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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Anything new in the art of memory?

All books that are designed to help people improve their memories are basically alike.  They start off with the story of Simonides, the ancient greek guy who was at a banquet, but was called to the door just before the roof fell in, killing everyone else.  He was able to identify the corpses based on where they were sitting at the banquet.  It's unclear whether he was a great mnemonist (yes that's a word) before this event, or whether he milked it for everything it was worth afterwards.  When you think about it, it's pretty natural to be able to remember where people were sitting around a table; just thinking about the locations almost automatically evokes a memory of the person who was sitting there, even if you weren't paying particular attention to that person.

And then the books go through the various systems for memory, one at a time -- link, peg, loci. Rarely anything new or particularly interesting, although for a while there I was using the Person-Action-Object (PAO) System decribed by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking With Einstein for memorizing decks of playing cards (I have since forgotten my persons, objects, and actions, so don't ask me to try it).

Anyway, I decided to read a 1600s memory book just to get a sense whether the modern mnemonists have come up with anything new, other than PAO.  The book is called Mnemonica, or, The Art of Memory, by John Willis, and it appears to have been first published in 1618.

I haven't gotten very far.  Sure enough, he starts off with Simonides.  But the next story I hadn't heard before, at least not in connection with memory enhancement.  It's the story of the election of Darius, in which the contenders all agree that the person whose horse neighs first the next morning will be King.  The night before, Darius's groom ties a mare up at a place along the road on which the contenders will travel, and gives Darius's horse the opportunity to have his way with her.  The next day, when the horses pass that point, Darius's horse has a memory, and neighs. Everyone immediately acknowledges Darius as King.  In other words, back then the craftiest and most underhanded politicians were typically the most successful as well.  Anyway, here's who Willis tells it:

Another singular example correspondent in some sort to this, is the Election of Darius to the Persian Monarchy; Cambyses being dead (as saith Herodotus) it was concluded among the seven Persian Princes, next morning to take horse together, and to ride forth of the City, unanimously agreeing the chief soveraignty, without any further contest, should reside in him whose Horse first neighed. Darius one of the seven, through the craft of his Groom Oebares, obteined the Supremacy. Oebares was a subtil wilie fellow, to whom Darius discovered the whole business, and warned him to use all diligence to prevent his Competitors: Oebares desired him to take no care, for he would effectuate his so much desired design: Before night Oebares led forth a Mare, chiefly affected by Darius his Horse, and tied her in the high-way, through which the Princes were to ride next morning; afterward he brought forth Darius his Horse, and leaving him at liberty, suffered him to cover the mare. At Sun-rising the seven Princes of Persia mounted together, and rode forth of the City; when they came to the place where Oebares had tied the Mare the night before; immediately Darius his horse began to neigh, and presently the other Princes, as hearing some divine Oracle, alighted, and saluted him King. This example, if I am not deceived, doth sufficiently evince the utility of Places to rouse up Memory, seeing even bruit beasts remember things placed by the place. 
It turns out (as one can see) he got this example from Herodotus, but as far as I can see, Willis is the guy who observed that this is a significant point for the study of memory.  For the record, here's how Herodotus tells the story:

.How Darius was chosen king:  (Hdt. 3.84-7)
84) The rest of the seven then considered what was the fairest way of making a king; and they decided that if another of the seven than Otanes should gain the royal power, that Otanes and his descendants should receive a yearly gift of Median clothing and everything else that the Persians hold most valuable. The reason for this decision was that it was he who had first planned the matter and assembled the conspirators. [2] For Otanes, then, they choose this particular honor; but with regard to all of them they decreed that any one of the seven should, if he wished, enter the king's palace unannounced, except when the king was sleeping with a woman; and that the king should be forbidden to take a wife except from the households of the conspirators. [3] As for the making of a king, they decided that he should be elected whose horse, after they were all in their saddles in the suburb of the city, should first be heard to neigh at sunrise.
85)  Now Darius had a clever groom, whose name was Oebares. When the council broke up, Darius said to him: “Oebares, we have resolved to do as follows about the kingship: he shall be elected whose horse, after we are all mounted on our horses in the suburb of the city, neighs first at sunrise. Now if you have any cunning, figure out how we and no one else can win this prize.” [2] “Master,” Oebares answered, “if this is to determine whether you become king or not, be confident for this reason and have an easy mind, for no one else shall be king before you, such are the tricks I have.” “Then,” said Darius, “if you have any trick such as you say, use it and don't put it off, for tomorrow is the day of decision.” [3] When Oebares heard that, he did as follows. At nightfall he brought one of the mares which Darius' horse particularly favored, and tethered her in the suburb of the city; then bringing Darius' horse, he repeatedly led him near the horse, bumping against the mare, and at last let the horse mount. 
86) At dawn of day the six came on horseback as they had agreed. As they rode out through the suburb and came to the place where the mare had been tethered in the past night, Darius' horse trotted forward and whinnied; [2] and as he so did there came lightning and thunder out of a clear sky. These signs given to Darius were thought to be foreordained and made his election perfect; his companions leapt from their horses and bowed to him. ...
87) So Darius son of Hystaspes was made king, and the whole of Asia, which Cyrus first and Cambyses after him had conquered, was subject to him, except the Arabians; these did not yield as of slaves to the Persians, but were united to them by friendship, having given Cambyses passage into Egypt, which the Persians could not enter without the consent of the Arabians. [2] Darius took wives from the noblest houses of Persia, marrying Cyrus' daughters Atossa and Artystone; Atossa had been a wife of her brother Cambyses and afterwards of the Magus; Artystone was a virgin. [3] He also married a daughter of Cyrus' son Smerdis, whose name was Parmys, and the daughter of Otanes who had discovered the truth about the Magus; and everything was full of his power. First he made and set up a carved stone, upon which was cut the figure of a horseman, with this inscription: “Darius son of Hystaspes, aided by the excellence of his horse” (here followed the horse's name) “and of Oebares his groom, got possession of the kingdom of Persia.”
Interestingly, Darius's Wikipedia entry ( tells the same basic story, but in it the groom touches the mare, and then lets Darius's horse smell his hand, prompting the neighing.  Not nearly as interesting, and also less believable.  Wikipedia attributes that story to Darius the Great, by Poolos (2008), which turns out to be a children's book with an introduction by Kennedy apologist Arthur Schlesinger.  I wonder how much of what we read in Wikipedia actually comes from children's books.

