When I was first starting this blog, I wrote a well-received article about speed-reading. I said that I wanted the power to read at superhuman speeds and have perfect recall of everything I read. I went on to remark that perfect recall was a topic for another day. Today happens to be that day. People can train themselves to memorize incredible amounts of information and increase their awareness; the first recorded example of this comes from Simonides of Ceos, a Greek poet from 500 BC:
There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem he had composed in honor of his host, in which he included a customary passage referring to Castor and Pollux. Scopas was quite rude to Simonides and refused to pay him. A little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; he rose from his seat and went out, and could not find the two men; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the banquet hall fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but could not tell the mangled bodies apart, Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment.
Simonides’ method, now known as the memory palace, is a widely reputed way to commit mountains of data to memory. To investigate this topic, we turn to Joshua Foer, a US Memory Champion. He relates that the method he uses is considered the best among competitive memorizers the world over; in fact, it’s the same method that bards and orators of old used to memorize speeches, poems, and even epics like The Illiad. Foer notes that astounding memory, in those ancient times, was not terribly impressive because people had to memorize everything. This is where innovation has led us astray: writing, the printing press, phones, computers, and other technology has fundamentally altered our innate capacity to memorize. We are handicapping ourselves by forcing our memory into devices and books, rather than exercising our brains.
To rectify this, Foer studied master memorizers and realized that, despite being mostly normal in terms of brain anatomy and general intelligence, different parts of their brains lit up when memorizing. This is because memorization is easiest when it’s visual: the stranger, sillier, or raunchier you make a memory, the more likely you are to remember it. Something called the Baker / baker paradox illustrates this. Walk up to someone and say you need them to memorize that there is a guy named Baker. Tell another person that they need to remember that a guy is a baker. Come back later and ask if they remember the fact you told them. Fewer people will remember the name versus the profession; this is because the name is untethered and has no sensory information attached to it. On the other hand, we can imagine a baker putting a loaf into the over or the smell of a fresh cake or the cozy warmth of the bakery. With all of that extra, connotative information from the profession of baking, it’s easier to memorize that someone is a baker.
By using a memory palace, you can add sensory detail to even the dullest of information. The first step is to create a somewhat complex location in your imagination; the more familiar it is to you the better, because you need to be able to envision its details. It could be a school, office building, house, or the town you went to college in. Now take a tour of your location in your mind’s eye— I know this sounds like some crazy, New Age stuff, but people have been using this technique for millennia. Just suspend your disbelief. As you’re walking through your chosen location, start sectioning it off. In a house or office, that might be room by room. In a town, you could separate it by neighborhoods, streets, or landmarks. The separations don’t matter that much as long as you can divide your space into the same number of units as the information you want to memorize.
Once you’ve got your location stored in your mind, you can start mapping your information onto visual cues, which you can then store in your memory palace. Let’s say you want to memorize a talk you’re going to give on thinking like Leonardo da Vinci. According to Peter Fisk, da Vinci had incredible curiosity, an eye for detail, a simultaneous gift of seeing the big picture, an ability to connect the dots, an affinity for paradox, a bias toward action, and an awareness of his own embodied cognition. If we want to memorize these very quickly, we can encode them in our memory palace.
Let’s say the memory palace we’ll work with is a house. As you walk from outside to the front door, you see a dead cat (curiosity killed it). You turn to face the cat and see the woods that surround your house, first noticing a tree and then the whole forest (small details to big picture). You enter your home and see that a ceiling panel has been removed, revealing all of the plumbing and wiring that make your home run smoothly (systems thinking, connect the dots). You walk past your staircase and gaze at the M.C. Escher painting on the wall; it depicts endless staircases that flow into each other (paradox). You remember you need to make dinner and you go do that immediately (bias to action). While you are cooking, you see a family member on your treadmill with a poster of a brain in front of them (embodied cognition). Now, run through the scenario in your head a few times and see if you can remember all of da Vinci’s traits. Chances are, you can!
Also published on Medium.