With the memory palace, also known as the “loci method”, you can store information, almost like Sherlock Holmes!
Do you see the cow with the purple spots back there next to the little red fridge, wallowing in the milk can? Or up there, look, there’s Dita Von Teese sitting in a huge, shimmering blue martini glass in the stairwell! Come along, up here, there’s more: on the round four-poster bed, salmon in bast skirts dance to drum music, lemons sunbathe under the desk lamp.
Welcome to my memory palace. Here you will find everything I want to remember the next time I go shopping: milk, martini, salmon, lemons. Sometimes you’ll also find the 118 elements of the periodic system or the components of the new coffee machine that I still have to put together. Everything can be set up individually. Nothing has to, everything can be. Depending on taste.
But why are we here?
Because we are so damn good at creating mental maps and recalling images in our memory that we hardly notice it ourselves:
Remember the last time you turned out the light before going to bed in a hotel room and then still had to grope around the dark room? You knew exactly where to step, where the chair was, where the bed was. I recently moved. I can mentally walk the path from the underground station to my new flat. I can show you every gap in the station’s roofing through which the rain falls on my forehead, every shop I walk past, the display case in the café opposite from which the waitress takes the cake and cuts it.
We should take advantage of the fact that we can easily recall such images.
The human memory is better able to store knowledge about visual stimuli. Behavioural scientists call this cognitive learning. People use their cognitive abilities – perception, imagination, language – to acquire knowledge. Why? If we make a connection between several pieces of information, such as the room, the route and a certain scene or picture, then an association is created, which in turn can slip into the long-term memory more easily than the mere fact. In combination with a mind map, entire subject areas can be processed pictorially and anchored in the memory.
This ability is genetically determined. Even for our ancestors it was essential for survival to know: This plant is poisonous, this trace belongs to a dangerous animal. This ability fell further and further into oblivion after the invention of printing. Today, we use our smartphones for (almost) everything we want to remember. For some people, Alexa reads out the shopping list in the supermarket.
But being able to recall abstract information, complex topics or factual knowledge quickly from memory can be extremely helpful, it often saves time. Finding your way around a complex of topics also leads to better decisions. That’s why we want to train it: with the memory palace or the “loci method”. “Loci” comes from Latin and stands for an area, a place. The method is an association technique that was already written down in the 1st century BC in the Rhetorica ad Herennium. During Roman antiquity, Cicero used it for his speeches in court or to the people. Today, memory athletes use them. People like Joshua Foer, for instance, who used it to prepare for the US Memory World Championships in 2011 and put it into a book. Sherlock Holmes uses the method in the BBC series of the same name: if he is looking for an important piece of information, he recalls the room where he put it and even talks to experts there.
The memory palace is a further development of the loci method: If the room or the small house is already occupied, we simply add on, think up a new room or a whole floor. As the name of the method suggests, we build ourselves a palace, so to speak, which we fill with information.
Think of a place that is very familiar to you, perhaps your childhood home, or a castle you once visited. It can also be a fantasy place, as researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered. The place does not have to be complete yet, we build it up little by little.
We enter the place. It has a room layout: kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, cellar, attic. Depending on the theme, we fill the rooms with life, decorate them as impressively as possible: how does it smell there, what do you hear there, what is on the floor, what is hanging on the walls? Sensory impressions that are connected with emotions such as joy, tension, excitement can be remembered even better. Connect the room with the topic: If it’s about the periodic table, then it might look like a laboratory. If it is about anatomy, then perhaps we are in the human body.
Each room has a theme
The point is to fill the room with knowledge: Let’s take the country ranking of press freedom. We’re going to try and remember the order of the countries. The first four are Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. We think up a short story about these countries, illustrate them with typical scenes and make sure we haven’t forgotten anything. The images can be funny, strange, sexually charged.
The more bizarre the better, but never pointless: a river flows in front of my memory palace, a Norwegian with a fisherman’s cap is fishing for pollack, I jump across the river and come in. It’s quite hot in the hallway, everything is paneled in light wood, in the corner is a naked Finn, towel casually over his shoulder, making an infusion. I walk on. A tall blonde woman is standing at the cooker in the kitchen frying meatballs, they are köttbullar, the walls are painted in yellow and blue. At the table around the corner sits Frau Antje with her white bonnet on her head, grating cheese. This little short story might help you internalise the ranking of countries with the greatest press freedom: Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands.
Of course, the information can also be in the same space. If you want to remember them in a certain order, a route helps: you walk around the room clockwise, for example, or use your own body as a mental aid, assigning information to each part of the body from the feet to the head.
Studies show that the memory palace method has proven itself: on average, people can only remember up to seven numbers. When two participants in a study had the method explained to them and had it applied over and over again in 86 experimental sessions, one participant remembered 90 numbers that were shown to him one after the other in 1-second intervals. Important: Go through the rooms again and again, this is the only way to consolidate your knowledge and discover gaps in your knowledge!
Here you can test yourself.
More from the world of information, knowledge and interactive storytelling in our newsletter “Rocking Complexity”.