I am going to keep plowing through this book -- it's only 49 pages -- and write down my observations here.  Here's another passage that resonates with modern memory books:
Lastly it is a common thing, even amongst illiterate and ignorant men, to remember things by Idea's. One being to keep in mind the name of a certain man called, Fisher, to imprint this name deeper in memory, thinketh of a Fisherman placing his Nets. Another having some business committed to his care, which he feareth to forget, bindeth a Ribbon or Thred about his little finger, by sight of which visible Idea he is admonished of his charge. Whence it is apparent, that the excogitation of Idea's to fix things in memory, is in some sort natural, seing Nature it self hath taught men, destitute of Learning, to use the same. 
 So the whole thing of tying a string around your finger has been around a long long time, even amonst "illiterate and ignorant men."  I do that myself sometimes, usually with a rubber band, and the bottom line is that it works better than anything else I know for ensuring that I don't forget something.  And of course, every memory book ever written has a chapter that starts off explaining how we never remember names, and that's because we weren't listening when they were told to us.  The "solution" is exactly the same as the one Willis cites -- try to draw some connection between the name of the person, and the person him or herself.  The name "Fisher" is pretty easy, but actually, so are most names, if you use a little imagination.

Soon comes a passage that agrees with contemporaneous critiques of aggressive use of the loci method:

Now there onely remaineth Answers to Objections, by which the Adversaries of this Art indeavour to obumbrate the lustre, and diminish the credit thereof.
First they object, that the faculty of Natural Memory and Ingenuity, by use of this Art, is unmeasurably impaired; for such Authors as have treated of this Art, do usually prescribe provision of a multitude of Places, wherein occurring Idea's of Memorandums may be distributed to remain alwaies, with a weekly, or at least monthly perusal, or over-looking of them all, least at any time they should be forgotten, which is certainly a transcendent labour, and must needs dull the edge of humane understanding. To which I answer, I am of the same opinion; to wit, that if any man indeavour to retain all things he desireth to remember by Places and Idea's, to be reviewed once a month, he undertaketh a work that would weary the dullest witted men, much more ingenious persons, who loath nothing more then frequent meditation of things formerly learned; It is also unnecessary, because
writing of things worthy, memory in books, is much easier, more certain and readier for use. 
Quick side-note:  I first assumed that "obumbrate" was some kind of a type-setting error.  But in fact, it's a word, albeit an obsolete one.  It means "darkened by or as if by shadow," and it comes from the latin obumbratus (past participle of obumbrare: to overshadow), which in turn combines ob (to, over) with "umbrare":  to shade (from umbra shadow).  And this also reminds us where umbrella and maybe umbrage come from.

So I don't know about you, but I'm going to try to revive that word.  Obumbrate.

I like the way that Willis explains that the work of using loci would "weary the dullest witted men," and that "much more ingenious persons" simply write down what they want to remember.  I suppose if you have a goal in mind -- like competing in a memory championship -- using the loci method to remember everything wouldn't be completely dull.  But in general, it's probably not how you want to spend your time.   I wonder what he has to say about writing things down.  He goes on:

Moreaver it is certain, that the virtue of natural Memory is very much corroborated by this way of Remembring proposed in this book: For the mind being daily accustomed to Revocation of sentences slipped out of Memory, and that of thy a word or two, is more enabled in discharge of its office, then is credible to one unexperienced, whereby also wit is more and more exacuated. 
Again, I assumed exacuated was a typo, but what could it have been for?  Evacuated doesn't make sense there.  And guess what. It's a word.  "Exacuate: (obsolete) To whet or sharpen."

