the many biases and prejudices of any given cultural paradigm. Hence the reason metaphors are rarely used in legal documents and scientific journals. Yet there are many examples of grand metaphors that continue to produce serious consequences for many people throughout history: notions that entrench cultural prejudice and bigotry. For the sake of brevity I will focus on only one example to illustrate my point.

Granville Stanley Hall was an American psychologist who drew together the fields of evolutionary biology and the study of childhood development. He is famous for developing the ‘general psychonomic law’. According to Arthur D. Efland in his book A History of Art Education (1990), this supposed ‘law’ declares that,

“’ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ – the biologist’s maxim asserting that the development of the individual follows the pattern of the evolution of the species – applied as well to the psychological development of humans: In the process of growth, the child passes through all the stages from savagery to civilization. If we want to understand the evolution of humanity, we need to study the evolution of the child.”  

Efland goes on to describe how Hall’s theories essentially began the modern study of childhood development in ‘scientific’ terms. Thus began the many pedagogical practices that responded to what we now describe as Social Darwinism.

It must be acknowledged that this new scientific approach to the study of childhood development led to considerable progress in the ways and means we educate our children. Just one example is the progressive education models espoused by the likes of John Dewey and Francis Wayland Parker at the turn of the twentieth century. But this progress is only the silver lining to the considerably darker cloud of prejudicial ideologies that view both ancient peoples and children as uncivilised and intellectually inferior ‘savages’.

I raise G. Stanley Hall’s ‘general psychonomic law’ as an incidence of a misguided metaphor. Not only does this demonstrate the inherently racist doctrines of Hall’s era, but the pernicious effect these doctrines continue to have on our modern ideas in relation to both traditional cultures and childhood behaviour. I believe this metaphorical misrepresentation is a result of what Professor Stephen Novella describes in his course notes for his lecture series, The Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, (2012), as a cognitive “stereotype” that “enables us to boil down a very complicated set of data into some simple rule.” These stereotypes, “can be helpful and adaptive when we understand that the rule is just a schematic, or an oversimplified representation of a much more complicated reality.”  He then cautions against the very real danger inherent to these stereotypes when, “accepting our oversimplified versions of reality as reality leads to bigoted mindsets.”

Within the practice of orality however, any misrepresentations depicted by the associations generated during the construction of a memory palace are ultimately irrelevant. The main difference is that in the ‘mnemotechnics’ of orality the association is only ever the link to the information memorised, and is thus not prone to being mistaken as the information itself. What’s more, the mutability of the information contained within artificial memory is eventually self-correcting as you continue to store more detailed information over time.wattle-leaves Venecian_blinds_shadowIn my Art history memory palace the period of the Venetian and Northern European Renaissance is encoded by a copse of black wattle trees merely because the shadows cast by the trees reminded me of the shadows cast by Venetian blinds. Taken literally there is no confusion between a style of window shade that became popular across Europe in the 18th century and an art movement of the 16th century! These trees merely serve as a prompt to memory; they have no intrinsic meaning beyond that mnemonic association. Similar in purpose as Novella’s ‘stereotypes’ in that they serve as a cognitive shorthand, not as a depiction of the information itself.

Strictly speaking the mnemonic associations made in the creation of memory palaces are not metaphors as such, but they do share many of the same cognitive features. So much of the process of creating a memory palace is in fossicking through the many nooks and crannies of the ‘cathedral of our minds’ in order to find an associative link to the information we wish to recall. Once found there is little chance of mistaking the representation of reality as the reality, any more than mistaking a poetic description of Juliet’s radiant beauty with the sun as the sun itself.

Paul Allen


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