“It’s all about technique and understanding how the memory works. Anyone could do it, really.” – Ben Pridmore, three-time World Memory Champion
“When you improve your memory, you improve everything.” – Kevin Horsley, author
Our brains are unbelievably powerful. Most neuroscientists estimate that we can hold somewhere between 10 and 100 terabytes of information, with the full range of guesses spanning from 1 terabyte to 2.5 petabytes.1 To put that number in perspective, it’s enough to store 3 million hours of video. According to Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, “You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.”2
So why can it be so hard to remember things? The problem is that once we put something in our memory, we have to know how to retrieve it. All that storage space doesn’t do any good unless we can access the information we’re trying to remember. It’s kind of like having several huge warehouses full of shelves – without knowing what stuff goes where everything would just get lost. But with an organizational structure, or even a map, that storage space becomes practical and useful.
2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks figured out a method to easily organize and remember information. Today, that same technique is used by competitors in the World Memory Championships. Called the journey method, the method of loci, or the memory palace, it’s a simple to learn strategy that can help us make the most of our memories.
The Anatomy of a Memory
Our brains are made up of hundreds of billions of interconnected cells, known as neurons. Memories are formed through the connections between those neurons – the more connections, the better. Remembering phone numbers can be hard, but if you put those numbers to music and tell Jenny, “I’m gonna make you mine,” it’s not so hard to remember 867-5309.
Journalist turned memory champion Joshua Foer describes these connections in his great book, Moonwalking With Einstein. “All of our memories are bound together in a web of associations,” Foer explains. “This is not merely a metaphor, but a reflection of the brain’s physical structure. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons.”
So to have a great memory, we’ve got to create more connections.
The Journey Method – Method of Loci – Memory Palace
As the story goes, Simonides of Ceos was attending an extravagant banquet when he was called outside to meet some friends. In a flash, the great hall collapsed behind him and crushed everyone inside. Though all of the bodies were damaged beyond recognition, legend has it that Simonides identified the deceased by remembering the location of the tables and where each person had been sitting.3
Today, instead of tables and great halls, most memory champions use more familiar locations. The general idea is to create a sequence of places that you know well and can easily visualize (“loci” is Latin for “place”), and then fill those places up.4 By using places that you already know well, you’re tapping into a vast network of pre-existing connections between neurons. When you fill the place up with ideas or concepts, you link that new information to the things that are already stored in your memory.
Simonides’ places were filled with people, but the strategy can be used to remember anything. All you have to do is turn whatever concept you wish to remember into something you can visualize – like a picture. “Hear a piece of information and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it,” explains John Medina, biologist, and author of Brain Rules. “Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”
So great memories are made up of two components: a place and a picture. When you add in practice, you get what I like to call the 3P method for a powerful memory. Let’s explore how it works.
The 3P Method for Remembering Anything: Places, Pictures, and Practice
The first thing to do is to create your personal memory palace. Think about a place that you know really well, some place that you have a strong memory of.
One of the most common strategies is to start with your childhood home. Try it out now. Imagine opening your front door, going inside, and walking through the house. What’s the first room you enter? What path do you take through the house to get to the kitchen or your bedroom? Where is the furniture?
Alternatively, you can start smaller and use a place like your car, or even your body.
Whatever you choose, go through the location and mentally mark off distinct storage areas. For example:
- in the kitchen – you might have a location in the fridge, on the stove, in the sink, in the cupboard, in the dishwasher, on the counter, or on the table
- in the car – you might have a location on the hood, in the grill, on the dashboard, in the mirror, on the seat, around the steering wheel, or in the trunk
- on the body – you might have a location on your feet, on your knees, on your thighs, at your belly button, in your left hand, in your right hand, on your shoulders, in your mouth, or on your head
Next, fill up your place with pictures that represent the concepts and ideas you are trying to remember. “It’s important that you deeply process that image, so you give it as much attention as possible,” explains Ed Cooke, a recognized Grand Master of Memory. “Things that grab our attention are more memorable, and attention is not something you can simply will. It has to be pulled in by the details.”
The funnier, more bizarre, and sexier your pictures, the better. Wait, sexier? Yep. As Joshua Foer explains, “Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.”
Take each idea and form an image. Once you have the image, store it in the next location in your memory palace.
- grocery lists – your toes are made out of giant stalks of broccoli that crunch when you walk, you have grapefruits balanced on your knees…
- the first presidents – a supermodel is washing a ton of clothes in front of your car, she is being photographed by a person with a huge adams apple…
Any chance you get, practice filling up your memory palace. Then when it comes time to use it, you’ll be a pro. Next time you go for a walk, try turning the street names into images and putting them into your houses. Clark street can become an image of the explorer Lewis Clark, wearing a coonskin hat and floating on a raft in the sink. Lasalle can become a bunch of hot Hollywood (L.A.) actresses (or actors) holding up “for sale” signs and dancing around your refrigerator.
When it comes time to remember, just take a journey through your memory palace and see what you find! Once you no longer need to remember the information, clear the images by visualizing the palace completely empty. If you need to remember the information long term, leave it where it is and create a new memory palace to fill with new ideas.
- Forrest Wickman writing for Slate [↩]
- http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-memory-capacity/ [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simonides_of_Ceos [↩]
- Ad Herennium [↩]