And there's probably where we get the term "Exacto-Knife", something I've always wondered about.

It seems quite obvious that I myself am unwittingly applying his memory technique of writing things down by esssentially writing down my thoughts on his book.  So be it.

Secondly, they say it is a great trouble, in the Roposition of one Idea, to enter upon two or three considerations. I answer, that they which speak Latine, observe a manifold construction of words, yet do readily pronounce each word in its case, gender, number, person, and tense, without study; nor is the Memory thereby any way confounded, because they are frequently conversant in practice of Grammar rules; In like manner, when all the rules of the Art of Memory are exactly known, it will not be difficult to attire all Idea's with their proper circumstances.

I wasn't planning on putting the whole book in here (and I've already skipped good amounts), but I also don't want to miss anything.  "Roposition" is NOT a word, so maybe that's supposed to be "proposition".  But even so I don't really understand it.  I think the point is he is going to teach us as some rules of memory that are going to become as habitual as rules of grammar in a language.  That would be very nice -- that's always been my problem with memory techniques -- I have never been able to make any of them into a real habit.  Maybe I'll try it for this one.  It's the least I can do for "exacuate" and "obumbrate."

He goes on:

If any man blame or accuse me as dissenting from Logicians, who affirm that any thing may be kept in memory by help of Logical method, he is much mistaken; for it is evident they speak onely of long speeches; But no sober man did ever ascertain that method was sufficient to remember common businesses, words, phrases, numbers, and particular sentences, all which things are faithfully kept in memory by Idea's aptly disposed. The dignity of method reserved (which I acknowledged to be very great) it cannot be denied, but the very method of a long Oration partly forgotten, may be recalled to mind, by the order of disposed Idea's. 

Great stuff!  I like the "no sober man" ever saw the "logical method" (which I believe is probably the loci method0 as useful to remember everything.  Some books do try to use loci for everything, and maybe Willis is saying that's just not right.

And now, the author's justification for writing the book:

Lastly if any man ask, what cause moved me to divulge this Art, my answer is, that having diligently read over all the books, I could procure of this Art, and bestowed much labour, with great loss of time, besides great defatigation of mind, in practising other mens precepts, when I perceived some things impious, obscure, and superfluous admitted in this Art; also many things very necessary quite omitted, with so much confusion and disorder, that scarcely any certainty could be found wherein to insist, I did heartily desire to raise this excellent Art out of the thick fogge wherein it was inveloped, and eliminate all its superfluities wherewith it was defiled. Accordingly I undertook it at leisure hours, and by dismissing superabundancies, and supplying defects, have reduced it into a new and (if I be not deceived) much better form, which experience having proved very beneficial to my self, I conceived might also profit others, and therefore have boldly published the same. 

This quote puts me in mind of the following from PG Wodehouse:
It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.

It also reminds me of Tony Robbins's very early claim to have read hundreds of books on personal achievement in a hotel room (in Russia of all places, I think), and that's what got him started "helping" others the way he does.

But in any event, it's quite nice to see how here, somebody is going to summarize for me the state of the memory art as of 1618.

His chapter on remembering ordinary affairs is very short, and here's the bulk of it:

Concerning the former of these two I will onely adde one precept, omitting such as are in frequent use, Provide an Almanack with blank pages, in which every evening, against the proper day of the moneth, set down your chiefest business of that day, and also the names of such persons as you have conversed with about any serious affair, either at home or abroad. Though the utility hereof be not presently conspicuous, yet many times afterward, it is of great consequence to resolve difficulties of very great importance. Suppose that after some revolution of time, three months, a year or more, question arise about the very day whereon such or such a thing hapned, an exact knowledg whereof will be very profitable; the certain day you have forgotten, but well remember it was on the same day your sheep were shorn, or the day after such friends dined with you; this being considered, your Almanack will exhibit the particular day. Moreover by the mens names with whom you spake that day, haply you may learn many things most necessary to be known in the present cause.
So that's not a bad tip.  Just write down the barest details at the end of the day -- e.g. just the names of the people you talked with.  Then later, when you look back, you'll remember a lot more about what happened when.

The chapter on Words is hard for me to parse, because I think the original had pictures or symbols (the stuff missing from the brackets), which don't come through in my copy.  But I still see a resonance with modern day memory texts:
Improper Derivation, is a strained interpretation of a word; as [...] drunkenness, [...], because after sacrifice they feasted their pallates; [...] smoke, as it were [...], the steam of something burning; [...] : Lachrimae à lacerando, so Tears in English, of tearing the heart: Monumentum quasi monens mentem; Domus ex do & mus; Cottage as it were a coat for age: Beer as it were Bee-here; Gossip of go-sip; Simony as it were See-mony; and Derivation howsoever absurd or wrested, printeth words in Memory; yea the further it is fetched, the deeper impression it maketh

This last part: "howsoever absurd or wrested, printeth words in Memory; yea the further it is fetched, the deeper impression it maketh" appears in all current books -- if you're trying to remember something, the more absurd you make your mental picture, the more deeply it gets imprinted in your memory.

