Imagines agentes are at the heart of the classical mnemonics. The concept of imagines agentes can be translated with the words “little sketches or scenes in action”; so a composition of imago agens is a mental representation of a particular event, an imagined episode that can help us remember. Finally, imagines agentes are sequences of meaningful images.

The Active Pictures That Can Help Our Memory

The Latin expression imagines agentes (images that act) is the plural of imago agens (an image that acts), but – as a matter of fact – a single image that acts produces in our mind a sequence of images so, actually, it is a contradiction to say imago agens (i.e. a single image that acts) when we talk about mnemonics, since there is always at least one sequence of images that creates a meaningful scene. In our daily life we make constant use of imagines agentes, often without even being aware of them. Every time we remember real facts or past episodes of our lives, we use imagines agentes: this Latin locution simply means that we remember episodes with our minds.

Something similar happens when we think about imaginary things: usually, we don’t think of a perfect static picture, but a sequence of pictures in motion like a scene of a movie. As we have seen in a previous article, thoughts are not pictures or movies, they are different from graphic representations even if some features are shared. However, although in a quasi-metaphorical sense, we can consider the imagines agentes like a brief scene of a movie in which a single action or, more often, a limited number of actions are performed. The aim is to remember a specific thing and the imagined event (rebuilt through the imago agens or, better, the imagines agentes) must be functional to show clearly and effectively that particular object of thought. For instance, if I have to remember to buy onions at the supermarket, I can imagine myself in the supermarket in the act of taking onions and putting them into the shopping cart. If we have to remember the number 5, we can imagine a basketball team before the match in the act of entering into the basketball court. If we have to remember the number 10, just think of two basketball teams during the game and so on.

There is a well-known mnemo-technique that requires us to think about a storyline in which the things we have to remember are listed. So, if we have to remember 20 things, we have to contrive a story long enough to contain the 20 words of those twenty things. However, this is not a correct example about what imagines agentes are. To confuse them with each other is a big mistake. Imagines agentes are compositions of a short number of figurative elements, they are not the plot of a movie. These elements are directed towards showing and remembering a thing or a small number of things.

We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in memory. And we shall do so if we establish similitudes as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague but active (images); if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we ornament some of them, as with crowns or purple cloaks, so that the similitude may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily. The things we easily remember when they are real we likewise remember without difficulty when they are figments. But this will be essential – again and again to run over rapidly in the mind all the original places in order to refresh the images1.

These kinds of similitude are very important in every process of learning. They are at the basis of a metaphorical method that is implicit in every mnemo-technique. So a pedagogical and a didactic methodology system, is always a metaphorical method of learning. Until today the majority of scholars had not attributed to this fact the importance that it deserves or, rather, they stated that metaphorical thought is important, but after they don’t discover any complete theory or a structured strategy able to provide a satisfactory explanation of how memory works through metaphors. I have devoted a book to deepen this topic from a theoretical and philosophical point of view. It is written in Italian and is entitled Metaphor and Memory and is available on the Internet.

In next articles in Wall Street International I would like to explain in a simple way this method and try to come down from the mountain of philosophy onto the plain of speedy and effective learning. So, ultimately, imagines agentes are a composition of meaningful images that make up an episode, usually a single one. Let’s take an animate painting in which there are some “privileged” elements that interact; each of these particular pictures ought to mean something to us. Their shapes, nature and movements have to signify something for us and this meaning is precisely what we want to remember.

In the passage previously quoted from the Ad Herennium we can find a lot of advice about how to compose remarkable images, so I shall not dwell on that point. I would like instead to show some practical examples of imagines agentes in such a way that everyone can invent episodes as she/he wants. I can give a practical example of the use of the mnemonic-images: let’s pretend that I have to remember the number 18691175. I choose an easy number to remember, but the principle that I want to show can be extended to all the numbers. First, I can split this long number into more brief and significant chunks: 18-69-11-75.

