The Man Who Fought Against Mnemonics

Cover of Lent by Heart by Bill PowellDear Memorizers,

I want to tell you about an interesting – but dangerous – book about memorizing a specific portion of the Bible.

It’s called: Lent By Heart: How to Memorize the Gospel Stories of the Passion and Death.

I’ll tell you straight up that the author of this book is essentially teaching an elaborate form of rote learning.

Not only that, but he speaks mightily against any and all mnemonic devices.

In fact, he must be my opposite, because I decry rote learning almost as vociferously as he speaks against mnemonics.

But all nemesis talk aside, when it comes right down to it, one cannot help but be shocked when reading a sentence like this:

“The real memory technique is: don’t use memory techniques.”

And this comes from the author after proclaiming that the ease and simplicity of rote learning is too good to be true.

Rote learning? Too good to be true?

What on earth, I would like to know, makes rote learning so great when it comes to memorizing Bible verses?

(In my view, nothing…)

Part of the joy of rote learning for this author stems from devotional desires and their fulfillment through spending time with the target material. To a certain extent, that makes sense to me. After all, I love spending time with the Sanskrit scripture I’ve memorized. Here’s a memory demonstration of reciting 32 verses from the Ribhu Gita:

So yeah, devotion is a personal thing. Reading from the actual physical book is part of the “ritual” that this author mentions.

However, I don’t think this “ritual” offers anything special to memorization because it simply doesn’t involve true memorization. What I did with the Ribhu Gita was fast, fun and let me spend time with each new verse from within my own head – immediately.

Why Memorizing Verbatim Using Memory Techniques Is Better

On the matter of being intimate with texts, it doesn’t have to be scripture.

I was once devoted to John Keats and I can tell you that there is no greater devotion than being able to internally recite “Ode to a Nightingale” with 100% accuracy.

Yes, I use mnemonics to trigger the lines, but this in no way acts as a barrier. In fact, it gets me closer to the text because I had to pay so much more attention to it in the first place in order to build the mnemonics.

Let me try this on for size:

Mnemonics are a means of “fusing” with the target material, of wrapping the tendrils of our minds around the words, holding them close and absorbing them with the imaginative energy of our minds. We become one and the same.

Why Rote Learning Is Awful

But this is not the case with rote learning.

Rote learning is kind of like tattooing.

Yes, the material may find its way permanently under the skin following a couple hours of brute hammering against the flesh. But so what? It will never truly be part of you.

It will never fuse.

In fact, most tattooing inks break down over time and diffuse, eventually ruining the picture.

Sure, mnemonics can also soften over time, but at least one hasn’t punished the brain in order to give the target material a place to live. Rather, one has exercised the brain in a loving way. And you get the benefits of visualization exercise.

What If Bill Is Right?

To take this author on his own terms, let’s take a look at exactly how he suggests one use rote learning to memorize these specific passages from the Bible.

First, the author suggests that we break down the Bible verses into rhythmical structures that resemble normal speech as closely as possible.

That makes sense, provided you’re not changing the source text.

Powell also talks about imagining oneself in the locations described in the target Biblical passages. And he quite vigorously insists that we imagine these Biblical locations vividly, as though this procedure alone will help the words eventually stick after heaps of repetition.

I think this makes sense, and recently rethought the whole idea of using Virtual Memory Palaces after speaking with memory athlete and memory expert Idriz Zogaj. I think he would like this concept.

Decrying Mnemonics

What’s interesting here is that the author decries mnemonics and yet uses half of the Memory Palace technique by having people repeat Bible phrases within a mentally constructed location based upon the narrative details in the target material.

Why not just help people become a mnemonics dictionary in accordance with their wishes and what is in fact scientifically possible?

If you remember last month’s issue about “virtual” Memory Palaces, then you’ll be familiar with the virtues of imaginary locations. If for some reason you haven’t read that issue, you can grab it for your Kindle here.

Cover of Anthony Metivier's Magnetic Memory Method Newsletter about memory palace training

Back to rote learning in a virtual location.

It really puzzles me.

If you’re going to go to all that effort imagining the journey Jesus took towards his death so that you can repeat the phrases until they – hopefully – stick in your mind, wouldn’t it make sense to use instead actual locations that you are really familiar with and then spend that imagination-energy on images you can create one time and one time only? Images that will help you recall the target material for as long as you care to remember it?

St. Augustine On The Memory Palace Technique

Don’t get me wrong. The author of Lent by Heart is awesome for writing about memorization and sharing his process. It’s just that I can’t quite fathom the logic.

Especially when he provides one of the most amazing pro-Memory Palace quotes I have ever read from St. Augustine.

I’m not going to quote the entire passage because I’m saving a discussion of his writing on Memory Palaces for another day, but here’s a little taste related to the Memory Palace technique:

And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses.

There is stored up, whatsoever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.

When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; others rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as who should say, “Is it perchance I?”