Here is chapter III in toto:

CHAP. III. Of remembring Phrases.
A Phrase may be committed to memory, by accommodating it to some fit subject; as if this phrase were to be remembred, Very much estranged from filthy affections; I apply it to a Christian Souldier, as to a meet subject in this manner, A Christian Souldier ought to be very much estranged from all filthy and sordid affections of mind.

Or this example, To forgoe manhood through effeminate delicacy, may be fitly accommodated to Sardanapalus King of Assyria; thus Sardanapalus by effeminate delicacy and luxury, lost all manhood, and led a Womanish life.
Again, this example, A man furnished with abundant store of Learning, may be thus applyed; Usher the renowned Bishop of Armagh, was furnished with abundant store of good Literature, and manifold Learning; so that he did justly bear the prize from most [...] relates of the World.
This manner of applying Phrases, is principally necessary in learning the Elegancies of any Tongue, and is very well worthy to be more frequently used in publike Schools: I confess Masters do usually command their Schollars to collect phrases and elegant sentences out of their Lectures, and to write their gleanings in Books, not in loose Papers, which is somwhat; but if they did, also urge them to refer every phrase by them collected, to some friend or acquaintance, they would by this means reap a far greater Harvest of Learning: For phrases thus accommodated, sink deeper, and continue longer in memory.
So that's a regrettably lost art -- i.e. the art of learning elegant phrases for later use.  Nobody does that any more as far as I can see.  A quick check on Amazon tells me that there isn't anything quite like that today (there's are books with phrases for leaders and for small talk, and a dictionary of phrases targeted primarily at ESL learners), but nothing, as far as I can tell, that is attempting to help someone learn the "elegancies" of the English Tongue.  

And now comes chapter IV, on memorizing sentences:

CHAP. IV. Of remembring Sentences.
Sentences worthy of Memory, are either frequently or seldom used: Sentences of common use (I mean such as we desire to preserve not onely in paper, but in our hearts, because of their singular Elegancy, serious Gravity, concise brevity, or witty ingenuity) are to be stored in a Manual every kind in a peculiar place: Epigrams by themselves, Anagrams by themselves, so Proverbs, Epitaphs, Jests, Riddles, Observations, &c. by themselves: This Enchiridion wherein you write such remarkable sentences, ought always to be carryed about you, (and may therefore be called, Vade mecum) that you may peruse the same at leisure-hours when you are abroad, not having other employment; by which means, Time, most precious of all things, will not be unprofitably spent: And hereby you will keep in mind things worthy remembrance, better, safer, sooner, more certainly, profitably, and delightfully, then by that monstrous repetition, prescribed by some Authors in this Art of Memory, which nevertheless cannot be effected without long study, very great defatigation of the understanding & pernicious damage of the memorative faculty; besides, a perpetual Oblivion of some Idea's, occasioned by so long space of time interposed.
A sentence seldom used, is either an interpretation of some Classick Author, or a common Observation; by Classick Books or Authors, I mean those which are accounted Authentick by common consent of professors in every Science; such are the Scriptures among Divines, Decrees and Statutes among Lawyers, the works of Hypocrates, Galen, or Paracelsus, among Physicians: Euclids Elements among Mathematicians, &c.
If you meet with any memorable interpretation of a Classick Book, note it down in short hand in the Margent, near the Text to which it properly relateth; or if you had rather, cause clean paper to be bound between every leaf, to receive such Comments: Or, (which is better) have plenty of white Paper bound at the end of the Book, in which write your Interpretation, and relate them to the text by like numbers or letters prefixed before the Notes and Text.

So he had the same problem that we do: sometimes we have time -- "most precious of all things" -- on our hands, and no productive way to use it.  He recommends bringing your little compilation of sentences along with you everywhere you go, so if you find yourself waiting somewhere, you can use the time profitably by studying your book.  Makes sense to me.  It's so much easier for us today, since all of this information could be stored on our phones, which we have with us anyway.  The trick is to use them for study, not for playing angry birds.  Willis obviously prefers this kind of ad hoc repetition to the "monstrous" understanding-defatigating repetition recommended by memory expers of the day. 

Also the idea of binding blank pages in a book -- either between the existing pages or at the end -- is quaint.  Back then, books were valuable, scarce, and treasured.  Today, if you're not too selective, you can buy used books for about fifty cents each at library book sales.  So many of us have more books than we will ever read, much less bind pages into.  And I don't think today's binding is particularly conducive to adding blank pages in the manner suggested.  But the point is well-taken; there's a lot to be said for having your reactions to a book in the book itself.  Perhaps a way to achieve a semblance of this is to glue a few foldout blank pages to the back cover, and take your notes on those.

