“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’ it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.” —Joshua Foer
According to legend, the renowned Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos was dining at the home of a wealthy nobleman one night when he received word that two young men were waiting outside with a message for him. Simonides stepped outside—mere moments before the roof of the banquet hall caved in, killing everyone inside. The extent of the destruction was so great that the family and friends of the deceased guests despaired of being able to identify their bodies.
But Simonides found that if he pictured the spatial layout of the hall, he could mentally walk around it and recall the names of the guests seated in each place. In this way, he helped identify the unfortunate diners. From this experience, Simonides deduced that remembering factual information is easiest if we tie it to a physical location we are familiar with. As the great orator Cicero explained:
“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.
. . . It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflection can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes, with the result that things not seen and not lying in the field of visual discernment are earmarked by a sort of image and shape so that we keep hold of as it were by an act of sight things that we can scarcely embrace by an act of thought.”
Today we know this technique as the “method of loci” or “memory palace.” Here’s how constructing a memory palace can help you memorize information and recall it with ease.
From the time we learn to walk, we start building up spatial memories—recollections of the layouts of physical spaces and their relationships to the objects in them. These memories tend to form fast and stick around for a long time.
The method of loci hijacks our innate aptitude for remembering physical spaces, using it to help us remember other kinds of information with greater ease.
Although it may seem as if people who manage unusual feats of memory have unusual innate capabilities, much of the available evidence suggests that isn’t the case. Instead, they tend to simply use innate capabilities in unusual, creative ways. In Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist Joshua Foer discovers this for himself while investigating memory championships. After contestants tell him anyone could do what they do with the right training, Foer sets his sights on the USA Memory Championship—and goes on to win.
Foer’s journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level.
Does that mean the brain of a “mental athlete” is different from that of a normal person? Not necessarily. Foer found research indicating memory specialists simply used different parts of their brains for recalling information. They converted it into a visual form and positioned it in a spatial location.
A memory palace is an ancient mnemonic device that leverages the way we find it easiest to recall information: spatially and visually.
You might have experienced the power of spatial memory if you’ve ever revisited a place where you experienced something unpleasant or sad. Minor details might have been enough to make you vividly remember the experience.
How to build a memory palace
Let’s look at an example to illustrate the concept.
Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front door, trying to remember as many details as possible.
Let’s imagine you want to remember to buy some steaks on the way home. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.
Okay, now let’s try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch—not like a cow would, but like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubblegum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about the strange smell of bubblegum and cow mixed together. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubblegum off of the cow’s face?
Four hours from now when you leave work to head home, you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When you take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front step. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks that you see all the time? Or the gum-chewing cow we created?
Now, imagine you also need to remember to buy carrots and olive oil, so you place those in your memory palace too. As you step onto the front step, past the bubblegum blowing cow, you see the row of muddy shoes you recall usually being next to the front door. You picture each shoe being filled with soil, the leaves and orange tops of carrots growing in them just visible. Before you can press the doorbell, the door is opened by the cartoon character Olive Oyl, wearing a crown of olive branches. And so on.
If you’re trying to learn something more complex and important than a shopping list, it’s possible to keep repeating this process until you’ve constructed an incredibly detailed memory palace with hundreds of items. Or you might use multiple different locations for various purposes. You could also use a journey, such as your walk to work.
No matter what, you want to make your mental image engage with the location as much as possible and ideally involve multiple senses. Avoid placing multiple different items in parts of your memory palace that look too similar, such as identical dining room chairs.
The beauty of the memory palace technique is that it’s highly adaptable for remembering all kinds of information in whatever way feels easiest to you.
The memory palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember. What’s the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.
PAO: Person – Action – Object
In this system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object. Joshua Foer writes:
“The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.”
As you can see, this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. We don’t know about you, but Frank Sinatra kicking a cape hasn’t come to our minds before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your “stock images” as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.
How a memory palace works
When we’re learning something new, it requires less effort if we connect it to something we already know, such as a physical place. This is known as elaborative encoding. Once we need to remember the information, we can “walk” around the palace and “see” the various pieces.
The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our heads. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent, and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context.
For example, if you struggle to remember names, it can be helpful to link people you meet to names you already know. If you meet someone called Fred and your grandmother had a cat called Fred, you could connect the two. Creating a multisensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick. In this case, you could imagine the sound of Fred meowing loudly.
To further aid in recall, the method of loci is most effective if we take advantage of the fact that it’s easiest to remember memorable things. Memory specialists typically recommend mentally placing information within a physical space in ways that are weird and unusual. The stranger the image, the better.
Returning to the name example, it will probably stick better if you imagine Fred the person being chased by a giant version of Fred the cat, compared to just imagining them next to each other.
Cicero further explains:
“But these forms and bodies, unlike all the things that come under our view, require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without a locality is inconceivable. Consequently (in order that I may not be tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and images that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.”
The Roman rhetorician Quintilian also recommended the memory palace technique:
“Some have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us.
. . . when we return to places, after an absence of some time, we not only recognize them, but recollect also what we did in them. Persons whom we saw there, and sometimes even thoughts that passed within our minds, recur to our memory. Hence, in this case, as in many others, art has had its origin in experiment. People fix in their minds places of the greatest possible extent, diversified by considerable variety, such as a large house, for example, divided into many apartments. Whatever is remarkable in it is carefully impressed on the mind, so that the thought may run over every part of it without hesitation or delay. Indeed, it is of the first importance to be at no loss in recurring to any part, for ideas which are meant to excite other ideas ought to be in the highest degree certain.
They then distinguish what they have written, or treasured in their mind, by some symbol by which they may be reminded of it, a symbol which may either have reference to the subject in general, as navigation or warfare, or to some particular word, for if they forget, they may, by a hint from a single word, find their recollection revived . . . they place, as it were, their first thought under its symbol, in the vestibule, and the second in the hall, and then proceed round the courts, locating thoughts in due order, not only in chambers and porticoes, but on statues and other like objects. This being done, when the memory is to be tried, they begin to pass in review all these places from the commencement, demanding from each what they have confided to it, according as they are reminded by the symbol. Thus, however numerous are the particulars which they have to remember, they can, as they are connected each to each like a company of dancers hand to hand, make no mistake in joining the following to the preceding, if they only take due trouble to fix the whole in their minds.
What I have specified as being done with regard to a dwelling house may also be done with regard to public buildings, or a long road, or the walls of a city, or pictures, or we may even conceive imaginary places for ourselves.”
An important caveat is that the method of loci only helps you recall the specific information you’ve used it to encode. While you might find it easier to use the technique the more times you repeat it, you’re unlikely to see an overall improvement in your general memory.
Despite its limitations, constructing a memory palace is a fun and creative way to learn things you don’t want to write down (such as passwords or security question answers) or want to be able to call to mind on the fly (such as decision-making checklists). And if you’re someone who enjoys a challenge, it can be satisfying to see just how far you can extend your innate abilities.
The memory palace reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our lives:
“How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. . . . Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: all these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.”
We are a culmination of our experiences. How we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavor.