Memory Techniques – The Method of Loci

Did you know it is possible to develop your memory to enable the quick and accurate recollection of facts? This article, the first in a series, shows some simple techniques that you can use to improve your memory. Whether for school, work, or pleasure; these techniques will help.

There are five main techniques that can be used to improve learning and retention. These techniques can be used as a student to allow you to improve retention of material, complete your homework faster, and recall it quickly during tests. These techniques are known as:

1. Method of Loci.

2. Pegwords.

3. Memorhymes.

4. PQ4R – Preview, Question, Read, Reflect, Recite, Review.

5. The fifth step is the most important. Get off your butt and start using the techniques.

The first three methods are systems to improve memory and recall. The fourth is an overview method that is used to fully engage the mind to remember the material studied.

The first of these methods is called the “Method of Loci,” or in plain English, the Location Method. It is also known as “The Memory Palace.” As the title indicates, this method involves matching items to be memorized with a well known location. Essentially, you would imagine yourself walking through a very familiar area (the road to the store, the various rooms of your house, etc) and place the items to be remembered in each location.

This type of memory technique is shown grippingly in the Hannibal Lecter novels by Thomas Harris. In it, the protagonist, the evil Dr. Lecter, is able to perfectly recall tremendous amounts of information using the Memory Palace technique. However, you don’t have to be a homicidal genius to use this method.

This is usually done as a logical progression or journey, For example, on your normal walk to the store, you would pass your front door, the mailbox, the newsstand, Baskin Robbins, etc. In your imagination, place an item from your list to memorize in each location. For example, if trying to memorize important dates for a history exam, you could place them in the proper time sequence by having the Gothic War of the Roman Empire on your doorstep, which is naturally before the founding of the Byzantine Empire at your mailbox, which is naturally before the High Middle Ages at the Baskin Robbins.

The strength of this method is that our brains are better organized to store locations than random facts. Traveling through these locations, as you would when giving someone directions, is something we do naturally.

The trick to this method, and indeed all of the methods covered, is to learn to use it quickly and consistently.

Here are the steps necessary to use the technique:

1. Pick a very well known area, either your home, school, or other place you are intimately familiar with. It is also important that the framework for your memory palace consist of places you can move through. Remember, we are trying to use the part of your brain that is involved with locations and movement. The journey is essential.

2. Next, list the features of the route you have just chosen. As in the example above, the front door, the mailbox, the store; all appear in a specific sequence as you travel. It is important that the features be memorable. You should have at least ten features for the first tryout.

3. How can you be sure you have the features memorized in the correct order? List them on 3 by 5 cards, randomize the cards by shuffling, and then lay them out in the correct order as fast as you can. When you can lay out the first ten features in order, add another five features. Remember, the more hooks you have to hang your memories on, more you can remember.

4. With the location or route memorized to perfection, it’s time to learn to use the technique. This technique is called a “Memory Peg.” Each one of the distinctive features mentioned above is a possible Memory Peg. To remember the items in order, you must use your visual memory to create a memorable (!) scene at that location. I find this the hardest part of the exercise, but making the scene memorable is to make it shocking or unusual. I usually use humor. For example, remember the old cartoon of two pigs screwing with the caption “Makin’ Bacon”? I use that image to represent bacon in my grocery list. So I walk through my door, see the pigs, and know I have to buy bacon. There will be a Humpty Dumpty on the mailbox to remind me of eggs, and so on until the list is complete.

5. And lastly, it is important that you practice the technique. Repeat the journey through your Memory Palace several times to cement the list in your mind. Take the journey backwards and forwards to see if going out of sequence causes problems. If it does, you know you will need to spend more time on this method.

This is a powerful method and is one used by most students who are regarded as having excellent memories. Many children rediscover this method on their own. The drawback is that it takes time to learn to use and much practice to perfect. You cannot learn it on Friday and expect to use it to study over the weekend for finals that start on Monday.

This is the first in a series of articles on memory techniques. Check the website for the follow on articles that discuss the other methods.

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