And now for the gist of Chapter V, on remembering speeches -- of others and yourself

If the Speech you desire to preserve be verbally pronounced, you must take it in short-hand, if you have skill; otherwise in long hand, with as much celerity as you can: If you be at any time left behind through nimble volubility of the Speakers tongue, it will be sufficient to write onely the essential words of every Sentence (as for the most part are Substantives and Verbs) leaving vacant spaces, in which either words of less weight may be interposed, which must be supplyed immediately after the Speech is ended.
That's an interesting approach to notetaking that I hadn't heard before.  He is advocating transcribing the whole speech.  If you know shorthand, great; but otherwise, you can just write down the subjects and verbs and fill in the rest later.  Not bad.

Four things must be observed, that speeches contrived by our selves, may be deeply fastened in memory; Method, Writing, Marginal Notation, and Meditation; the Method ought to be so disposed, that every part of an entire Speech, and every sentence of those parts, precede according to their dignity in nature; that is, that every thing be so placed, that it may give light to understand what followeth: Such a method is very effectual to ease the memory both of Speaker and Hearer; for in a speech methodically digested, each sentence attracteth the next, like as one link draweth another in a Golden Chain, therefore Method is called the Chain of Memory: For this cause let every former sentence so depend on the latter, that it may seem necessarily related thereunto.
This is a key to good writing as well -- let every sentence flow from the previous one and into the next one.  And if you're not going to do that, be sure to have an appropriate transition.  The reference to the "golden chain" anticipates the "link" system, where the idea is to "link" pieces of information together by association.  Whereas current books have you imagine bizarre pictures linking on item to the next (which might be the best way to do it if the items are unrelated), when you're dealing with a speech, it makes sense to let the natural associations carry you through.
In writing a Speech, let your first care be, that your Lines extend not too far, but that space enough be left in the Margent: In the next place, that your whole speech be distinguished into heads; for a distinct mind apprehendeth better then one confused. After you have compiled a Speech you are shortly to deliver, do not transcribe it, though it be both blotted and interlined, lest you lose as much time in new Writing, as would suffice to learn it: Besides the blots and interlining do more firmly fasten in mind the sentences so blotted and interlined, then if they were otherwise. This is also to be noted, that although it be necessary to write over the intire Speech, or at least, brief notes thereof, before it be publikely pronounced; yet ought that Transcription by no means to be seen publikely, unless Memory languish, and be weak: For the mind doth better recollect it self in the absence of Notes, and by united force is better prepared to speak.
Marginal Notation is when one or two chief words of every sentence is placed in the Margent, which so soon as seen, (which is with the least cast of an eye) revoketh the whole sentence to mind: As if this ensuing small Treatise of the Resurrection were to be learned by heart; I distinguish the sentences thereof by words placed in the Margent, by which means they are speedily remembred.
And this is good advice against bringing your notes to the podium, or at least having them out when there: "For the mind doth better recollect it self in the absence of Notes, and by united force is better prepared to speak."  

The "method and margin" tip is also good.  Even if your drafting on a computer, eventually you'll want to print your speech out.  Make sure you do it while leaving plenty of space in the margin.  And note the key points in the margin.  When you practice your speech, focus on those.
As you can see from the last sentence above, Willis then embarks on a demonstration involving a multi-pronged "proof" that eventually, there will be a resurrection, in which our original corporeal bodies are restored to us.  Because it is so unpersuasive (it sort of comes down to "God can do anything" but he also has analogies to seeds, and the like, to explain how our bodies might nevertheless grow back out of our long-decayed remains), I'm omitting it here. Suffice it to say, the demonstration is about what you would expect.

And of course, meditation makes good sense in speech preparation, as discussed in Can. 1 below:

Can. 1. After you have copied over your whole Speech or Sermon, aptly divided into heads, and marked the principall words of each sentence in 24 the Margent, go diligently to meditation, trying whether you can repeat all the Sentences in their order by bare sight of the Marginall notes. You need not be sollicitous of every word, so that you do accurately remember the sense or scope, because the minde esteemeth it an unworthy thraledom to be obliged to every conceived word; Horace hath most truly said,
Rem bene praevisam verba haud invita sequentur.
The scope foreseen, words readily occur.
Well said, Horace.  He's right that if you know what you're talking about -- the point you're trying to convey -- the words will come.
But if you stick at any place, read over the sentence (which the Marginall note doth not suggest) with no lesse diligence and attention of minde, than if you had never seen the same. I dare promise such manner of proceeding in Meditation will produce more happy success, then Opinion can readily conceive: If you do not benefit your self by Marginal notes either in Learning a Speech or Sermon, you will make slow progress, and be sensible of very great trouble in Meditation; whereas by their help, you may fix sentences in Memory with great celerity (not to say, with pleasure) as you may make an experiment, if you please, in the foregoing Tractate.
He is saying here that the "marginal notes" idea really is indispensable, and that if you can't remember a line based on the marginal notes, you should look at the sentence as if you'd never seen it before. Again, I'm sparing you the "foregoing Tractate," but it has arguments, plus marginal notes.