These I drive away with the hand of my heart, from the face of my remembrance; until what I wish for be unveiled, and appear in sight, out of its secret place. Other things come up readily, in unbroken order, as they are called for; those in front making way for the following; and as they make way, they are hidden from sight, ready to come when I will. All which takes place when I repeat a thing by heart.

Yet not these alone does the unmeasurable capacity of my memory retain. Here also is all, learnt of the liberal sciences and as yet unforgotten; removed as it were to some inner place, which is yet no place: nor are they the images thereof, but the things themselves.

For, what is literature, what the art of disputing, how many kinds of questions there be, whatsoever of these I know, in such manner exists in my memory, as that I have not taken in the image, and left out the thing, or that it should have sounded and passed away like a voice fixed on the ear by that impress, whereby it might be recalled, as if it sounded, when it no longer sounded; or as a smell while it passes and evaporates into air affects the sense of smell, whence it conveys into the memory an image of itself, which remembering, we renew, or as meat, which verily in the belly hath now no taste, and yet in the memory still in a manner tasteth; or as any thing which the body by touch perceiveth, and which when removed from us, the memory still conceives.

For those things are not transmitted into the memory, but their images only are with an admirable swiftness caught up, and stored as it were in wondrous cabinets, and thence wonderfully by the act of remembering, brought forth.

How can one quote these beautiful words and then a few pages later toss them in the trash and say: “the real memory technique is: don’t use memory techniques”?

(If you want to read more of what St. Augustine has to say about Memory Palaces and memorization, read him for free on Project Gutenberg

… and then use the “find” function in your browser with some of the words quoted above to navigate to this passage.)

One Point Of Fascination

There is one very fascinating suggestion in the book, however.

It involved incorporating movement into the memorization process.

He says he doesn’t know exactly how to do it, but offers the suggestion as an avenue for exploration. If nothing else, you can move around while repeating the target material (presumably with the book in your hand).

I know how to incorporate movement without ever holding a Bible or a dictionary or a Kindle device in your hand.

It’s easy. Move around while you’re triggering off your images.

I was just doing this the other day while memorizing the lyrics of “Wenn Ich Mir Was Wünschen Dürte.”

My German is already quite strong, so I didn’t need to memorize the meaning if every individual word. What puzzled me about the song was the order of the words and why they evaded me. Part of my mind’s reluctance had to do with German grammar and how it is deployed in the song.

To solve this, I used my present apartment.

The first problem was the line: “als wir noch kein gesicht.” For some reason, I just couldn’t remember that “noch” belongs between “wir” und “kein.” This is strange, but instead of worrying about why it was failing me, I created a mnemonic and placed it in front of my desk.

I used the system for memorizing the Spades in a deck of cards to help me out. In that system (as I was using it at the time), 2 = tin and 7 = tack, allowing me to see a tin cup pierced through with tacks.

This triggers the basic sound “noch.”

As ever, the image is bright, colorful, exaggerated and placed along a carefully predetermined path.

Following the Magnetic Memory Method principles, my desk is a terminal location and I’ve taken care not to cross my own path or trap myself. Here’s what the Memory Palace looks like:

Anthony Metivier Magnetic Memory Method in a Berlin Memory Palace

My favorite Berlin Memory Palace

Next, I was having trouble remembering that the next line started with “ob,” so in this case I placed some fruit at the door to my office (“obst” is the German word for fruit), and to remember the bit about wanting love, I saw myself kissing the fruit.

I then proceeded in this manner throughout the apartment, placing  key words and images in a journey to guide me through the entire song.

I did all of this mentally, but here comes the movement part.

As I was rehearsing the song, I physically moved myself from station to station, triggering the images as I moved along.

In truth, the movement didn’t add much to the success of my memorization. When the associative images are well-done, moving mentally from station to station is always more than enough.

Nonetheless, it was fun to move around and sing, and I recommend experimenting with the technique to anyone.

Why You Should Avoid Rote Learning At All Costs

What I don’t recommend is rote learning, no matter how much dancing you do. If you’re going to repeat material, repeat the images that will trigger the target material.

Do so using the Magnetic Memory Method:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

To help even further, here’s a video I made for you about using Excel files for testing your Magnetic Memory Palaces.

The idea about movement is by far the best idea in the book, along with some points about imaging the shapes of words and imagining what they will feel like in your moth as you speak them.

But all my criticisms aside, I would never recommend that you skip this book.

In fact, you probably should read it if you’re serious about the subject of Memory Palaces.


Opposing views are just as important as affirmative ones when we want to deepen our knowledge of a topic.

I only feel sad that some people may find themselves discouraged away from using Memory Palaces, when a more balanced statement from this author might have been written as simply as: “mnemonics don’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.”

My ultimate assessment of this book is that the author is using Memory Palace mnemonics, but a version based on virtual locations and spliced with rote learning techniques that satisfy a devotional need.

Anyhow, check it out sometime. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find something useful and informative that I’ve missed. I hope that you’ll write me if you do.

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