Practical memory and impractical memory: the Memory Palace

Things have been busy since my previous on the MOOC learning-how-to-learn. As I wrote there, while a substantial amount was review, there were still plenty of expansions on what I knew. But it’s one thing to know the mechanics of learning, which has been my business for many decades. Those have served me well. But I needed some new servants.

For example, how  to memorize a list of a dozen items? It can be done by rote, by mnemonics…strategies most people already know. But that’s inefficient. Why would you want to take the time to memorize, say, a shopping list? Paper works just fine…after all, you don’t want to remember your list a month from now, unless the acronym OC was invented for you.

But some lists I wanted to remember..forever. Various work-related lists. I’ve written about the twelve labors of Hercules, for example, and taught them often. But if you had asked me rapidly to write them all done, or recite from memory…duh. Was there something more efficient than brute force?

There was indeed. One of the course topics covered the “memory palace”which comes from associating facts as mnemonics with places. Seems humans have an incredible spatial memory hard-wired into them from the very distant past…back, back in time, back when they invented the wheel. And earlier. Cave women. Cave men. Cave people. With a memory palace, you tap into that latent strength and make it work for you. And it works. Oh my, does it ever work. There’s a reason memory palaces were secrets in the Middle Ages…in that less enlightened era, think The Stake and “burning”, and “Stake”is not a typo for “steak”. Nothing like being punished for being Satan’s Little Trained Minion to wreck the rest of your day.

Here’s how I got into it. There’s a wonderful book by a memory champion, Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein:
Foer MoonwalkingGet it! Inexpensive paperback. You’ll ultimately want, I hope, to read it cover to cover. But do what grabbed me good:  read chapter five, “The Memory Palace”. Josh encounters a memory champ  (yes, there are international contests for such titles) who shows him a shopping list of fifteen rather odd items. Josh learns to associate it with places around his house. And, apparently, learns them all very rapidly. But, and this is extremely important. Written into the narrative are frequent asides to you, the reader, to do what Josh is doing in your house. Usually I ignore such things. Not now. I took the noodges seriously. And….

Dang me. It worked. I learned that list too. What’s more, now, and it’s been about a month, I still remember the damned thing. Please, please, do yourself a big favor and do what I did. You will be impressed beyond words.

Here’s a brief example of how I learned the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Great Pyramid of Giza is in the parking space in front of the house. The front garden has the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Inside, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia sits on the couch looking at the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus on the coffee table. The entry to the dining room is blocked by the Tomb of Mausolus while the Colossus of Rhodes is playing the piano, and the light in the kitchen comes from the Lighthouse of Pharos. That’s been in my head for a month, and the images tend to fade leaving you with just the facts. But if you start to stumble, the image comes right back to help you. Notice that the associations are…weird. The mind remembers the weird, the shocking, the pornographic far better than anything else. In the eighth grade an art teacher waned us to learn the five characteristics of art: form, line, space, texture, color. I still remember them if I want to (not often, but still…). I didn’t know about memory palaces then. Just used an incredibly sexual series of mnemonics, as only an eighth grader could. Clever rotten little rugrat, no?

You see the uses? Infinite. Liberating. And great fun. It works on poetry too, with modifications; I’m chewing up some favorite Shakespeare sonnets. But be warned!

You can also use it, again with modifications, to learn a deck of cards; memory champs can do that in a minute or so. Or the digits of Pi to one hundred places. That’s the tek approach…do it because you can. For me, that’s the impractical side of things. Fine, but do you need to know Pi out that far? I was a big math and science jock back-when, and I never needed Pi beyond 34.14159. As for learning a deck of cards…if you hang around Vegas a lot, maybe useful, otherwise…. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course, but I think you’re better off on using the technique in ways which directly benefit you.

By the way, memory palaces can be recycled. Remember the couch with the statue of Zeus on it in my example? I used the couch for Josh’s exercise, and placed wine bottles there. I’ve also used it for the labors of Hercules, as a place for the Cernyian hind. Believe it or not, even though the couch is crowded, there never is bleed-through between the uses.

Not yet convinced?

Josh did an interview about his book with The New York Times here.

A very recent short piece on the memory palace idea here.

Lots of other resources in the form of books, online forums…it can get dizzying. If you get hooked an want more, don’t hesitate to ask for some guidance. Although I suspect that it won’t be a question of “If” but rather “When”. You have been warned.

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