Can. 2. The manner of Meditating, is to learn by parts; That is, First to commit the first Section to Memory, then the Second, afterward the Third, and so forth; the rest in their order: When you have dispatched all the heads severally, apply your self to repeat the whole, observing Quintilians method, to learn with low voice and soft murmure, whereby Memory is benefitted with the double motion of speaking and hearing. This counsel seems especially appropriated to such whose minds are slippery, and subject to wander, starting presently aside, if they be not thus restrained; on the contrary, fixed stable minds will experience silent Meditation the more speedy and efficacious way to imprint Notions in Memory.
So here he is proposing something for those of us with ADD or ADHD -- you're best off actually saying the speech, in low tones.  I actually think that's good for anyone, because it goes out your mouth and into your ear again, which is much better than just having it all in your mind.  But if you have a "fixed, stable" mind, perhaps silent meditation is best for you.
Can. 3. Furthermore seeing a vehement and earnest application of mind is required in Meditation, whereby the spirits are much exhausted, you must be careful to avoid longer study then agreeth with your health, least your spirits fail through too great intention of mind: And beware you do not lose a moment of that little time you assign unto Meditation; when you must meditate, let it not be with weariness, but do that willingly, which you must do necessarily.
Mediation (as he calls it) is hard work -- don't overdo it, but don't waste time while you're meditating.
Can. 4. The first and last hours of the day are most apt for Meditation; that is, immediately before and atfer sleep: Let your first Essay in Learning your task be at Evening, about an hour after Supper, reading over twice or thrice what you intend to commit to Memory against the next day, your study being finished, betake your self to your rest, that your mind (no other ways diverted) may repose upon your Evening Meditation. In the morning so soon as you have shook off drowziness, and prepared your self, repeat those things diligently you meditated the night before. It is to no purpose to study before sleep, unless in like manner you ruminate after sleep.
Words to live by:   "It is to no purpose to study before sleep, unless in like manner you ruminate after sleep."  I agree with that.  If you read before going to sleep, be sure to stay with the same subject when you get up in the morning.
Can. 5. All that speak publickly, especially Dispensers of the Word, ought to make it their great care, not to utter things disorderly, but throughly digested by Meditation; lest they be be like such Cooks as buy good meat in the Shambles, but marr it in the Dressing, sending it raw, or half-boiled to the Table. Besies, if any man appear publickly, either in Pulpit, or otherwise, before he is provided what to say, he becometh timorous, and the vital spirits (the eies of reason) have recourse tot he heart through fear, whereby he is rendred much more unapt to speak then before.
And again, be prepared, or you come across as fearful and ineffective.

Can. 6. Lastly, which is peculiar in delivering Sermons, let Speakers apply more general Doctrines to themselves jointly with the rest, in Confession, Petition, Deprecation, imprecation, intercession, thanksgiving or praising God, as occasion is given by the Doctrines themselvs; so they shall not onely remember all things better, but also edifie their own consciences; Nay further, frequent use of this ioint-application, proveth finally a Manuduction to speak with sense of Divine grace and evidence of Spirit, which is the most excellent ornament of a Preacher.

I think he is saying that if you're a preacher, you better practice what you preach.  And another new word for me although it's not obsolete, and I could have guessed its meaning:  

Manuduction:  the act of guiding or leading (as by the hand)

:  something that guides or leads :  introduction

Ok, so that's how to remember stuff WITH writing.  He then goes on about how to do it without writing:

