The Memory Palace
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The Memory Palace

The following excerpt is from Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. The individuals with the most prodigious memories, those that win the United States and World Memory Championships, use a technique called the “method of loci” or “memory palace.” Since the human brain is highly adept at remembering spaces and images, they simply visualize a house or palace, and visually place each item on a path through the house — using a highly unusual and memorable visual association for each item. Then, to remember, they simply take a mental “walk” through the house on that same path and “see” each item they need to remember. It turns out that this “memory palace” technique was used by the greats of antiquity during times when — because of the absence of the printing press and the internet — memory was a much more highly honored ability:

“Virtually all the nitty-gritty details we have about classical memory training … were first described in a short, anonymously authored Latin rhetoric textbook called the Rhetorica ad Herennium, written some­time between 86 and 82 B.C. … The techniques introduced in the Ad Herennium were widely prac­ticed in the ancient world. In fact, in his own writings on the art of memory, Cicero says that the techniques are so well known that he felt he didn’t need to waste ink describing them in detail. … Once upon a time, … memory train­ing was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it.

“In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct. Just look at Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the first-century encyclopedia that chronicled … the most exceptional memories then known to history. ‘King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army,’ Pliny reports. ‘Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people. King Pyrrhus’s envoy Cineas knew those of the Sen­ate and knighthood at Rome the day after his arrival … A person in Greece named Charmadas recited the contents of any volumes in libraries that anyone asked him to quote, just as if he were reading them.’ … Seneca the Elder could repeat two thousand names in the order they’d been given to him. St. Augustine tells of a friend, Simplicius, who could recite Virgil by heart — backward. A strong memory was seen as the greatest virtue since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge.

“The [technique] is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the ‘method of loci’ by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a ‘memory palace.’ Memory palaces don’t necessarily have to be palatial — or even buildings. They can be routes through a town … or station stops along a railway. … They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imagi­nary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar. The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts as loci to help him memorize the entire 56,000-word, 1,774-page Oxford Chinese-English dictionary. One might have dozens, hundreds, per­haps even thousands of memory palaces, each built to hold a different set of memories. …

” ‘The thing to understand is that humans are very, very good at learning spaces,’ [memory grand master] Ed Cooke remarked. … ‘Just to give an example, if you are left alone for five minutes in someone else’s house you’ve never visited before, and you’re feeling energetic and nosy, think about how much of that house could be fixed in your memory in that brief period. You’d be able to learn not just where all the different rooms are and how they connect with each other, but their dimensions and decoration, the arrangement of their contents, and where the windows are. Without really noticing it, you’d remember the whereabouts of hundreds of objects and all sorts of dimensions that you wouldn’t even notice yourself noticing. If you actually add up all that information, it’s like the equivalent of a short novel. But we don’t ever register that as being a memory achievement. Humans just gobble up spatial information.’

“The principle of the memory palace is to use one’s exquisite spatial memory to structure and store information whose order comes less naturally. … The crucial thing was to choose a memory palace with which [you are] intimately familiar [such as] the house you grew up in. …

“‘It’s important that you deeply process that image, so you give it as much attention as possible,’ Ed continued. [So if, for example, you want to remember the cottage cheese on your shopping list,] try to imagine [Claudia Schiffer swimming in a tub of cottage cheese]. And make sure you [visually place this cottage cheese image in a specific room in your mental house] … The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. … The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. What distinguishes a great mnemonist is the ability to create these sorts of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Which is why [memory champion] Tony Buzan tells anyone who will listen that the World Memory Championship is less a test of memory than of creativity.”

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Copyright 2011 by Joshua Foer
Pages: 94-100

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A long walk to freedom…
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A long walk to freedom…

I haven’t written for a long time,
A bad case of psychic constipation,
unsure of how to express myself,
how to give the Camino its due.

Something had to change, I was in a bad place before I left.

I hastily tended…and then fled my responsibilities at home.

