Constructing a Memory Palace

Over the last few days I’ve been reading an interesting book that a friend lent me.  It’s intriguingly entitled Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything and is by American journalist Joshua Foer (published by Penguin in 2011; ISBN 97800-141-03213-9, in case you want to track down a copy).

The subject of the book is memory.  In particular it traces Foer’s own year-long journey to the finals of the USA Memory Championship, sparked by a chance encounter with a photograph at a museum in Pennsylvania while killing time waiting to interview somebody for an article about something completely different.  However, he also goes into quite a bit of detail about the techniques that mental athletes (or mnemonists, to use the technical term) use for prodigious feats of memorisation, and the history behind them.  When it comes down to it, the ability to do things like memorise the order of cards in 27 consecutive decks of randomly shuffled playing cards (that’s 1404 cards, BTW, assuming you leave out the jokers) is more about carefully practised technique than any natural inbuilt ability.

In the modern world, when we have such conveniences as printed books and the internet to store information for us, the art of memory is somewhat marginalised but in earlier times the ability to remember what we would now consider to be vast tracts of information was decidedly useful.  Consequently quite a lot of effort was devoted to the development of various techniques to aid the memory and there are several extant classical texts that deal with the subject.  Foremost among them is a shortish Latin work, formerly attributed to Cicero but now considered to be of unknown authorship, entitled Rhetorica ad Herennium (“Rhetoric: For Herennius”; the dedicatee is, as far as I know, as mysterious as the author).  This book is notable for containing the first known description of the method of loci (aka. the memory palace), which is a particularly influential (and evidently effective) mnemonic device that works by creating mental associations between the things to be remembered and a series of specific physical locations that the mnemonist can easily recall.

There are quite a few memory techniques in use by the modern mnemonists.  Many of them are essentially the ones described in the Ad Herennium and other ancient texts.  What most of the techniques, including the method of loci, have in common is that they rely largely on visual or other sensory associations.  This is because the human brain is evidently optimised for remembering these things rather than more abstract stuff like words and numbers.

Thinking about it, this does seem to accord with what I’ve noticed about how my own memory seems to work.  For instance, if somebody asks me who was at a particular meeting I attended a few days ago, I almost invariably find myself trying to picture the group sat around the room in order to remember who was there.

I haven’t yet tried to make serious use of any of the mnemonic devices presented in the book and I suspect I probably won’t, although from time to time it may be handy to set up a small memory palace to help remember something particularly important.  However the book, as well as being an interesting read, has definitely contained some useful advice.  One section I was reading this morning talked about the difference between effective and ineffective practising, be it in music, memorisation or any other sphere of activity.  Foer writes:

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practising is far more important than the amount of time you spend… Regular practice simply isn’t enough.  To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

I’m sure there was something else I was going to add to this post, but I’ve been called away to do other things since I started writing it and now I can’t remember what that was!

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  1. The “thinking round the room” technique is a good one for remembering people in a meeting. If I’m with a group of new people, I’ll often try to note down the names in a roughly accurate map as the invariable introductions are done. I can then rehearse them a few times, linking names to faces to places so that, by the end of the session I have a fairly good grasp of who is who… even if they sit in different places after coffee!


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