Ancient Greek Concept of Spatial Memory Helps to Visualize Data


Happy Friday everyone! In honor of the weekend, let’s take a little vacation 2700 years into the past to the great land of Zeus and olives: The Ancient Greek Empire!

The ancient Greeks essentially laid the foundation of the modern Western world, and it’s them that we have to thank for the modern adoptions of concepts in the realms of philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, science, and spanakopita.

The Greeks held the highest regard for the development of the intellect and occupied much of their time with shows of rhetoric, poetry, and wit. They were great explorers of the human psyche, notably in the realm of memory. They developed the method of Ioci, which at it’s core is simply a mnemonic device, but can actually teach us a lot about the power of spatial thinking and the ways in which visualizing data in a spatial manner can allow us to make sense of massive data sets.

The Method of Ioci calls upon the power of spatial memory to aid in organizing and recollecting vast quantities of information over extended periods of time. The method of Ioci requires that a person create or call to mind any space that they know well (such as their bedroom or childhood home) and visualize the layout and distinguishing features of the space. With the setting acting as a sort of background or canvas, they can then “place” pieces of information that they want to memorize in various locations in this space. When they wish to recover the information, they take a mental “journey” through this space and “pick up” the pieces of information they’ve stored.

While this process may sound like sci-fi or a myth, in reality it has yielded incredible results. Individuals of average intelligence have used the method of Ioci to perform amazing feats of memory, such as reciting digits of pie into the thousands or memorizing sequences in memory competitions.

The effectiveness of the technique lies in the fact that the spatial and visual parts of our brain are able to form a powerful partnership. The visual part of our brain allows us to understand and remember what things “are” and spatial orientation allows us to assign context to information, thus linking that information with memories relating to that context.  For example, a person can remember a path they took through a city they visited years ago yet often has difficulty recalling a set of digits that they saw written out on a piece of paper that morning.

Spatial Memory and Data

Dashboards and explorable data visualizations are effective tools that facilitate the understanding of data sets because they allow people to physically manipulate their data with their own hands. This engages the spatial parts of our brains, and in doing so allows a deeper understanding of the information behind the numbers. This is because the manual and mobile elements allow us to rearrange the the information and thus re-orient it against many different contexts.

Mapping visualizations have also become extremely popular forms of data visualizations. The ability of marrying maps with data and geography with numbers is extremely effective because it allows us to see data representations distributed across a space on a map that we are familiar with. The element of the known space (a map of the United States, for example) combined with the somewhat ambiguous element of unknown information (such as the distribution of sales across each state) allows us to contextualize it by tethering it to a spatial area that we already have committed to memory.

In this sense, dashboards are truly worth their weight in gold to company decision makers. Executives make many decisions and judgment calls throughout the day, and it’s essential that they’re able to envision a holistic view of their company’s operations in their mind’s eye. A decision is much more well-informed if the executor can think in terms of images, maps, distributions, etc. as opposed to the blind stab in the dark made as a result of a fuzzy memory a one-dimensional excel spreadsheet.

Although we don’t still wear tunics or recite rhetoric as a sport, we still can thank the Greeks for the discoveries into the nature of human understanding that we’re able to apply to tackle modern day challenges. Because of them, we know that quantities are better remembered as sizes or masses than as digits or numbers, and data characteristics are better remembered as shapes or pictures than as labels or text. And we know that partnering visual representations of information with a spatial context allows us to not only comprehend “big data” but also neatly compartmentalize it in our minds for easy recollection.


Olive Kisses,

Captain Dash