Today, let’s cover a powerful memorizing technique called the memory palace technique (or method of Loci).
The memory palace technique has been used since ancient times by Greeks and Romans. 90% of memory champions use it to push the limits of human memory. And I’ve been using it relentlessly over the past 4 years in various practical situations.
Needless to say, this is a must-have technique if you want to get good at memorizing.
Let’s jump in!
The origin of the technique
In his rhetoric treatise De oratore, Cicero mentions a story about the Greek poet Simonide to trace back the invention of the memory palace technique.
The Greek poet Simonides attended a banquet organized by nobleman Scopas. He was reciting a poem including passages dedicated to Castor and Pollux. And Scopas meanly said he was only going to pay him half the price agreed, suggesting he get the other half from the twin gods.
After a while, a messenger told Simonides two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He went outside but no one was there. At the same moment, the roof of the banqueting hall fell over the guests, crushing them.
The corpses needed to be identified for burial, but they were so mingled they were unrecognizable. However, Simonide managed to identify them as he had a sharp memory of each place that was used by the invitees.
He inferred that someone wishing to enhance their memory faculties could use a series of locations (known as loci), to memorize effectively various pieces of information. We’ll get to it shortly.
The arts of memory in ancient times
The memory palace technique was popular in ancient times because there was no paper. People would use papyrus, wax writing tables or parchment made from animal skin to write, which were expensive.
Even in the Middle Ages, there were very few books. If you found one, it would likely be chained to a pole to prevent robbery. In these conditions, one can understand why memorizing long strings of text was a valuable skill that made the memory palace technique so valuable You can find a trace of past usage of this technique in the English phrases “in the first place”, “in the second place”, and so forth.
Today, this art has been mostly forgotten, as books are very cheap and we can find information so quickly by googling them. However, using your memory is still useful in various practical situations.
The most obvious of course is memorizing to take exams and learn languages. But I like to use it in various other situations as memorizing and retrieving your ideas is very convenient while walking in a forest, riding a bicycle, or swimming. Also, let’s not forget the long-term cognitive benefits to your brain that come from training your memory.
The brain loves physical places
Now, before diving into the technique, let’s see why it’s so powerful. We’ve seen that Simonides could remember effortlessly the things that happened around various locations.
This kind of memory is called episodic memory, which allows conscious recollection of your past experience, and contains information on what has happened, where and when.
This is the same memory that allowed prehistoric humans to remember where to find food and shelter and where they encountered the most dangerous animals or enemies. Needless to say, it was essential for surviving. And this is why the memory of places is so well developed in our brain.
The memory palace technique has been studied and proven in a number of studies, such as this one.
It turns out medicine students are some of the most enthusiastic proponents of the technique, and three-time world memory champion Matt Mullen used it to get his physician diploma. Also, it is depicted in the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Forer, a story about a journalist who became the US Memory Champion in one year by using this technique.
Creating your first memory palace
Ok, I know you are dying to start applying the technique, so let’s dive in. As mentioned, to use the memory palace technique, you need a sequence of locations, also called loci. In this sequence of locations, you will imagine a set of objects you want to memorize.
To create your first memory palace, I suggest you use a familiar place. Your house or apartment will be ideal.
Now, you will designate a set of locations in your house where you will put these objects you want to memorize. It is important to space them evenly, and always follow the same circular way (for example clock-wise or anti-clockwise).
To simplify, let’s say your loci will be each room in your house. So you might start with the hall of your house, then the living room, then the bathroom, etc. Next up, we will fill this sequence of locations (or loci).
Memorizing a shopping list
Let’s say you want to memorize a shopping list. For example, let’s memorize: chocolate, butter and milk.
To do this, you have to imagine these objects in the different loci of your memory palace. Maybe the chocolate is in the hall, the butter in the living room, and the milk in the bathroom.
Well done! You have memorized the list. Now when you arrive in the shopping center, visit this place again mentally, and you will magically remember those items.
To make it more memorable, it’s a good practice to depict these objects in the most unexpected and/or outrageous way. For example, let’s say your door is made of chocolate and you eat the handle, then you move into the living room and do some ice skating in the table covered with butter, then you go to the bathroom and the bottles of water are singing as a choir under the shower.
That way, the images will look much more compelling in your head! This is how you remember a shopping list, or any list of items you might need to keep in your memory, a technique validated and approved by the greatest mnemonists!
Of course, there are many other subtleties, which I will cover in the subsequent articles of the series “Practical memory”. If you want me to cover any subject, ask me and I’ll see what I can do.