These single numbers are easy to remember since they can be associated with something that I (and you) know very well. 18 is the age that law establish people become adults. 69 (1969) is the year of the moon landing. 11 is the number of the players in a soccer team. 75 are the numbers used in the bingo game. So, I can image this scene: the young (18) Neil Armstrong (69) with a soccer team (11) plays bingo (75). I can envisage this imagined episode like a sequence in which there is the young Armstrong at the room entrance. The sequence continues with the soccer team (Real Madrid, Manchester United or whatever) and at the end of the room there is a great image that reconnects to the concept of bingo. The sequence of the images establishes the order of the numbers. This clarification is very important: the sequence of images not only gives action, but it also provides logical and chronological consistency to the scene. In other words: the sequence (of the images) gives the action (to the scene), the action gives the logic (to our thought). I will never get tired of saying how important this simple principle is.

There is a famous and historical example that can help us to comprehend the use of imagines agentes. It comes from the famous text: Ad Herennium, a book of rhetoric that was a guide for the ars oratoriae for a lot of centuries.

We shall imagine the man in question as lying ill in bed, if we know him personally. If we do not know him, we shall yet take someone to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, in his left, tablets, and on the fourth finger, a ram's testicles. In this way we can have in memory the man who was poisoned, the witnesses, and the inheritance2.

I have exposed the Ad Herennium example of imagines agentes before explaining it. I would like to use the clear explanation given by Frances A. Yates in such a way that you have a canonical interpretation of this literary passage. She wrote in her famous book The Art of Memory:

We have to suppose that we are the counsel for the defence in a law suit. 'The prosecutor has said that the defendant killed a man by poison, has charged that the motive of the crime was to gain an inheritance, and declared that there are many witnesses and accessories to this act.' We are forming a memory system about the whole case and we shall wish to put in our first memory locus an image to remind us of the accusation against our client. This is the image. [...] The cup would remind of the poisoning, the tablets, of the will or the inheritance, and the testicles of the ram through verbal similarity with testes – of the witnesses. The sick man is to be like the man himself, or like someone else whom we know (though not one of the anonymous lower classes). In the following loci we would put other counts in the charge, or the details of the rest of the case, and if we have properly imprinted the places and images we shall easily be able to remember any point that we wish to recall3.

On the bases of this epitome, we can build a lot of similar artifices. A profitable use could be in the field of learning foreign languages. Others could be applied to mental calculation. By way of example, we can make reference to idioms since imagines agentes are good tools to improve the vocabulary in a second language. They can involve the word, its meaning and proper images that can help our mind to remember the correct translation of a term or a sentence. Moreover, a single composition of imagines agentes organized into some different images that interact among them, can help us remember and/or connect not only one, but a lot of words of another language with our native tongue. Take the French word “enfant” that means “child” and “bambino” in Italian that is similar with the related English word “baby”. You can image a soldier, an “infantryman” with the countenance and/or the appearance of a child with a guitar, meanwhile he plays the famous Mexican song La Bamba that evoke the word “bambino”. The little infantryman that plays La Bamba is an example of imagines agentes and it shows that is quite easy to build a scene that has a central meaning (or word, or concept or all at once) explained by several other words, or concepts.

This is just an example that may seem a bit contrived, but I can assure you that it is very useful. First, it is useful as mental gymnastics, but above all it works well as a memorization system. The difficulty that each of us can find to apply it can be overcome with practice. It is impossible to say a priori how to build these kinds of mnemonic images because their composition depends on what we must remember, what we already know and – the act of building – is strictly related to all our mental and cognitive features. Furthermore, their construction is determined from time to time by the meanings that we must keep in mind. Only practice and a continuous adjustment of this basic shape of imagines agentes to the various contexts, can reveal the strength of this method.

In the next article I’ll try to analyse how many elements are useful or suitable to put into a single one of these mental constructions4.

1 Ad Herennium, III, xxii.
2 Ibid., III, xx.
3 F.A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Routledge & Kogan Paul, London - New York, 1966 p. 3.
4 To stay up-to-date on this topic see Immaginare Imparare Comprendere.