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A grand palace

Make your mind a palace by installing this memory aid

There are few things in the modern world more impressive than a person who can stand in front of an audience and speak naturally, without saying ‘um’ every other sentence, or leaving awkward pauses where they’ve forgotten what they were going to say. Committing a speech to memory and then presenting your points logically and articulately is like a little bit of magic in the everyday, and if you’re looking for top marks for your presentation, it’s the perfect way to get them. Unfortunately, for most people, the capacity to memorise a speech doesn’t exactly come naturally, and it’s easy to find yourself staring intently at your cue cards instead of engaging with your audience.

But, if you’re looking for a solution, you’ve come to the right place. The method of loci could be a great tool for your memory recall needs. This technique, also known as the Memory Palace technique or the journey method, dates back to 500 B.C. It was devised during the Roman Empire by orators who needed to remember the structure and content of their speeches. Fast forward to the 21st Century and people today are still using the method of loci for the same reasons our ancestors did.

To go into more detail about this particular method, Dr Stefanie Sharman from Deakin University’s School of Psychology discusses the nuances of one of the oldest known memory aids we still use today.

Beginning your memory journey

‘In this method, you need to visualise a well-known place and imagine a journey through it,’ Dr Sharman explains. She suggests your house is easiest to use, as you’ll be able to easily remember its layout (we hope!) From here you simply need to assign each item you wish to remember with a location on your journey. ‘If you have 10 items that you want to remember, then you should have 10 locations on your journey,’ Dr Sharman says.

‘You may start your journey at the front door (where you will place item one), then go through into the hallway (where you will place item two). Next, you might go into your bedroom (where you will place item three), and so on,’ she explains.

Thanks to the versatility of this memory aid, those items could be just about anything you need to remember. However, Dr Sharman highlights that ‘it’s best for remembering lists of items; important points in a speech; names of people at an event or meeting; things you need to do; even a thought you want to keep in mind.

‘It’s particularly helpful for information that needs to be remembered in a particular order, such as the points in a speech,’ she explains.

With this method, as with most memory aids, it helps to make the mental images unusual, to remember them more vividly. ‘The item at the front door may be unusually large and blocking the door. The item in the bedroom might be asleep in your bed,’ Dr Sharman says.

'In this method, you need to visualise a well-known place and imagine a journey through it.'

Dr Stefanie Sharman,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

If it’s good enough for the Romans, it’s good enough for you

The method of loci has long stood the test of time as a useful memory aid, and it comes down to the simplicity of the technique. Dr Sharman explains, ‘you don’t need to memorise pegs first (as in the peg-word method) because you use a well-known, familiar place or journey as your structure.’ This means you’ll save a lot of time when you’re ready to start memorising.

Dr Sharman also points out, ‘you can make the journey very long if you need to remember a lot of items. You can also place more than one item at each location and make them interact in an unusual way to be more likely to remember them.’

Affording you the capacity to recall large quantities of information isn’t a strong suit of many other memory aids, so it’s an advantage that sets the method of loci apart from the rest.

But that’s not to say it’s perfect

Despite having many benefits, the method of loci is not without its flaws. Because of the structural nature of the mnemonic, ‘it is difficult to locate a particular item without having to go through all the items on the list in turn,’ Dr Sharman explains. Instead you would have to reimagine your journey from the start until you reached the point you wanted to recall.

As with other memory aids, by repetitively using the method of loci you may find that lists previously used may begin to interfere with each other, especially when the same locations are used each time. To avoid this, Dr Sharman says, ‘it’s best to use different locations for each set of to-be-remembered items.’

So, the next time you need to bolster the strength of your memory – whether it’s to nail that presentation, or remember the names of people at a dinner party – the method of loci just might be the key step.

Want more on strengthening your memory? Learn more about how some other memory aids can help.

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Dr Stefanie Sharman
Dr Stefanie Sharman

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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