Memory Palaces

“Qui etes-vous, mademoiselle?” “Je suis le palais des souvenirs” so Salman Rushdie introduces the palace of memories in The Enchantress Of Florence. Rushdie’s palace is an Arabic slave girl, bought on a Venetian market, brainwashed into being a living story book. What’s remarkable about the slave girl is the large amount of detail she can recall – more so than the protagonists of the story themselves. The concept of a memory palace, described in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, used by magicians and mentalists today, verified by psychologists, is a simple one: you imagine a familiar building and put things in each room that you want to remember.

In Tricks Of The Mind, Derren Brown discusses loci memory systems. Loci mnemonics are synonymous with the Greek art of memory and were used by both Greeks and Romans. A loci mnemonic is simply a memory system that deals with places. The most complex, or grand, loci mnemonics are referred to as memory palaces. Loci mnemonics were taught in schools until the 17th century when the Puritans forbade their use for encouraging “bizarre and irreverent images”. Brown suggests that

“This beautiful and life-enhancing ability therefore lost its place among the proudest achievements of human consciousness because some religious zealots didn’t like the level of imagination it provoked.”

Brown continues and deftly explains how to build a mnemonic:

“…by attaching images to places along a familiar real-life route you know well, The images represent items to be remembered , and are places in fixed locations you know you will always encounter on that route.”

To demonstrate the technique, I will build a simple memory palace. I’m going to use the leaning tower of Pisa. The technique works for a much more complicated structures. Using a simple vertical structure, in which you can only move up or down, the richness of the technique won’t be demonstrated. I’m using the tower purely for the sake of brevity. Derren Brown and Rushdie both offer much better examples of memory palaces.

Consider, as we are in Pisa, that you would like to remember the names of Dante’s spheres of heaven from the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradise. Walk into the tower, climb the stairs and go out onto the first balcony: notice the full moon hanging in the sky (the moon is the first sphere), go back into the tower and climb the next set of stairs where you find a love goddess (Venus) admiring herself in quicksilver (Mercury) mirror. On the next level her son (the Sun) is eating a Mars bar (Mars) which probably explains the huge red spot (Jupiter) on his forehead. On the next level there’s a Greek god sat on an urn (Saturn). Going out onto the balcony you notice how many stars are twinkling (sphere of stars) and climbing the last set of stairs you see the crystal bell at the top (crystal sphere). Fortunately, as climbing the tower has taken quite a bit of energy, someone’s been kind enough to leave a pie baked into the shape of an ‘m’ (Empyrean). As Brown points out vivid images and humour – even bad jokes – help make something memorable. Follow this route a few times and you’ll be able to show off your knowledge of medieval Italian poetry.

Daniel Schacter, of Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, devotes a chapter of his book, How the Mind Forgets and Remembers: The Seven Sins Of Memory, to transience – or fading memory. Schacter describes the mechanisms by which the mind encodes and remembers things and shows how memory can fade. He writes “Any attempt to reduce transience should try to seize control of what happens in the early moments of memory foundation, when encoding processes powerfully influence the fate of a new memory”. Schacter discusses controlled laboratory experiments which clearly demonstrate the use visual mnemonics – of which a memory palaces is one – to boost memory. Further to this he suggests that the commercially available memory boosting courses he studied are based on visual mnemonics. Using any mnemonic, though, takes effort. With practice it becomes easier and quicker – consider people who can memorise the order of a deck of cards in the time it takes to flick through the cards. The temptation is to pop a pill and develop a photographic memory. Unfortunately Schacter’s research suggests this is not yet possible. Schacter writes, specifically about ginkgo, which has been purported to improve memory, before moving on to consider other equally ineffective medicines:

“..there is no evidence that ginkgo exerts specific effects that reduce transience. Given a choice between taking ginkgo or investing some time and effort in elaborative encoding strategies, healthy people would be well advised to focus on the latter approach”.

From their first use by the ancient Greeks to experiments in modern laboratories, memory palaces have shown themselves to be more than stage trickery. The technique for building a memory palace as described by Derren Brown is straightforward and, with practice, can be applied with remarkable speed. Stage magicians and mentalists use this technique and other mnemonics to astound audiences with remarkable feats of memory. Memory palaces can be as simple or as complex as the whatever you want to remember requires. Using humour, contrasts, remarkable situations and constructs helps the visual images stick. Revisiting a memory palace should be pleasurable so that you are tempted to return to the palace – the more often you return to the palace the longer before it succumbs to transience. Considering the results from experimental psychologists, at least for the near future, investing time and effort to develop the skill of constructing memory palaces is more profitable than popping a few pills or herbal supplements.