The Memory Palace
The history of memory is generally dated to the legendary story related by Cicero about a tragic incident that occurred back in the fifth century B.C. The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos was attending a banquet, the story goes, and had just stepped outside to have a smoke or take a phone call or something, when the palace collapsed, killing everyone inside, leaving the corpses so crushed under tons of stone that identification of the victims was impossible. One could not even say for sure who was inside. Families rushed to Simonides, asking if their loved ones were among the victims. “How the hell should I know?” he might’ve said (except that the concept of Hell was still a few centuries off), for he certainly hadn’t taken attendance or even paid much attention. Yet, in the desperation of the moment, Simonides did a creative and unique thing. He closed his eyes and rebuilt the palace in his head, replaying his entrance and exit through the hall, visualizing the scene. “Ah, I nodded hello to Pseudolus on the way in, and remember wondering, how did he get a date with that cute Philia,” recreating in his mind’s eye the seating arrangements. In this manner he was able to recall a remarkable number of those in attendance.
— William Alexander
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