You probably find it easy to memorize small lists, say 2-3 items. Maybe your ability to recall larger lists stretches beyond seven. Usually, however, our ability to remember larger datasets dwindles rapidly as more data is added. Memorizing the exact order of a shuffled deck of cards would prove an immensely challenging task for almost anyone.
Now think of your home, the one you live in now or a childhood home. Close your eyes for a minute and take a stroll. Walk through the front door. What do you see? Really explore the memory of this home. Where are the rooms? What’s in the rooms? Are there any closets or cupboards? How about windows or paintings?
The two previous paragraphs probably seem only loosely related, but they serve to illustrate an amazing facet of the human brain. We are built to memorize spatial data much easier than blank, unadorned data.
Think about it.
When you strolled casually through your home, in your mind, you probably recalled dozens of facts without even trying. You may have even found the process of recalling this information pleasurable.
You can use this to your advantage, memorizing large sets of data in relatively little time, with an ancient Greek technique called The Method of Loci.
Or as the hit BBC show “Sherlock” puts it, building a memory palace.
The Cognitive Science Behind Memory Palaces
The science behind this phenomena is quite simple. We store memories in our hippocampus, and when we recall a particularly strong memory, activity can be seen in regions of the brain involved in spatial awareness, such as the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and the right posterior hippocampus. These are fancy names for parts of your brain.
Looking at humanity’s earliest development may provide a clue as to why we store memories this way. Being able to identify landmarks and spatial relations could have easily come in handy long before we slapped Garmins on our windshield and Googled our ways out of pickles.
You’re a caveman. Your tribe needs food, so you go out to forage and hunt. You gathered a large bounty by traveling far and wide and successfully brought it back before nightfall.
By having a sense of direction and spatial awareness of your surroundings, and the capability to recall this information, you have successfully secured yourself a spot as one of the ancestors to modern man. Congratulations! You are more important than the caveman who discovered fire (and definitely better than the ones who are angry with Geico).
How To Build Your Own Memory Palace
It’s all well and good that we can recall this type of information easily, but what good does it do us if we’re trying to memorize a simple list? This is where good old-fashioned ancient Greek wisdom comes into play.
The Greeks devised a system called the Method of Loci that exploited our uncanny ability to navigate the world around us without pausing to recall. You can give it a shot right now if you’d like.
Here’s a scenario. You work for the CIA and you need to memorize a persona so you can successfully impersonate a member of the enemy lines. (Most articles suggest practicing with small grocery lists, but it is much more interesting to pretend you’re a CIA agent. Besides, you can take a grocery list with you to Meijer, but you should never bring confidential documents with you on a CIA mission. It’s just common sense that you’ll need to memorize this).
Here is a list of things you need to remember about your persona:
- You are from Russia
- Your favorite TV show is “Rocky and Bullwinkle”
- You are allergic to cats
- Your code number is 567-987
To memorize this using the method of loci, you will need to visualize your home or somewhere else you know very well. For this list, imagine a simple route through each of four distinct areas or rooms. Distinct is key.
For example, you walk up to your front door, go into your living room, then your kitchen, and finally your bedroom.
In order to memorize this list, you will need to visualize something that reminds you of each item in each separate room.
Let’s say you walk up to the front door and you see the Russian flag draping across it. It’s so big you have to lift it up in order to get through to the door.
When you step into the living room, you literally see “Rocky and Bullwinkle” chilling on your couch. Maybe they say something witty as you pass on through.
When you go to the kitchen, you see a cat that won’t stop sneezing, and is grasping at tissues.
The key is to not be subtle at all, to exaggerate, to think of something beyond ridiculous. In short, something memorable. As you walk through that familiar stroll of your house and remember these crazy images, you’ll be able to bring up a lot more than if you were to use pure, abstract willpower alone.
To memorize something a bit more complex, say that code number of 567-987, you’ll have to practice your visualization skills until you can code each room. For this case, maybe you’ll have given an attribute to each digit, like a color. So you step into the bedroom, where you’re keeping the code number, and imagine the sheets being red, the pillows being green, the dresser being orange, the alarm clock being purple, the cat on the bed being turquoise, and finally the drapes being orange.
As you scan the room in this order, after having memorized the color associations with each digit, you can memorize nearly any string of numbers or data. Of course, this example is very advanced, but many professional memory athletes (yes, they exist) use this very technique to memorize much larger data sets. Like that deck of cards I mentioned earlier.
Memorizing long lists is always difficult, but your brain is capable of truly amazing things if you work with it rather than against it. Building a memory palace isn’t so much a trick as it is simply letting your brain do what it does best in the way it prefers to do it.
So go ahead and give it a shot. Even if you’re not competing nationally, experiencing the power of your own mind can be exhilarating all on its own.