Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan


The Beauty of a Memory Palace.

Two days into my new memory challenge and I have realised that it is more than just learning endless facts.  Using this loci method has allowed me to go into my past and re-live times that are otherwise slowly slipping away and becoming more and more ephemeral with the passage of time.

Pictures of past holidays are all very well but they don’t conjure up the same type of spatial, kinaesthetic, auditory, and olfactory senses that you get from actually walking around an environment and interacting with it.

For learning the european capitals and countries, I used the house we have rented in France for the past few years and trace a small route around the kitchen, living room, and lower bedroom.  With the geological periods I quickly run round my family home, and with my most recent conquest, (all 54 African states in 20 mins) I have re-imagined a place from my childhood which had once been close to my heart.

This place was my grandparents old house in Hastings.  However, with the passage of time, my memory has fragmented and rooms are interspaces with a cloudy grey haze.  With some effort I managed to re-create the environment and quickly nipped around giving it a spring clean and refurnishing.

The wonderment of modern technology allowed me to search for the house today using Google maps and it brought back a flood of memories which made me well up slightly. This cul-de-sac suburban scene is identical to what I remember, and seems to have not changed, although the house seems to be half as small. Then again, I was also half as small so it would appear twice as big.

Now that I have these palaces, I can revisit them at any time, not only preventing them from slipping away, but also re-living some good times in my life, and at the same time learning a list of things that makes someone like Fiona or Laurence want to punch me.

(P.s. Now working on incorporating other techniques into the memory palace to exponentiate what I can learn. Numbers are a tricky but necessary step. I’ll let you know what these techniques are and how I get on.)



1 Comment

The Memory Palace: How to Improve your Memory

I’ve always been interested in memory, and studied it extensively in my 4th year of university. I devoured anything that talked about improving your memory, and was a massive fan of Derren brown when he first came about.

What particularly struck me was an episode where he had memorised every word in a book. If I could somehow master this, revising for exams would be a breeze. I’m quite proud of my memory and have always done well on exams, but it requires massive amounts of time and effort, and not something that can be done overnight.

There is something magical about looking at a topic* which at first is alien and impossible, but which (hopefully) becomes second nature and requires very little effort to recall.

During exams I can usually recall where on the page I learnt a thing, what song I was listening to, and where I was sitting. For one 3rd year, myself and my flatmate (JS) had done so many past-papers and quizzed one another, that doing the exams required very little effort despite being impossibly hard at first.

Now that I’ve finished University, knowing discrete facts is less important to my daily life. It is indeed less important to most peoples lives, what with smartphones taking a lot of our metal capacity and externalising it. Apps for ToDo lists, films to watch, songs to download, events to remember etc.

A few months back I watched a TED talk (LINK) about the journalist Joshua Foer who went to report on a memory championship. With an average memory, he wondered how these people were different to himself. Upon talking to the contenders, they all said that they weren’t smarter than anyone else, but practiced methods for learning things that meant they could memorise thousands of binary digits in minutes, and 27 decks of cards in (15 minutes) etc.

One of the contenders told him that he should compete at the next world championship, which he scoffed at, but agreed to some training in the art of these memory techniques which have not differed sine Greek times, and used massively by Cicero to memorise speeches.

Skip forward several months and this Journalist who had no particularly skill competed in the world championships, and won! Reading the book of this amazing journey, I have begun trying out the techniques used by Cicero and others for thousands of years,and last night decided to learn some things I had either forgotten or had no idea about. I choose geological periods, (forgotten), UK prime ministers (from George V to present) (novice) and US presidents (novice).

I picked a memory palace to work with and started at the corner of my house, walking round the back and down the steps to the back door. Turning left I climbed the spiral staircase into my sister’s old room and on through to the middle room where I came to the end of my walk.

This is a place I can easily recall without effort and i encourage the reader to imagine your own house, quickly walking through all the rooms. Pretty easy right. Now imagine a house you have only been in once, or not for a very long time, and you will also see that a lot of detail remains. Each spacial map can be your memory palace.

The trick is creating lots and lots of maps. Imagine old flats, the journey to work, the house of a friend, or even your own body. By using these places as your route map you also aid in remembering places that may have slipped your mind, and keep old memories alive.

To build new palaces, just go for a walk and focus on the route, or indeed just recall a level of your favourite computer game. I’m going to try one based on a Tony Hawks level later (the skater). I won’t bore you with the details of how to use your palace (see here), but encourage you to sit down for 10 minutes maximum, and learn a list of things you previously had no idea about (pick 15-20 words to start with). Spend 5-7 minutes on encoding lists of names into visual images and placing them within your home. Provided the imagery is vivid, exciting, and dirty enough, you’ll be able to recall this list without any more effort than it requires to walk the route in your head.

This morning i was able to regurgitate all of the facts i had remembered with hardly any effort, all within a few seconds. As long as I travel through my route later on today, perhaps in 3 days, and then 2 weeks, with lager and larger intervals, these things should stay in my long term memory (LTM) indefinitely.

We’ll see. I shall try these techniques on learning some Chinese today, but it’s famously hard to make pictures of words which have no grounding in English.

Any suggestions on what my next challenge should be? I’ve not tackled numbers yet, but might do the periodic table or something.

Eventually when i’m good i’ll try and memorise a poem or something poncey like Shakespeare. Ideas for challenges welcome.

* Topic comes from the latin topos for topographical because you would imagine each point of your speech (topic) as a particular location in your memory palace.

(Note to self: Invent a compute program that capitalised i’s when they’re by themselves. Highly annoying. i –> I