In the modern world of omnipresent information access, memorization is almost a thing of the past.
And this shift has occurred very quickly. Little more than a decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon that a person had to memorize a sizable list of phone numbers belonging to partners, siblings, parents and close friends.
Now Many Of Us Forget Our Own Cell Phone Numbers!
Despite this, there are situations in the modern day that still require memorization. Perhaps phone numbers and historical facts are better left to Google, but not everything can and should be searched via a computer.
A notable example which is becoming conversant is “language” – which requires that you memorize a huge amount of vocabulary and grammar. Until now, there isn’t a technology effective enough to replace human ability to learn and master a language.
In the past, having to memorize information was not optional because information wasn’t easily accessible. Up until the 19th century, paper was expensive, especially for quantities required to make a book. To add to it was that not many people could read and write so the ability and need to memorize and recall information was critical.
Why The Greeks Adored Memory Palace Science
That’s why a powerful memorization method was adored by the ancient Greeks. This technique is used even as at today by memory experts to commit huge amounts of information to mind.
One such memory expert, used it to memorize Pi to over 100,000 digits. This memorization technique is called the Method of Loci, or more commonly the “Memory Palace”. It is a memorization method that not only has held the test of time, but has been shown to be effective through modern-day studies.
You may even have heard of the Memory Palace technique without realizing it because it has been featured in multiple books and media.
The Silence Of The Memory Palace
In Fiction And Movies
For example, the technique was employed by the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the novel series “Hannibal” written by an American author Thomas Harris. In several passages of the novel, Lecter was described as mentally walking through an elaborate memory palace to remember facts. That’s the basics of the Memory Palace technique.
Although relatively unknown, this method can be a game-changing technique for people who want to improve their ability to retain large amounts of information. You might be a student trying to master information for an exam, or an aspiring polyglot trying to learn Italian. You might be aging and finding it more difficult to recall routine information.
Whatever memorization challenge you face, the Memory Palace technique is a proficient way to finally help you achieve your goals.
How the Memory Palace Technique Evolved
The origin of the Memory Palace technique was traced to ancient Greece. As mentioned earlier, in the olden days, people had higher incentives to create effective methods of retaining information. Writing and writing materials were difficult to access.
The Memory Palace technique was introduced to the ancient Romans and the world via Greek rhetorical treatises.
The Roman Cicero described the Memory Palace technique in his writings on rhetoric, called De Oratore.
In De Oratore, Circero claims that the method originated from the Greek poet Simonides. Simonides was commissioned to recite a poem praising a group of nobles at a banquet. After the recitation, Simonides left the hall and shortly after the edifice collapsed and killed all the people in the banquet.
The bodies were so badly mangled that not even close relatives could identify the corpses of their own people. However, Simonides was able to identify each of the corpses by name based on their location. Based on this experience, Simonides devised the Memory Palace technique (Bower 1970).
Whether this story is reality or myth, it illustrates the basic idea behind the Memory Palace technique. Luckily, you don’t have to attend a tragic banquet to master the technique and start using it to improve your information retention.
For a true story that will rivet you from beginning to end, check out The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.
How to Create a Memory Palace
The basic idea behind the Memory Palace Technique is to associate pieces of information with a location that you are very familiar with. A prime example would be of your home.
If you close your eyes right now, you can probably picture your home with a high degree of detail. You know where the furniture is found, what colors the walls are, and even where small objects are placed.
The Memory Palace technique has to do with associating information with specific areas of that familiar location. As you walk through that location, you place pieces of information that you wish to memorize in specific areas. When you want to recall the information, you go through that mental route, and the information will be easily accessible.
The technique is made more effective when you add surprising or out-of-the normal features to the information.
For example, assuming you would like to memorize this sequence of words:
You could imagine yourself at your front door, with a hero standing next to you. Here you’ve made an association between your door and a hero.
You can increase your ability to memorize and retain this by making the memory more distinctive or unusual. For example, you could imagine the hero opening the door for you, or banging on it before you enter.
You then walk down your hall, and before your feet is a drill. To increase the power of this imagery, imagine that it is turned on and you have to leap to avoid being hurt.
You then turn the corner and see a spacecraft flying out of the window leaving behind itself a trail of glitter.
Finally, you sat down on the couch, and as your bottom touches the cushion, your favorite song starts playing. You might even imagine the word “music” written on the cushion before you sit.
As you can see, the technique takes a vivid visual imagination. However, when done correctly, you can memorize a very large amount of information relatively quickly.
You can use any home or location with which you are familiar. You can even use small areas, such as the inside of a broom closet. You can even use your own body, attaching information to different limbs.
If any of this seems odd, continue reading to be convinced of how seriously well the Memory Palace technique works. You might want to see just how well the Memory Palace can work in combination with Mind Mapping too.
The Science behind the Memory Palace Technique
Many studies have been conducted to analyze the effectiveness of the Memory Palace technique.
