With paper, word documents and the cloud, it’s arguable that we don’t need our memory for much anymore. But what if you can’t have access to your phone, your laptop or notes? What if you have to remember a speech, revise for an exam, or even just sound smart in a conversation?
The Memory Palace
Created over 2000 years ago, the “Memory Palace” technique or the method of loci was widely used by the Greeks and Romans to get by when referring to notes and paper was frowned upon and recording information time-consuming. Used to memorise multiple-hour-long speeches and series of manuscripts, it’s a method that can still be used by just about anyone today with the same results.
Say you want to remember a sequence of words: “cat”, “rabbit” and “chicken” in that order. Now imagine a place you know well. Perhaps it’s your childhood home, your workplace or your street. As you visualise yourself walking through it, put striking images of each word in each memorable area you come to.
For example, say you’re back in your childhood home. As you enter the front door, you’re met by the living room. And in the living room, there is a large blue cat with no tail scratching the leather off your sofa.
Next, you enter the kitchen. There, you see a rabbit wearing carrot slippers and a top hat by the sink. You then enter the dining room where you see a purple chicken running on an antique globe.
The more bizarre the image you create, the more likely you’ll be to remember it. After all, if you see something that is exceptional, extraordinary or unbelievable, you’re much more likely to notice and remember it than something you see everyday as mundane. And that’s all there is to it. Visualise bizarre images of what you want to remember in places you already know.
Does it Really Work?
Yes. Researchers have found that people chosen at random are able to dramatically increase their memory recall using the technique. For example, in a memory test people initially able to recall an average of 26 words out of 72 increased their total to 62 words out of 72 after practicing this technique. And this came with training just 30 minutes per day over six weeks.
Why Does it Work?
Although remembering abstract words and ideas is not something our distant ancestors would have likely needed to do to survive in the wild, having good spatial awareness would have been crucial. They would have needed to know where to find shelter, food and of course locate danger.
In the words of Joshua Foer, a US-record-holding memory champion: “The point of memory techniques is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.” And building a memory palace is a great place to start.