Story: An Aid to Memory or Memory Itself? Story + Memory, Part 1

As a student of story, I’ve long known that information conveyed in story form is more memorable than other forms. But I got especially interested in the relationship between story and memory when I read Joshua Safran Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, about Foer’s year of training himself to compete in the U.S.A. Memory Championship. (You can read Foer’s New York Times article that conveys the essence of the book; in fact, the article is adapted from the book.) As Foer began to describe “mnemonic techniques almost all of which were invented in ancient Greece,” I felt the techniques reminded me of storytelling. Here’s his description of the technique known as The Memory Palace:

…. a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos [pictured] in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. … When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.

The Memory Palace might not quite reach the level of story, but it certainly suggests story elements. But as Foer discusses “building an organizational scheme for accessing … information,” we can imagine “organizational scheme” as story. In a variation on The Memory Palace, mental athletes memorize playing cards by “associating every card with an image of a celebrity performing some sort of a ludicrous — and therefore memorable — action on a mundane object.” As Foer states the following, we can almost substitute “stories” for “scenes:” “… when it comes time to remember the order of a series of cards, those memorized images are shuffled and recombined to form new and unforgettable scenes in the mind’s eye.” Foer writes: “What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. … Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity.” In other words, they creatively develop a story (or at least a story fragment) that enables them to remember. If you click on this link, you can see an example story from Foer’s regimen of learning to memorize playing cards.

Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Center, takes this idea a step further. Instead of characterizing storytelling as a way to aid memory, Smith calls storytelling a form of memory:

Storytelling is a first of all a form of memory. We naturally think, feel and remember in stories — whether consciously told, or kept within our own minds and emotions. I think that means our identity is created and expressed through stories. For me storytelling is a way of acknowledging, communicating and celebrating all that personally and collectively. It’s the language of human values and experiences, and in a highly specialized and subdivided world, it is more vital than ever because it is a common language open to everyone.

In Part 2, we’ll look at additional recent research and theories on memory, and how those theories may connect memory with storytelling.