HAving dispatched vulgar ways of Memory, I descend to helps conducing to the same purpose without Handwriting, which is then most pleasant, when we are destitute of the aid of Paper, Ink, or Table-Books, or when by some obstacle we are debarred the free use of them. This consisteth of two operations, Reposition and Deposition.
Reposition is the manner of charging Memory with Note-worthy things; herein it is not to be expected that each particular word of every sentence be retained; but onely, that the general sence be fastened in mind. At all times when a man is about to commit any thing in custody to his Memory, first let him study to drown all unnecessary thoughts in  oblivion, that he may perfectly intend the things he is to learn; Oblivion being such a principle of Memory, as Privation is of Generation; and a ready remembrance most commonly proceedeth from right understanding the thing in hand; therefore a man must prepare himself diligently, and so unite the force of his imagination, that he may as it were engrave and imprint occurrent things in his Memory. Lead doth facily receive impression, because it is tenacious, which Quick-silver cannot admit, by reason of its Fluxibility: In like manner fleeting inconstant minds continually hurried into new & strange cogitations, is far from gathering fruit by any thing heard. The method of a speech is chefly to be observed, regarding seriously what is the general subject thereof; Secondly, the greater parts, and with what Logical Arguments each part is handled; the perfect Method of a speech doth much conduce to remember the whole; or if the Contexture thereof be inartificial, imperfect, and unsatisfactory, comprehending many things forcibly applied, rejecting things of a like kind, yet a strong Memory will 30 retain the same by observation of the absurdities and rude Artifice of the whole.
So reposition is "charging the memory" and the way to do that when in a learning mode is to consign all other thoughts to oblivion.  Your mind must be prepared to learn and absorb, to be imprinted like lead, not quicksilver.  Worth repeating: "[A]nd a ready remembrance most commonly proceedeth from right understanding the thing in hand; therefore a man must prepare himself diligently, and so unite the force of his imagination, that he may as it were engrave and imprint occurrent things in his Memory." You've observed this too -- if you prepare for class by doing the reading, you don't even have to take notes -- you understand what's going on.  You can write out your notes later.  If you don't know what's going on, and are only taking notes, it takes a lot more effort to reconstruct and understand what is going on.
Deposition is when we recollect things committed to memory; and having transcribed or transacted them, discharge our memories of them, which is alwayes to be practised at the first opportunity: Things charged in Memory by day, are to be deposited at least before sleep, if not sooner; things charged by night, are to be deposited immediately after sleep, that the mind be no longer burthened then is convenient, and that things negligently laid up in mind, be not forgotten, Writing being the faithfullest Guardian of Memorandums. If in disburthening your Memory, something charged happen to be forgotten, shut your eyes, that no no external obiect may divert your mind, and try to recall it by importunate scrutiny; which operation may be called Revocation, and is an Art that by help of certain Rules teacheth the investigation of things lapsed out of memory.
To conclude, Deposition, or discharging things committed to mind, is not unlike expunging writing out of TableBooks: If therefore there be any Art of Oblivion (as some affirm) it may be properly referred hither. So much in general; now to explicate the particular species thereof. 
I'm looking forward to the explication of the species, because I have no idea what he just said.   I think he is saying write down the important things at the end of the day.  But I almost think he is drawing a distinction between memory and mind.  I.e. he makes it sound like deposition is the process of getting information from your mind into your memory, but I'm not at all sure that's what he means to say.  The sentence "Writing being the faithfullest Guardian of Memorandums" sort of throws me (seems to come out of nowhere), and then I'm truly confused by the second paragraph, where he is saying something about the "art of oblivion" that suggests removing information from one's mind.

THe method of charging Memory without writing, is twofold, Poetical and Ideal.
The Poetical way of remembring, is accomplished by virtue of Poetry, either by Verses purposely afore-composed, or ex tempore. The manner of remembering by Verses already composed, is when a man doth excogitate or retain remarkable things by repetition of Verses provided to that purpose. Suppose an Attorney be to wait upon Judges riding the Circuits from one County to another, it may be worth his labour to repeat these verses at leaving his lodging, least he forget some necessary thing, which we may imagine formerly framed by him to this end.
Scalpellum, calami, cornugraphium{que} libelli,
Charta, pugillares, capitalia, cera, sigillum,
Sic crepide, gladius, cultellus, pugio, burssa,
Muccinium, indusium{que} monilia,
penula, pecten Fascia cruralis, cruralia, dactylothece.

Pen-knife. Quills, Ink-horn, Books, Paper,
Table-Books, Caps; Take 
Wax, Seal and Slippers, Sword, Knife and
Dagger, safe make 
Purse, Handkerchiefs, Shirts, Rings, Coat, 
and for your own sake,
Comb, Garters, Stockins, Gloves.
O-kay.  that looks like a list of things, in latin, and then in English, to me.  Where are the verses?  And just because Latin words all end with um, us, a, o, doesn't really mean they all rhyme.  I guess adding the "ake" words makes it memorable.

Thus a Carpenter oft employed to work abroad, may ingenuously make the Tools and Instruments belonging to his Art, in Verse; by repetition of which on occasion, he may be admonished what Tools to take along with him: In like sort all ordinary business frequently incumbent upon any man, may be conveniently committed to memory in Verses, which may advertise him to omit nothing.
Here I have thought expedient to propose certain Verses lately composed by my self, that they may be beneficial to others (if they please) as they have sometimes been to me, which are these.
An? Quis quid? cujus? cui? quo? quibus? auxilijs? cur? Quomodo? circa quid? qualis? quantum? ex, in & a quo? Quamdiu? ubi? quando? quoties? quotuplex? quot & unde?
If? who? what? whose? to what? whether? why? about what? How? what fashion? how much? by, of, in, and from what? How long? how often? how manifold? whence came that? Where? when? how many?

These Verses (craving the Readers pardon for the ruggedness) contain twenty two Questions of excellent use to invent, retain, as also to recall to minde things of great concernment and worthy memory in urgent affairs; which being prudently applyed by way of interrogation, do necessarily extort the answer of all Logical places, which (though I suppose no man will deny) may be thus illustrated.

