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Dramatically improve your ability to remember with this ancient trick


You might have recently come across newspaper headlines touting an obscure, ancient memory trick dramatically improving recall.

The technique, a “method of loci”, also known by a catchier name “memory palace” has been in existence for over 2500 years. An ancient Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos was credited with first using this method under pretty gruesome circumstances. While attending a banquet in Thessalia, Simonides was called outside of the dining hall to receive a message from a courier. As soon as he stepped out, the roof of the building collapsed, burying underneath all the guests, many of them crushed beyond recognition. Bereft families had no way of identifying the bodies of their loved ones for burial. Simonides was able to identify many by recalling each guest’s position at the table just before he left the banquet hall.

Latin name for place or position is locus, (loci in plural), hence the name. Simonides suggested afterwards storing the mental images in select localities of a mental image of a place as a form of memory aid. He called it “memory theater” or “memory palace”.  Since then, ancient orators (including Cicero) used it to memorize long poems and speeches. It is still commonly used by contemporary actors and public speakers. It gained more widespread recognition due to being used by memory athletes (people who compete in memory challenges), as documented in “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, a journalist and memory champion himself.

This method has been employed to achieve such feats of memory as memorizing number Pi to one thousand digits and learning entire Quran by heart.

The reason why the technique works so well is perhaps that in our evolution as a species visuospatial memory for places was crucial for survival. Being able to find spots best for mushroom foraging or picking berries, hunting grounds, freshwater springs etc was often a question of making it through the winter or not. Not surprisingly, our brains dedicate a lot of storage space to it, so our visuospatial memory is wonderfully capacious. We don’t need that space anymore to store foraging information, but we can harness its enormous power. Linking random words (for which our capacity to remember is remarkably lower) with places allows us to tap into the vast resource already in our possession.

Back to the headlines you might have seen: just last week a study has been published looking closer at exactly how the method of loci works in increasing memory. Researchers paired 23 top memory athletes with 23 regular people (called controls). Their brains were scanned using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) at the beginning of the study and then 6 weeks later. The baseline memory was measured by ability to recall 72 random words 20 min and 24 hours after. Can you imagine? Seventy two random words? Memory athletes were able to recall 71 words on average. Control group averaged at 26 words. So far, no surprises here.

One of the biggest questions regarding such prodigious memory is whether it is an innate gift or a skill that could be acquired?

To answer that, researchers put the control group through 40 days of 30 min a day training, using the memory palace technique. They were instructed to pick a familiar environment, such as their own home and place objects from the list in particular locations. The more “visual” you get, the better the technique works. After the 6 weeks training control group was tested again, and now they could recall 62 words on average. That is over 200% improvement! They were re-checked 4 months later and still remembered 48 words from the original list.

Dresler and his team answered the “how” by analyzing fMRI images. Functional MRI pictures generally are used to show which portions of the brain light up with particular activity. There were some differences in the brain images between memory athletes and their controls particularly at rest, when not engaged in memorizing or recalling. The activity at rest was more vigorous between the different centers responsible for the memory, rather than within them. It is that network of baseline activity that seems to be the best measure of functional brain connectivity and memory capacity. After 40 days of training the background brain activity of people in control group started resembling that seen in memory champions.

“After training we see massively increased performance on memory tests. Not only can you induce a behavior change, the training also induces similar brain connectivity patterns to those seen in memory athletes” said Martin Dressler, neuroscientist and the principal investigator.

In essence, the brains got rewired for greater memory capacity in a relatively short time.

Here is a quick intro into memory palace:
Let’s say you need to memorize a shopping list: green paint, umbrella, spinach, apples and a beach ball.
We’ll keep the list short, but you can easily try to memorize 20, even 50 item-long lists.
Now prepare your memory palace. Perhaps it’ll be easiest to start with your own home. In your mind’s eye picture it, vividly, spot by spot. Decide on the route you will take. For example: front door leading to a foyer, which opens into the living room, from which you can walk into the bedroom and the bathroom.

To remember your list, simply place each item somewhere in your memory palace. As you open the front door, it bumps into something. It is an open can of green paint, which spills on impact. The floor is now covered with green paint. Your nose gets tickled by the pungent odor of it. Step into the foyer and open a big yellow umbrella, still dripping with raindrops and set it on the floor. Then you walk into the living room and see Popeye sitting in your couch, eating … why, spinach, of course. In the bedroom you are shocked to see Snow White strewn on your bed with a half eaten red apple in her hand. Next you walk into the bathroom and see a big beach ball blocking an open toilet.

At the beginning, try an item per room, but later you can fit several of them. The images work best if they create easy associations (Popeye – spinach). Also, try engaging different senses (taste, touch, smell) for the images to create stronger imprint. The more vivid, funny, absurd or plain crazy the image is, the more it seems to “stick” – a fact well known by the advertising industry. For the memory palaces use places you know very well: the places where you lived, schools you attended, workplaces, friends’ places etc. Test yourself at the end of the day and the next day.

Prepare to be amazed. You will easily remember all the items and be able to recite them forward and backwards (just reverse the order in which you walk your memory palace).

When I first tried it, I was absolutely amazed. But… I have a small confession to make. I completely lack patience, ambition or motivation to improve my shopping-list remembering capacity. If you’re like me, try using it for something more exciting. I’ve started employing it in memorizing quotes and poems. I’ve tried it in public speaking and it worked wonderfully. Use it to remember lists of words when learning a foreign language. Practice (you won’t be able to rewire your brain with only sporadic use), but do have fun with it!

by Anna Lamnari, MD



Hannah Devlin, Ancient technique can dramatically improve memory, research suggests. The Guardian, March 8, 2017
Dresler et al, Mnemonic training reshapes brain networks to support superior memory, Neuron 3/8/3017, 93; 5:1227-1235
Your first memory palace http://www.mostlymaths.net/2011/03/learn-to-remember-everything-memory.html
Jason Daley, Smithsonianmag. Ancient brain training technique can boost memory. http://www.smithsonianmag/smart-news/ancient-brain-training-technique-can-boost-memory-180962465/

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