Memory Palaces

Temple_of_Music_Fludd_Complete0202Joshua Foer, this year’s winner at the U.S.A. Memory Championship, wrote an article for the New York Times last month called “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” about how he got sucked into the world of competitive memorizing, and the techniques he used to set the national record: memorizing every card in a deck, in order, in only 1 minute 55 seconds. It’s an amusing read (I have a soft spot for tales of quirky competitive subcultures.)

Even if you don’t have Memory Champion aspirations, the article still has some useful takeaways, especially if — like me — you are dismayed by the pitifully small fraction of what you read that you can actually recall, even a day later. In particular, Foer explains that fMRI scans of the brains of trained memorizers (or “memory athletes”) show no significant differences from those of regular untrained people, when both groups were asked to memorize numbers, or pictures of snowflakes, or faces. The only significant difference was that the memory athletes’ brains showed stronger activity in the parts of the brain associated with spatial memory.

Foer ties this back to an allegedly true story about a Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, in the fifth century B.C.:

After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris.  When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.

Memory palaces don’t have to be actual palaces, Foer says. They can be a familiar road through your hometown, or even your own body. The trick is just to associate each fact you want to memorize with some part of the memory “palace” — with a store or restaurant on the road, for example, or with a part of your body. That allows you to piggyback off of your brain’s built-in knack for spatial memory, for remembering where things are in relation to each other.

The idea of memory palaces resonated with me — I noticed way back in middle school that when I was taking an exam and trying to remember some bit of information, it would help me to visualize the layout of the pages and try to “see” where the fact was on the page, or in the chapter. That would help bring it back.

And more recently, my friend was recounting a detailed, several-hour long conversation he’d had with someone, and I expressed surprise that he was able to remember all the details of the conversation so well. He replied: “I think it has to do with the fact that my friend and I were on a hike while we talked. Because I can picture where we were as we were talking about each topic in turn.” Yet another good reason to spend afternoons with your most interesting friends wandering outside, now that the weather’s getting warmer… as if I needed any more encouragement to be a flaneuse.

7 Responses to Memory Palaces

  1. kit10phish says:

    I’m going to try that technique as I attempt to memorize G.R.E. vocab–Thanks!

  2. Cory Albrecht says:

    Thanks for linking on flâneuse – I couldn’t understand at first how loafing about would help in this instance! 🙂

  3. Henry Shevlin says:

    It’s worth noting that various Roman authors (including Cicero and Quintilian) gave the name the “method of loci” to mnemonic techniques which use imagined spatial relationships to encode semantic relationships, and that’s the preferred nomenclature today. I was a little surprised that neither this post nor the NY Times article which is linked to make use of the term. There’s a rather good wikipedia entry on this topic under that name.

  4. Julia Galef says:

    @Henry — Yup, that is a common term for this phenomenon. I just thought “memory palaces” was more poetic!

  5. I’ve often found myself doing this too. While taking a test, I just picture the specific page in my notes a concept is and I can usually do a pretty good job of recalling it.

  6. Scott says:

    If you like “quirky competitive subcultures”, watch The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, about world-record arcade gaming:

  7. Pingback: Why learn geography? « Measure of Doubt

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