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The Memory Palace

 

Socrates, like Jesus of Nazareth, is often quoted, even though he left behind no writings of his own. Both men owe their legacies to followers who dutifully wrote down everything they said. The irony in Socrates’ case is that he thought writing was a poor method of retaining information because it eroded memory. By and large, he was probably correct about writing’s effect on our powers of recall. Yet human beings are still capable of prodigious feats of memory, thanks to mnemonic devices developed by the ancient Greeks.

Ben Pridmore, 2010 world memory champion, currently holds the record for memorizing playing cards by recalling the correct sequence of 28 randomly shuffled decks in an hour. Like most competitors in memory events, Pridmore relies on a technique called the method of loci, or memory palace, to associate items for memorization with specific locations in a remembered landscape. The Roman orator Cicero credited the method to the Greek poet Simonides, the sole survivor of a banquet hall collapse, who was able to identify the mangled corpses of victims by remembering their exact seating locations (loci). Such mnemonic devices were invaluable to poets and orators in antiquity who were expected to recite long passages from memory. Medieval monks used the same techniques to commit religious texts to memory at a time when writing was still cumbersome and expensive.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes likened his mind to an empty attic that he was careful to stock only with furniture that could later be retrieved to aid him in solving mysteries. The memory palace works on the same principle. Practitioners will stock a well-remembered place, such as their childhood home or the street where they grew up, with items they wish to recall in a specific sequence. Then they visualize this location, mentally retrieving each item they had deposited at stops along the way.

The memory palace works as a mnemonic device because it draws upon powerful spatial memory that we use to navigate the world. Think of the many places, past and present, that we can get around without getting lost: our home, our neighborhood, our place of work, the stores where we shop, the many routes we travel from here to there, the schools we attended, every nook and cranny of every place we have ever lived, cities we may have traveled to for business or pleasure. Each location has other memories attached to it: sounds, smells, people we know or once knew. Each location is another room in the mind's memory palace.

Although spatial memory is more reliable than our ability to recall names or faces, it is hardly foolproof. One time I returned after a long absence to the street where I had lived as a child and was surprised at how much smaller it seemed than what I remembered. We would like to think that rooms in our memory palace are always exactly as we left them, but we discover with time that furniture gets rearranged, and there are corridors that lead nowhere. Secret chambers, like the locked room in Bluebeard’s castle, hide repressed memories. We like to think that spatial memory is built on steel girders of time and space, but time and space as we have internalized them are themselves products of fallible memory. I saw this especially in my mother, who suffered from vascular dementia. She was robbed not only of her past but also of her ability to navigate the world. We may eventually come to discover that our memory palace is not some mighty fortress but a castle built in the air.

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