A Memory Palace of Rome: What Makes Us Remember?

You’ve probably heard of memory palaces before now, either from a schoolteacher espousing them as a study method or their recent popularity in TV shows such as Hannibal and Sherlock. When I visited Rome this earlier this month I had set myself the goal of understanding this ancient art of memory whose roots lie with Greek philosophers and Roman orators.

Perhaps you have an idea in your head of how they work: Remember a place, walk around it, put some objects there that you want to remember, right? While this simplistic variant will perhaps allow you to memorize a phone number or a short shopping list, you may have difficulty tackling pi to 10,000 places or the order of a deck of shuffled cards! While the true mastery of this art doesn’t quite look like the palaces in Sherlock or those described in Hannibal it is a skill with near infinite possibility if one is willing to invest the time.

Unfortunately a lot of the ancient writings on memory palaces have not been preserved, but we can still piece together a powerful effective system from what survives. But, I’m guessing (Unless you are training for one of the many memory championships) memorizing Pi to 10,000 places is not very high up on your to-do list!? So how can we use the advanced rules of memory palaces to help us in our daily lives?

This is the exact question I asked myself last summer. If you’re interested in improving your memory at all, whether you’re a student with up coming exams, or a public speaker that has to remember long speeches, or perhaps all you want to do is remember the names of everyone in your new office, then perhaps memory palaces can help you.

Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

My first attempt at putting one into practice was in preparation for an exam. I used the foyer of the college building to memorize a list of traits. I found to my surprise when this area was questioned, my mental image sprung immediately to mind! This first attempt only had 12 images in it, but it made the process of memorizing this boring list significantly easier. I decided to tackle this project on a larger scale – far larger. After reading a number of books on the topic including the incredibly dry “The Art of Memory” and the far more accessible “Moonwalking with Einstein” I had a good idea of what kind of places I was looking for to put the theory into practice.

That is when I decided to visit Rome. Perhaps inspired by the palaces of Hannibal Lecter’s mind and their grandeur, or the books I had read calling for churches as the ideal palace. Or perhaps it was just my love of all things Roman and Renaissance that led me to wanting to build a palace that my mind would want to spend time in. After all, whatever location I ended up using was going to be somewhere I would be visiting a lot, so it needed to be interesting!

My plan was to use St Peters Basilica as the central chamber. Instead of simply walking from there into the next palace, on and on until I completed the route, I would be using the images stored in St Peter’s to represent the other palaces. Every time I walked up to one of these images I would enter it, as if the object was a portal, and be sucked away into the world it contained. Once I left that palace I would return through the same door to continue walking around St Peter’s. In a method similar to computer storage I’d be filing away layers of information so that within St Peter’s I could store perhaps 100 times as many images. The rest of the palaces I determined would be various points of interest around Rome with a focus on Churches as Basilicas as they comprised of many desired features for easy memory recall. Theoretically I could in the future expand this by doing the same to each of the second tier palaces, although I doubt I’d ever need a palace that large!

“Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.”
Oscar Wilde

How do they work?

If by now you’re totally confused and have no idea what I’m talking about then let me quickly go through how this memory training method works before plunging into the details. Our minds have been biologically programmed from our early hunter-gather days to have excellent visualization skills. Remembering the lay of the land was the most important task of the mind and so we have an excellent ability to map out our surroundings and remember them from the slightest stimuli. Ever had a whiff of a smell and suddenly been taken back to the street you grew up on? That’s the hunter-gather brain at work.

Memory palaces take advantage over this astounding visual memory that we all share. Instead of having to remember written or spoken words, something our brains were never well programmed for, we are converting the information into a pictorial form and storing it away in a predefined place, following a predefined route. Our first step is to learn our land, to do this we must build a perfect mental image of a location. Once we have done this we will imagine ourselves following the same path around this location over and over again stopping at certain points of interest. Finally, we populate those points of interest with symbols that are going to represent what we are trying to remember. Simple right?

Well not quite. There are rules for every aspect. What locations make for good palaces, what routes work best in the mind, where you should stop and when, and lastly how you should build the images that will symbolize the things you are trying to remember. The deeper you dig the more complexity you will uncover.

Over the next few weeks I’ll break down the memory palace technique into the following key areas:

  • Choosing a Palace location
  • Planning a Route
  • Where to put your loci ( Points of interest where you’ll be placing the images)
  • What makes a good memory image

So stick around if you’d like to learn more! And if this isn’t your thing don’t worry there will be plenty of other posts in-between!

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