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

About the author

Jamie Elkon

The author can be found rummaging through life looking for nourishment in the early hours of the morning. He is slowly going sane by using his actual life and relationships to wake up.He lives in Cape Town with his teenaged daughter, two bassett hounds named Thelma and Louise and Digit... the cat. He hugs trees, has experienced numerous dark nights of the soul, collects incorrect Chinese packaging and tracks curious things to their lair.