Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci

Memory-Palace-Neuschwanstein-Germany

By Photoglob AG, Switzerland, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The method of loci, also known as the memory palace technique or the journey method, is probably the most versatile mnemonic filing system ever devised. It is used by memory performers on stage to memorize 100-digit numbers and the order of several complete decks of cards, students to pass exams, sales people to give a presentation from memory, and by me to memorize the key information of a book, to name just a few. People who have never used it just cannot believe how someone can have such a fantastic memory. The good news: It is really easy to learn.

The method of loci was invented more than 2000 years ago, and widely used by the Greeks and later the Romans to memorize and give speeches that could last for hours. Unlike today, where paper is cheap, and PowerPoint all over the place, during the times of the Greeks and Romans it wasn’t all that easy to just jot down a 30-page manuscript. Also, reading speeches to an audience was frowned upon. If you wanted to be a successful orator, you had to give it from memory.

In fact, even today most people are impressed by a speaker who talks freely, without referring to her/his notes. Giving a speech or a sales presentation from memory conveys competence and authority. Just imagine yourself, facing an audience and giving a 30 minutes talk to the point, completely without using notes.

How did they do it? The Romans mentally placed the key points of their speech in locations along a familiar route through their city or palace. To remember a key point, they represented it by a concrete item, and visualized that item somehow interacting with a particular location. While giving their speech, they just mentally walked along the same journey through their memory palace, and in each location retrieved the item representing the next key point they wanted to talk about.

The method of loci is essentially a visual filing system, allowing you to memorize and recall a virtually unlimited number of items in a fixed order.  Each location serves as a hook, to which you visually connect whatever you want to remember. You accomplish this by creating an image or scene in mind, in which the location and the to-be memorized item interact.  The order is provided by defining a precise journey with distinct locations along a route you are familiar with. Also, like with any journey, you need to define a fixed starting point.

To create our first journey, let me introduce the room I am currently in: I imagine myself entering through the door and then turning right, walking around the circumference of the room until I arrive back at the door. The first object I pass by is an armchair, so I choose this as starting point. Second is a brown bamboo shelf – my second location. Third is a bedside locker, followed by my bed. Next to the bed is a blue standing fan….. Following around the circumference of my bedroom, I get 10 locations:

  1. Armchair
  2. Bamboo shelf
  3. Bedside locker
  4. Bed
  5. Blue standing fan
  6. Desk with printer on it
  7. Small table
  8. Dresser with mirror.
  9. TV table with TV
  10. Wardrobe

This gives me 10 locations in my room I can use as hooks to file 10 items.

Notes:

  • I mentally walk through my journey a couple of times to make sure I always use the same locations in the same order.
  • I use distinct locations (so only one bed not two) along my journey.

Now I can use my room to memorize my tasks for the day:

  1. Get the new train schedule.
  2. Check my bank account.
  3. Call my friend Paul.
  4. Pay the electricity bill.
  5. Backup my computer on the external hard disk.
  6. Buy some charcoal for tonight’s BBQ.
  7. Find a Pina Colada recipe.
  8. Return the books to the library.
  9. Make an appointment with my dentist.
  10. Buy Facebook shares.

For the first item on my to-do list, I picture a steam locomotive rolling over the armchair. The locomotive flattens the armchair.

My second location is the brown bamboo shelf, and my second task is to check my bank account. I imagine huge red ATM cards (looking like my bank’s card) sticking out form the top board of the shelf.

The third location is my bedside locker and the corresponding task is calling my friend Paul. I visualize Paul banging the locker with a massive grey phone handset. He is making a lot of noise and dents in the locker. Bum Bum.

I think by now you get the idea.

To recall the items, I just mentally enter the room again, turn right, and walk along the circumference: The first location was the armchair. What happened to it? Right, it is flat and a steam locomotive is standing on top of it. – I need to get the new train schedule. I move on the next location, the bamboo shelf. An ATM card is sticking out of it. Ah, I have to check my bank account…

I suggest you now create your own journey and memorize the above to-do list:

Take the room you are currently in, or a different room you are familiar with. Imagine you are entering the room and then turning right. Now follow the circumference of the room and identify 10 distinct items which can serve as locations.

Mentally walk through your journey a couple of times to make sure it is firmly committed to memory.

When you are ready, memorize the above to-do list by visualizing the to-do items interacting with the different locations in your room:

Start with your first location. What is it? Try to mentally recreate its appearance. Then take your first to-do item and picture it interacting with the location. What is it doing to/with the location (or what is the location doing to the item)?

Try to see that scene in your mind. Just try to visualize it for a few seconds and then move on to the next location.

After you have created an image for all 10 to-do items pause for a few minutes.

Then mentally re-walk your journey and try to recall the to-do items. You are entering the room and turning right. What is the first location? What is there?

How are you doing?

Now that you know the basics, try to apply the method of loci in your daily life. Prepare two or three journeys in advance. You can start with your house, garden, or a familiar route through your city. Then use it to remember your to-do-list, the key points of a magazine article you are reading, or a presentation you want to give. For an outdoor example, please check the post A Walk in Tropical Battambang – Applying the Journey Method.

Happy Memories to You! :-)

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