How To Use Thomas Aquinas’ Memory Techniques For A Better life

Thomas Aquinas feature image headshot for article on his memory techniquesIn our era of instant gratification, it can be easy to overlook the ancient memory techniques of Thomas Aquinas.

That’s tragic in my view for one simple reason:

Aquinas had some of the most practical memory techniques ever recorded.

Not only that, but his memory-based accomplishments are inspiring.

That’s why it’s worth paying attention to this incredible “saint” of memory.

In detail.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do on this page.


Let’s dive in!

Who Was St. Thomas Aquinas?

Born Tommaso d’Aquino in the Kingdom of Sicily, Thomas Aquinas had a legendary memory. As a student of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas became a renowned scholar of his own accord.

Moreover, he apparently dictated his most famous work, Summa Theologica from memory. According to Kevin Vost in Memorize the Faith, this book was often referred to as a “Gothic Cathedral of Words.”

The best part of Summa Theologica involves Aquinas’ teaching on how to improve your memory.

As a mnemonist who has spent years studying and practicing memory techniques, I assure you:

Albeit subtle, Aquinas’ tips are powerful for anyone serious about learning faster, remembering more and enjoying a better life as a result.

And I place an emphasis on living a better life because that was one of Aquinas’ most important tips, as you’ll soon see.

4 Steps To Memorize Like Thomas Aquinas

As we go through this list of suggestions from Aquinas, there is no particular order of importance.

But each part works together with every other. As with many ancient memory techniques, there is a sense of a holistic system.

So if you want to become a memory master, please don’t leave out any of the nuances. I’ve included them because personal experience has shown me just how important they are for success with mnemonics.

One: Use “Illustrated” Mental Imagery

Like St. Augustine, Aquinas demonstrates incredible foresight when it comes to our contemporary scientific understanding of what memory is and how it operates.

We see this in his suggestions regarding mental imagery.

Whereas many people use vague and abstract mnemonic images, Aquinas insists that you make your images:

  • Striking
  • Physical
  • Capable of changing your mind through “inner writing”
  • Ready for re-presentation

Here’s an example of what these memory hacks mean:

Let’s say you’re using the pegword method to mentally connect someone named Amelia to an American flag.

This is okay, but it’s not as specific as it could be. Aquinas would say that you want to:

  • Think of a specific building you know with an American flag on it
  • Imagine feeling the flag blowing in the wind as if you are the flag
  • Hear the sound of it flapping
  • Add more elaborations like hearing Amelia squeal “eee” with delight while looking at the flag to get the sound “e” of Amelia into the image with greater depthmemory palace

Two: Place Your Memories In Order

Aquinas promoted something sometimes called the Memory House technique. It’s more commonly called the Memory Palace, Mind Palace or method of loci.

There are a few reasons you need this mnemonic device.

  • Placing your “illustrated” memories in order makes them easier to revisit
  • As Aquinas puts it, the mind likes order
  • You can make your associations faster by using the backdrops of your Memory Palaces
  • Memory Palaces can themselves be illustrated using multiple senses

In other words, order is itself a kind of sense.

This is where the point about re-presentation also comes into play. You will want to recall your images and associated information as much as it takes to enter them into long-term memory. To make this process as effective and efficient as possible, using the principle of order assists what scientists now call spaced repetition.An illuminated "focus" sign; when you focus on the task at hand, it helps to build your memory.

Three: Be Anxious & Earnest

No, Aquinas is not asking you to harm yourself. Instead, he’s noting that there are some positive effects that stress can have on your memory.

I used to draw upon this principle during my university studies often.

For example, when prepping for an exam, I would pretend that I was a talkshow host prepping for the most important interview of my career.

In this way, I focused my mind in a special way.

Using attitudes while studying is partly an important philosophical choice, and partly a matter of practical strategy. Your mileage may vary, but I suggest that you look into this suggestion… well… earnestly.

And for more ideas on how crafting mental states has been scientifically shown to help people accomplish goals, check out this interview with Nir Eyal. He did a lot of research on choosing mental metaphors for his book, Indistractible, ideas I also researched and discussed in The Victorious Mind.

Four: Reflect On What You Memorize

A lot of people come to the art of memory to accomplish goals. They want to pass exams, pick up a language or complete some other set-and-forget-it goal.

For Aquinas, this approach actually harms your ability to remember.

He suggests instead that you select highly important material to memorize. Then, reflect deeply and repeatedly on what that information means.

Not only that, he basically suggests a kind of ars combinatoria similar to the Memory Wheel of Ramon Llull. By reflecting on multiple dimensions of a topic, you unpack more about the nature of memory itself.

Vost points out that Aquinas’ suggestions resemble our contemporary notions of analytical thinking. In brief, the best possible analysis involves three types or levels of thinking:

  • Personal variable thinking
  • Task variable thinking
  • Strategy variable thinking

We’ll talk more about these in the next section.

Do Thomas Aquinas’ Memory Strategies Really Work?

In a word, yes.

You just need to balance all of the parts.

Although not one of them is more important than any other, the final point about using a variety of thinking types seems sadly diminished in today’s era.

Let’s dig deeper into each category so that you can tap into each one and benefit.

Personal Variable Thinking

Basically, you need to take a moment to think about where you are personally at with using memory techniques.

Perhaps you are struggling because you haven’t put enough time into learning how to use them properly.

If this is the case, then put aside the time to really understand them.

Task Variable Thinking

This critical thinking strategy helps you think more about why you’re memorizing different kinds of information.

This is important because learning a language is not necessarily the same thing as learning music. They both required deliberate practice, but the more you focus on the task-specific elements, the more runway for success you give yourself.

You can also ask:

What’s the intended outcome? By having a sense of where you want to land, you’ll automatically create success.

Strategy Variable Thinking

In this case, you want to think about which memory techniques are best suited to the task.

Although you can certainly explore using rote learning to acquire a language, for example, you might miss out on how a PAO System could make the tasks involved faster, or at least more pleasant.

In other words, the more you know, the more you can know.

Aquinas connects all of his four steps with the concepts of art and prudence.

Art basically means that you have the ability to make things to a certain standard.

Prudence means that you have the ability to do things well.

In sum, you can combine art and prudence quite easily by learning to master your memory.

If you’d like help with that, please consider signing up for my FREE Memory Improvement Course:

Free Memory Improvement Course

It will help you learn the Memory Palace technique and create mnemonic images better.

I was hugely influenced by Aquinas when I learned the techniques myself and would love to pass the knowledge onto you in greater depth when you’re ready.

Until then, feel free to let me know if you have any questions and remember:

Combined, Aquinas’ knowledge will do a lot more than just help you recall a bunch of facts.

It will lead directly to leading a much better and more memorable life.

Who could say no to that?

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

Anthony Metivier taught as a professor at:

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