Method of Loci
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Overview

This hack was used to deliver long speeches from memory in ancient Greece, was referenced in the fictional tales of Sherlock Holmes as a ‘brain attic’, and remains the standard technique for almost all serious contenders in modern Memory Championships. 

The Method of Loci is a memory technique that involves imagining information that you want to remember as vivid experiences mapped over a familiar environment. 

IT’S ABOUT CONTEXT AND SPATIAL EXPERIENCE. 

Also known as the Memory Palace, the Method of Loci involves conceiving of information as memorable experiences, mapped over a familiar place such as your family home.

For example, imagine you want to remember a shopping list of eggs, milk, strawberry jam, tinned tomatoes, and spaghetti. Applying the Method of Loci might involve imagining walking up to your home and being confronted by a crazy chicken roosting in your mailbox (eggs); then an angry cow with a squirt gun blocking your way to the front door (milk); and getting through the door to find that your foot is stuck and the floor is covered with red sticky material (jam). That's just three items, but people regularly use the method to remember dozens, even hundreds of elements.

A big tip here is that the more distinctive and visceral the image is the more it will embed into your memory. So imagine the crazy chicken pecking your hand and squawking. Picture what it would feel like to push past that smelly, solid cow who is squirting you, and how your feet will feel and what you would smell having stepped in that sticky jam over the threshold of your home. 

PLAYING TO EVOLUTIONARY STRENGTHS.

Researchers explain the effectiveness of the Method of Loci through evolutionary need and the resultant role of the hippocampus. Cognitive neuroscientist Martin Dresler explains: “our brains didn’t evolve to memorise or learn abstract information, they evolved to learn the way to the next food source or where to meet our mating partners. The Method of Loci makes use of these evolved skills.” So it’s no coincidence that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in memory, also is a major factor in emotions and spatial navigation.

The simple takeaway here is that to remember something more effectively, be sure to connect it to emotions and a physical experience or space. 

YES, YOU COULD ACTUALLY BE A MEMORY CHAMPION. 

Some people are born with remarkable memories but researchers found that the 35 most recent memory champions almost all started with average memories. Further, all of them used the Method of Loci as a core technique to win. Research out of Rabound University tested successful memory athletes against a group with ‘average memory’ who were trained using a combination of the Method of Loci and mnemonic techniques (essentially using the first letters of items to ‘chunk’ them into ‘smaller packages’). Neuroimaging showed that the group trained with these methods used more of their hippocampus and the spatial centres of their brain, and had markedly improved recall of the information as a result. 

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. 

From a conceptual level, the Method of Loci supports a broader understanding of Mental Models and encourages you to make better use of the mental representations that you can generate and apply in your mind. 

While generally used in competitions to remember playing cards and telephone book entries, consider applying the approach to remember speeches or useful combinations of mental models as part of your Latticework of Mental Models. For example, explore our Playbooks and create ‘mental rooms’ for various combinations of mental models and frameworks that you can access to deal with specific challenges. 

From a memory perspective, consider combining this approach with Spaced Retrieval and the Leitner System. Be aware that it will not necessarily improve your memory more broadly and will take Focused Thought to apply and use (see Limitations below for more). 

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Actionable takeaways
  • Identify a familiar place and key locations in it. 

Use a familiar place with multiple spaces or rooms that you can 'move' through, this will be particularly useful for an ordered or sequential list of elements. It might be your family home, your route to work, or anything that you can easily recall. Include a series of landmarks or potential locations and number them in your mind — for example your mailbox, the footpath to your door, the top of the stairs, the cupboards near the entry, the hatstand etc..

  • Create visceral, memorable images. 

Translate whatever you have to remember into images and experiences. Make them memorable and emotional, think of their smells, what it would be like to interact with them, and have them do something surprising or unexpected. The more ridiculous the better here.

  • Map the images to a familiar location. 

Map the visceral images you created to the space — again, be creative about how they interact with the location to create memorable and even emotional experiences. 

  • Review and test yourself. 

Imagine walking through the space you’ve laid out. Think through what it's like to experience and interact with the images you’ve created. Don’t expect the memory to embed immediately, you will have to mentally ‘walk’ through the Memory Palace that you’ve created multiple times to embed it. You might want to combine it with Spaced Retrieval to do this effectively. 

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In Practice

Remembering Moby Dick. 

This Vox reporter who admits to having a terrible memory applied the Memory Palace to memorise an entire chapter of Moby Dick. 

Limitations

The Method of Loci definitely works as a memory hack to remember specific lists or sets of information as the technique has been repeatedly born out in numerous studies. Along with Spaced Retrieval, the Method of Loci is considered to be highly evidence-based approach. One of its limitations then is, 'so what?' 

Do you really need to remember an order of a pack of playing cards or the numbers in pi to the nth degree? Sure, that’s all useful if you want to compete in Memory Championships, but how transferable is it beyond that? Need to remember a grocery list? Why not write it down or capture it on your phone? The point is, in today's digital world, one might argue that there is less need to simply remember lists of information. 

Beyond that, another limitation is that the Method of Loci is the effort it involves and the limited transferability it offers when it is not being specifically and deliberately applied. So yes, memory champions can quickly memorise a pack of cards if they invest the effort into it, but will still forget to buy the milk or misplace their car keys as this is not a broader cognitive fix. 

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Origins & Resources

According to stories, the origins of the Method of Loci can be traced back to a truly disastrous party in ancient Greece. The legend tells of Simonides of Ceos, a poet, attending a banquet around 500 BC. Simonides left the banquet, stepping outside to meet someone, only to see the building collapse behind him killing everyone inside. The remains of the dead were unidentifiable, but Simonides was able to remember who had attended the banquet by remembering where they were sitting in the hall. 

The story goes on to say that Simonides translated this experience into the Method of Loci, realising that he didn’t just have to place the guests around the banquet hall but could replace them with lines of his poetry, or every Greek dramatist seated in order of birth, or anything. The memory hack caught on and was commonly used by ancient Greek and Roman orators to memorise and deliver long speeches without requiring notes. The concept and associated techniques were later captured in the textbook Rhetorica ad Herennium, which has been attributed to Cicero. 

The approach fell out of vogue with the development of the printing press and the rise of alternative ways to capture and recall information. Indeed, historians such as Robert Darnton have pointed out that before the printing press reading was an intense activity — with limited books often read and reread and a greater need to memorise the contents because of the limited availability of such treasured texts. However, with the proliferation of books, reading expanded to be more of an ‘extensive’ experience, using them as ongoing references. 

In terms of the research behind the approach, the study exploring the impact of mnemonic and Method of Loci training at Rabound University can be found here. This additional study showed that most people with superior memory do not have structural differences in their brain, but instead use spatial forms of memory.

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