I arrived on the Camino broken…exhausted, burnt out and heartbroken by my numerous bloody skirmishes with the world.
My nerves were jagged,
my body and mind bloated,
a cataract had formed over my soul.

On the first day, I stumbled over the Pyrenees, ill prepared, ankle deep in snow, sweating, my body protested every inch of the first 27km stretch over slick, often treacherous terrain. The icy rain and snow made my 10kg backpack feel a lot heavier.
I fell spectacularly twice, cursing, scrambling. I thought “bugger this!”,
“I’m off to Ibiza!”

I muttered interminably for hours, stopping intermittently to stare open mouthed at the incredible vistas that would open unexpectedly before me. Eventually, 11 hours later, I arrived at the first stop, freezing, filthy, shattered and exhilarated.
That night, I fell into the deepest, most nourishing sleep I have had in years.

People do the Camino for a variety of reasons, religious, spiritual, psychological (stage of life, often mid-late life), and physical. They come in fragmented droves from around the world, often spiritually anaemic, broken, disillusioned, confused. some seek insight or a challenge, others a lover, a friend or a break.

Among the seekers, I met witches and shamans, historians and plumbers, psychopaths and mavericks, each one had unique, often fascinating stories to tell.

For me, the journey was less about what was happening externally or relationally and more of what was going on deep inside of me as I walked hour after hour, day after day for four weeks covering a distance of approximately 800 kilometers.

I chose to walk alone for a couple of reasons, I was there to do my ‘work’, to heal. I found that I was unable to concentrate on my process and walk and talk with others at the same time. I wanted to encounter myself on a fundamental level with little or no distraction. When my head got too busy, I turned to my playlists compiled by dear friends, the music went a long way to keeping me sane and served to amplify peak experiences (I have a fantastic Camino playlist if anyone is keen).

I wanted to avoid ’empty talk’, the cocktail party chit chat I struggle with at the best of times. I wanted to be alone, with myself, with nowhere to run, my only responsibility…to ‘sort my shit out’.

The first weeks were punctuated by the physical challenges, aches, blisters, exhaustion. The body needs at least a week to acclimatize to the stress it is put under day after day. While I am incredibly attuned to what is happening in others, I have a blind spot when it comes to my own physicality. I had to learn to nourish myself on multiple levels in order to have the energy I needed to keep going. If I ignored the signals my body sent me, I would suffer.
I learnt to make love to my feet every evening.

As my body hardened and my stamina increased, I became aware of the incessant chatter of my mind. Living in a city, I had become less aware of my internal monologue, but out there, with the path stretching to the horizon, I was forced to listen to and observe endless reruns of past relational enactments. I watched as my ego raged and wailed against all it felt had wronged it. I conjured countless conversations that will never take place. The Observer was often embarrassed at just how petty my ego could be, I would internally quietly shake my head wondering whether I had learnt anything at all through my various attempts to understand myself. Slowly, gently, probably out of sheer exhaustion, I began to counsel and nurse the injured child.
And slowly the healing began.

Once the volume of my ego had softened, something shifted deep within. I began to wake up at 5:00 am and set off in the dark with my head torch, I’d walk and weep, my tears were filled with relief, with grief, with freedom, with the knowledge that I was fundamentally where I needed to be, doing what had to be done in order for me to evolve.

I would salute the Sun each morning, listening to the multitude of birds, my body felt strong, my mind clear, my heart open.
I would often laugh with such delight as a flash of creativity, or perspective, or joy ran through me.

My tears dried up on the 24th day. I was then able to connect with other seekers on the path and discovered that other people are a fundamental raw material of the Camino.

I returned home physically run down but psychospiritually more energized than I have been since I can remember. It is not a magical, mystical transformation. For me, walking brought me towards myself, it burnt away the psychic dross that had accumulated as a result of the most difficult year I had ever encountered.

I’ve never been a religious man, but I’ve always had a strong spiritual connection.
On the Camino I felt that connection deepen. I miss it, I’m struggling with the readjustment, the avalanche of roles and responsibilities have found me again.
Something must change, something essential…at least now, I have its scent.

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