“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.” –Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet.
That‘s right. Arthur Conan Doyle was on the right track when he attributed his fictional consulting detective‘s ‘mental powers‘ to be the result of a well-organized ‘memory attic‘ system. While the ‘Memory Palace‘ system that is widely employed today isn‘t necessarily associated with Sherlock Holmes with the exception of the BBC’s “Sherlock.” I believe the above quote should be given the credit it deserves. Now, let‘s get on to what the Memory Palace (or Method of Loci) actually is. This is going to get historically deep for a moment, but then we will break it down so you can create yours, NOW!
The Method of Loci (loci is the plural form of the Latin word ―locus, meaning ―place or ―location), also called the Memory Palace, is a mnemonic device introduced in ancient Roman rhetorical treatises (as described in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero’s De Oratore, and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria). It relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish order and recollect memorial content. The term is most often found in specialized works on psychology, neurobiology and memory; though it was used in the same general way at least as early as the first half of the nineteenth century in works on rhetoric, logic and philosophy.
The Method of Loci is also commonly called the ―mental walk. In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. Many memory contest champions claim to use this technique in order to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions‘ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with their technique of using regions of their brain that have to do with spatial learning. Those parts of the brain that contribute most significantly to this technique include the Medial Parietal Cortex, Retrosplenial Cortex, and the right posterior Hippocampus.
In other words, the ability to do this does not lie in preexisting intelligence, but rather it is a learned tool.
CREATING YOUR MEMORY PALACE
The whole memory palace technique is based on the fact that we‘re extremely good at remembering places we know. So, the first step is to create a memory palace of your choosing in your mind‘s eye. A memory palace is essentially a physical location that you are very familiar with such as your home, or route to work; it can be any place you know well as long as you can clearly visualize each room or landmark within your memory palace with little to no effort. Everyone has a place they can choose. It is entirely up to you, choose your first ‘memory palace‘ and map it out well in your mind. Really visualize this place, take the route, walk through the house, and your palace will be established.
DEFINING YOUR ROUTE
The second step is to trace a clearly defined route through your memory palace and visualize particular objects along the way. If you are considering your home for example, your route may start with your front door. You may enter into a hallway and notice a mirror hanging on the wall. Start with one object per room and follow an easy path (such as, left to right) until you are back at your starting point.
Practice following this route in your memory palace, making an effort to remember each specific object in order. This shouldn‘t be hard to do if you choose a place deeply embedded within your mind; consider the house you grew up in. Each object you see and encounter is known as a ‘memory peg‘. Start with one object or ‘memory peg‘ for every room in your palace, or every stop on your route. A simple example would be: you walk through the front door and see the coat rack, then you walk into the kitchen and notice the stove, then you walk into the garage and notice the ladder. Coat rack (front door), stove (kitchen), and ladder (garage): already, you have three ‘memory pegs‘ in three different rooms in your Memory Palace.
USING YOUR MEMORY PEGS
Now think of something that you‘d like to remember, such as a shopping list or your agenda for the week ahead. Place items in a particular order and integrate each with a memory peg (object) within your memory palace. It helps to conceptualize objects as being bizarre or perhaps cartoon-like at this stage. Memory does, after all, perform best when operating in a strong, visual way.
Since we created three pegs in the above example, the coat rack, the stove and the ladder; we can now utilize those pegs. If your grocery list only consisted of three items such as milk, bread and cheese you would then ‘peg‘ them one at a time. Your first peg in the example is the coatrack; you walk through the front door and see the coatrack. So all you have to do is visually connect ‘milk‘ and ‘coatrack.‘ It is important to make your images as animated and bizarre as possible, so see the coatrack spewing milk from all its ends. At this point you would take a moment to really ‘see‘ this image, and burn it into your mind. Now you would connect ‘bread‘ to ‘stove.‘ Keeping in mind that merely getting bread out of a stove isn‘t dramatic enough for memory. So I would see a man beating the stove to pieces with a gigantic loaf of bread. Done and done. Now just connect ‘cheese‘ to ‘ladder‘ i.e. A man is trying to climb the ladder and failing because it‘s made of cheese.
Your simple list would now be committed to memory.
At the store, all you ever need to do is walk through your mental memory palace and your grocery list will fly right back at you. You will walk through the door and see milk spewing from the coatrack, then you would walk into the kitchen only to find a man beating the stove with a ridiculous loaf of bread, you then walk into the garage and see a man climbing the cheese ladder. Milk, bread and cheese is a pretty easy list to remember without a palace, yet you can begin see the power of the method.
The amazing thing is that your memory palace is EVERY bit as effective at storing enormous amounts of information as it is storing very small bits. Now that you have your own memory palace, expand it.
When you’re ready to take the next step, check out Supercharging Your Memory Palace, New Palaces & Connecting the Labyrinths Within…
Joe’s book (raising funds for Save Undershaw) ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes‘ is available all good bookstores including Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and in all formats including Amazon Kindle and now on the iPad too. Fans outside the US and UK can get free delivery from Book Depository.