Brain, Things I Can

2. Things I Can Remember: The Memory Palace

Maybe someone out there is “naturally” good at remembering names. If you’re like me, you’re as terrible at recalling your new acquaintances as you are at holding onto phone numbers, the opening lines of a presentation, and the five things you need at Safeway. Thank god for speed dial, right? But honestly, it really isn’t helping the situation. With so many handy shortcuts on a device you can sneak out of your pocket, why bother learning to remember?

Once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today.

On the TED Radio Hour, science writer Josh Foer speaks about feats of memory. After attending the U.S. Memory Championship (yes, there is such a thing) as a journalist, he began practicing the techniques for fun. He returned the following year as a contestant.

And he won.

Is it a gift? He argues it’s not. It’s a skill — a rather simple one, in fact — and it can be learned.

The legend of the Memory Palace begins with Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. He attended banquet and left after his speech. When he walked out, the banquet hall crashed down behind him and killed everyone inside. The collapse crushed the bodies of the attendees beyond recognition. Calling up a visual map of the hall, Simonides was able to identify where everyone had been. He guided family members to their loved ones so the remains could receive a proper burial.

This rather grisly tale is the creation myth of the The Method of Loci , which uses space and the paths through it as a way to recall information. It’s a mnemomic device that Roman and Greek orators found useful before Evernote was a viable option.

Josh Foer clearly has more time on his hands than the rest of us. Even so, it’s striking that he managed to master these techniques in a year. “Build” and “palace” do not seem like the makings of a simple endeavor, but maybe it’s worth suspending disbelief and taking a shot.

Hell, if it’s good enough for Cicero, it’s good enough for me.

Tonight, I sit on the living room carpet and shuffle a deck of cards. I choose ten. This forces me to push my cart past the seven-item-or-fewer line at the short-term memory supermarket.

My memory palace is my parents’ house. I begin at the bottom of the driveway and end at the kitchen door. Ten cards, ten images. After I’ve drawn each one and placed it in the palace, I lay the cards face down before me.

Before I describe the process of “walking” through my parents’ house with playing cards, let me pause here to explain what happens after. I am still sitting on the same carpet. Barely three minutes have passed since I pulled the deck from the sleeve. I want to test myself to make sure I don’t cheat. On a scrap of paper, I jot down what I think the row of 10 faceless cards to be. Before I even begin, I realize that noting the cards is a silly exercise.

Without a scrap of doubt, I know I’ve got all ten memorized.

I type this now over an hour later, I haven’t so much as glanced at the cards in the interim. Even so, I recall them in order with perfect clarity:

  1. Nine of spades
  2. Ten of hearts
  3. King of clubs
  4. Four of diamonds
  5. Two of spades
  6. Queen of diamonds
  7. Nine of diamonds
  8. Eight of diamonds
  9. Two of diamonds
  10. Seven of hearts

Atta girl.

Foer’s right. This takes no special talent, and it’s no parlor game. It’s a skill. And it’s here for the taking.

Here’s how I strolled (forgive the mixed tenses here: I pulled the cards earlier, but I’m still walking through the palace now as I recall):

Again, I began at the bottom of my parents’ driveway.  I drew the first card. There leaning against the mailbox is a shovel with a big hoop off the handle (1). Then I drew the second card as I mosey up the driveway: on the big white pine tree, ten bleeding hearts drip like melting candy (2). I move over towards the garage. Standing by the door, Burger King is grinning like a fool as he juggles clubs (3). Just inside the garage, four gaudy rhinestones bejewel the handle of the deep freeze (4). To get through the back door and into the kitchen, I have to step over two muddy hand trowels (5). A woman in glittering robes is chilling at my parents’ kitchen table (6) with her handy sequined scepter on the chair next to her (7). For some reason, a rhinestone-beaded pillsbury doughboy is giggling and bouncing around on the butcher block island (8). Giant plastic diamonds are glued to the fridge and freezer door (9), and someone has strung a strand of valentine hearts across the top and crossing through the center of the doorway out to the hall (10).

Welcome to my memory palace. Now it’s just a matter of deciding which room will house the names of all my future acquaintances.

Want to build a palace of your own? Check out this WikiHow.

Have fun exploring!

4 thoughts on “2. Things I Can Remember: The Memory Palace”

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