“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes : A Study In Scarlet
I am about to describe what is perhaps the oldest memory technique. It has been used by orators such as Cicero in Ancient Rome and philosophers such as Aristotle in Greece. It has been employed by crime busting super brains in the BBC’s Sherlock and in CBS’ The Mentalist.
It has also been used successfully by memory enthusiasts to achieve the title of Grand Master of Memory, a title that requires the recipient to have memorized ten decks of cards in an hour, one deck of cards in under two minutes and 1,000 random digits in one hour.
Due to its antiquity it is known by different names including the Memory Palace, the Mind Palace, the Method of Loci and the Journey Method. The story of the Memory Palace technique, as told by Cicero, relates to a dinner party in Ancient Greece, which was attended by the famed poet Simonides of Ceos. On entering the banqueting hall Simonides decided to work the room. He went from guest to guest chatting and exchanging pleasantries. At some point he left the hall, either to take some air or because he was told that two men wished to talk to him. Either way it was a fortunate exit for Simonides as the roof of the banqueting hall collapsed soon after. When the rubble was cleared away the distraught families could not identify their loved ones’ remains until Simonides remembered who he had talked to and where they stood on his journey around the room. With his help most of the guests’ remains were identified and buried appropriately.
“He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it,” Marcus Tullius Cicero
Simoides’ memory technique, which I shall refer to as the Memory Palace technique, is the result of this grisly disaster thousands of years ago. So how can we use it without incurring fatalities?
Cicero use the memory palace technique to remember long speeches
The Memory Palace technique is very simple. It relies on the fact that our brains are better at processing spatial rather than auditory or written inputs. For example, you would remember a walk along a new street better than you would a list of random words.
Constructing a Memory Palace is easy and you can have more than one. Generally they are based on real places that you know well, although they can also be constructed entirely from either your own or someone else’s imagination.
Let’s start with your home. You should be reasonable familiar with it! Starting from the front door, mentally walk through your home room by room. Note the furniture, decorations, knick knacks etc. The more possessions you can remember the more you can use your Memory Palace to remember. Write down what you remember and the route that you took through your palace. Practice walking through your palace again and again. Each of the items that you note in your mind’s eye becomes a peg or hook for you to remember with.
To remember a number of items, like chapters in a book you are reading for example, you go on a journey through your palace. Let’s pretend that we’re shopping again. We need to buy Flour, Eggs, Bread and Tomatoes. Starting at the front door I imagine it bulging at the frame with flour pouring out of the letterbox, it suddenly bursts open and I’m engulfed in flour and I can barely breathe! Next I enter the hallway. On my left is a hall table that has four eggs for legs. I put my car keys on it and the eggs crack then explode as the table collapses under the extra weight. I’m now covered in egg and flour. Ahead of me is the stairwell. Each step has been replaced with old mouldy bread, as well as flour the air is full of mould spores! To my right is my sitting room door. I try to get away from the mess in the hallway but the door handle is a soft over-ripe tomato that squashes when I grip it!
So that got messy quick! But due to the graphic imaginary nature I should be able to remember the items on my list. If there were more items I would mentally walk through my home, noting something odd or bizarre about my TV, couch, fridge, bed etc etc. As this is a shopping list I would expect to forget it after the shopping is complete, after all there’s no reason to keep remembering everything I ever buy! So once I shop I drop the list by not mentally revisiting the palace with the same items. Every time you recreate the journey, in this case from floury door to tomato handle you tell your brain that this is important and should be encoded in your long term memory. So if it’s just for short term memory don’t go back over the list, or replace it with the next list.
What if you do want to remember something long term? In this case it is worth creating different Memory Palaces. If you are trying to remember a book for example, you could use a house, apartment or town that you know well. If you need to remember another book then construct another palace to site it in. Revisit these palaces often at first then with increasing infrequency. Try once a day for a few days, then once every two days for two weeks, then once a week, twice a month, six times a year. The more you revisit the palace the better the long term recall. Don’t be a palace stranger!
What can you use this list for? The ancients used this techniques to remember long speeches, orations and poems. It can also be used to remember shopping lists, books, language vocabulary or decks of cards. Use your imagination!
You can also use this method to learn languages, but as the technique differs slightly I’ll leave it for another post. This one is long enough!
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