 • 1. If there be any such thing? [ Note: If? ] This question is referred to an indefinite argument.
• 2 Who was Author of the
• Motion, [ Note: Who? ] • Work, • Fact, • Saying, • Writing, • Counsel.
This question respecteth the efficient Cause. Definition.
• 3. What
• it is? Effects.
• doth it contain? Effects. • doth depend on it? Effects. • is moved? Effects.
• is done? [ Note: What? ] Effects. • is spoken? Effects. • is written? Effects.
• is consulted? Effects. • 4: Whose it is? [ Note: Whose? ] • 5. To what it is compared, [ Note: To what? ] either in • quantity • equal, • greater. • lesser. • quality • like, • unlike.
• 6. Whither it tendeth? [ Note: Whether? ] • 7. Why the final Cause? [ Note: Why? ] • 8. About what subject or object [ Note: About What? ] in • procreating? • conserving? • abolishing? • destroying? • 9. How was it done, • naturally? [ Note: How? ] • purposely? • necessarily? • accidentally? • carelesly? • 10. VVhat fashion
• form, • connexion, [ Note: What Fashion? ] • description? • 11. How much quantity? • 12. By what? whether • alone? as principal equal, [ Note: How Much? By what? ] inferior • with others? as principal equal, inferior • with instruments? as principal equal, inferior • 13. Of what matter? [ Note: Of what? ] • 14. In what it
• is contained? [ Note: In what? ] • is exercised?
36 • 15. From what it is is distinguished, as • diverse, • unlike, • related, • contrary, • contradictory, • privative. • 16. How long? • 17. How often?
• 18. How manifold? distribution
• of causes, • of whole into parts • of effects, • of genus in species • of subjects,
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• of accidents.
• 19. Whence
• came it?
• is it derived?
• is it proved? • 20. VVhere?
• 21. VVhen? • 22. How many? induction of
• causes, • parts, • effects, • species, • subjects, • accidents.
Hereby it doth accidentally appear, these Verses are both useful to recollect things slipt out of memory, and also to invent new; in handling any subject, many things may escape our scrutiny, which a careful repetition of these Verses, and prudent application, may prompt the mind: As for example, suppose a learned Counsellor were to be consulted about some difficult nice Case, in which a man would not willingly omit any material business, lest his labor be frustrated; let the Interrogations included in these verses, be severally applied to the cause in controversie, viz. asking,
• 1. If such a suit be triable in such a Court· • 2. Who are the adversaries Counsellors? Who his Witnesses? Who enjoined to him in a strict tye of friendship? Who did, spake, writ this or that? Who is Tenant of the controverted form? • 3. What is exhibited in the Adversaries Declaration? What he thinketh they do now deliberate? • 4. To what Mannour, the Farm in question appertaineth? • 5. To what case this is like?
38 • 6. How far he hath proceeded in the business, and how far he is like, till the suit be determined? • 7. Why he said, or did such a thing? • 8. About what the controversie chiefly dependeth? • 9. How he must proceed in the cause? • 10. What is the condition of the Judges? • 11. How much cost the drawing of the Reply or Declaration? • 12. By what means the possession was regained?
The most material passages in any depending cause, may be investigated by propounding such like questions: I hope no man will repent his labour in committing these lines to Memory, whereby he may reap so much benefit in his studies and common affairs.
Whereas I first made mention of an indefinite Argument, I shall entreat the Readers patience, whilest I declare the cause thereof, not finding any sufficient Reason to banish or expel an Indefinite Argument out of the Logical Commonwealth, and admire that Ramus hath pretermitted it: I think (reserving place for better Judgment) an argument absolutely 39 consentaneous, is branched more artificially in this manner.
An argument absolutely consentaneous, is indefinite, or definite; indefinite is that which argueth a thing indefinitely, as, God is. There is a fift Essence; Definite is that which argueth a thing definitely: Definite is the cause and effect.
Now in this axiome (God is) we do not affirm that God is this or that, but simply, that he is: And when we say (there is a fift Essence in rerum natura) we do not shew what causes it hath, or what effects, subjects or adjuncts, onely indefinitely pronounce, there is such a thing. To conclude, it is manifest, that an indefinite argument is sufficiently distinguished from all other arguments, because it doth properly answer this peculiar question (If it be?) which yeildeth very profitable use in Discourse: This by the way.
Lastly, In this way of remembring by Verses formerly excogitated, both the parts, Reposition and Deposition, are dispatched in like manner as before; for like as by one repetition of the Verses we charge the memory; so by another we discharge it: Whence there is no need here of any Rules of Revocation, seeing that if the 40 Verses be once firmly fixed in memory, no part of them will be to seek.
This may suffice for the first Poetical way of remembring, that is by Verses provided before-hand: Now I will pass to the next way of Remembring by extemporary Verses.
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