In a study conducted by J. Ross and K. A. Lawrence in 1968, the Memory Palace technique was tested on a group of 40 students. The students were asked to memorize a list of 40 items. They were given only a few minutes to do so, yet were able to recall an average of 38 out of 40 items upon immediate recall.
The next day, the average recall rate dropped to 34 out of 40 items – still very impressive!
Nature Magazine did an investigation of so-called superior memorizers (SM) in a 2002 paper (Maguire et al). They studied a group of 10 champions who had competed in the World Memory Championships.
The researchers first wanted to know if these SMs had some special natural advantages that other people do not have, such as a higher IQ.
They first found out that SMs did not have exceptional cognitive abilities. In fact, they did not even show superior performance on visual memory tasks (for example, the recall of faces).
The paper further investigated the brain structure of these SMs, and found out that their brains were not significantly different from average brains (Maguire et al 2002).
The scientists also performed functional MRI scans to see if the SMs brains were activated differently when actively memorizing. Here the SMs brains differed from normal brains – SM’s brains activated particularly when memorizing (Maguire et al 2002).
Significantly, scientists found out that SMs all used mnemonic techniques to aid in their memorization. Nine out of ten of these subjects were specifically using the Memory Palace technique (Maguire et al 2002).
The different activation patterns observed were associated to the fact that SMs used mnemonic techniques, namely the Memory Palace technique, to memorize information (Maguire et al 2002).
No Need For A Huge IQ To Use A Memory Palace!
It’s not that SMs are smarter or have bigger brains than the rest of us. It’s that they use mnemonics, and specifically the Memory Palace technique to memorize information. That is the secret behind their impressive abilities. And because these SMs had been practicing the technique for a little over 11 years on average, they were really good (Maguire et al 2002).
This suggests that anyone with average abilities can use this technique to improve his/her memory.
Even if you are not seeking to learn large amounts of information, the Memory Palace technique still has something to offer. There is evidence that the Memory Palace technique can help maintain a healthy brain during old age.
Benefits of the Memory Palace
Technique for the Aging Brain
As we age, our memories become weaker. In elderly people, this might lead to a frustrating situation where they are struggling to recall routine information.
There has been much study on age-related memory loss, but so far not many effective solutions to this problem.
Happily, the Memory Palace technique holds promise in aiding the enhancement of memory in the aging brain.
One study conducted in Norway in 2010 employed expert instructors, who taught the Memory Palace technique to 23 volunteers. The average age of these volunteers was 61 (Engvig et al 2010).
After training, these volunteers were able to memorize a list of 30 words in sequential order in under 10 minutes – impressive!
A control group, a set of volunteers of the same average age, sex and education was included in the study. They were not trained in the Memory Palace technique, and were instructed to memorize the list as well (Engvig et al 2010).
Afterwards, both groups were released into the world to live normally for eight weeks.
When they returned to the study, researchers challenged both groups to a recall task.
They first flashed a list of 15 unrelated words, each for only a second. The volunteers were then instructed to recall the words in order.
Researchers then showed them a list of 30 words. Half of these words had been displayed in the initial 15 word list while the other half was completely new.
The volunteers were asked to pick out words that had previously appeared and also identify their correct position in the first list (Engvig et al 2010).
Volunteers trained in the Memory Palace technique outperformed the non-trained volunteers for recognizing the position of the words (Engvig et al 2010).
The study also measured the amount of brain thinning that occurred in the trained versus untrained groups of volunteers. Normal age causes the brain to shrink. The brain of the individuals showed thickening in areas of the brain which were key for visual abstract memory (Engvig et al 2010).
Why The Memory Palace Technique Is Not Snake Oil
This research and others like it have shown that the Memory Palace technique is not snake oil.
Sadly, most adults in the modern world are not encouraged to use their imagination. It might therefore be slightly challenging for someone newly using the technique to really get into it.
However, after practice, many find out that the technique is not only effective in memorization, but is also very engaging. Certainly more engaging than the traditional rote memorization technique.
With some practice, you’ll be impressing all of your friends and family with how good your memorization has gotten in no time.
References & Further Resources
Bower, G. H., “Analysis of a Mnemonic Device: Modern psychology uncovers the powerful components of an ancient system for improving memory” American Scientist, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 496-510, September–October 1970 Web. 21 Jan. 2016..
Engvig, Andreas, Anders M. Fjell, Lars T. Westlye, Torgeir Moberget, Øyvind Sundseth, Vivi Agnete Larsen, and Kristine B. Walhovd. “Effects of Memory Training on Cortical Thickness in the Elderly.” NeuroImage 52.4 (2010): 1667-676. 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.
Fan, Shelley. “Can a Mnemonic Slow Memory Loss with Age?” Scientific American Blog Network. 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.
Maguire, Eleanor A., Elizabeth R. Valentine, John M. Wilding, and Narinder Kapur. “Routes to Remembering: The Brains behind Superior Memory.” Nature Neuroscience Nat Neurosci 6.1 (2002): 90-95. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.