Random access mnemonics

Moonwalking with Einstein is a fascinating book about the art of memorization. It describes in a vivid and engaging way the method of loci, aka the “memory palace”. When I first heard of the idea of remembering stuff by putting it in an imaginary house, I scoffed—I have literally never remembered where my keys are, and I regularly open the wrong cupboard to get out a mug. Why would imagining things being in places in my house help me to remember them at all?

Of course, there’s more to the method of loci than that. The reason for using a house or other place to remember things is that it turns out humans have a fantastic capacity for remembering spatial layouts. It would hardly be a taxing task, for example, to draw a floor plan of the house you grew up in, no matter how many years ago that was. You could probably draw pretty accurate floor plans of most of your friends’ houses, too, even though you only went there a few times and it was 15 years ago. Isn’t that incredible?

There’s also a fascinating study in which people were presented with a series of several images, displayed one after another in rapid succession, so fast that you can barely perceive the content of each image, much less remember it. Half an hour later, show them two images side by side, one of which was previously displayed, the other of which they have never seen before, and ask which one they recognize. People are extremely good at this task, often correctly identifying every single previously-displayed image. (I couldn’t find the reference for this study, but I did find this paper describes some similar effects, focused on quantity rather than accuracy.)

One of the downsides of the method of loci is that it is sequential. The way it works is by imagining you’re walking along a path through your house, and at certain places you ‘place’ a vivid image that calls to mind the thing you want to remember. Recalling the original sequence entails imagining yourself taking the same path again, and at each marker along the way seeing the image you placed there previously, and associating it back to the thing you wanted to remember. This works fantastically well for remembering the order of a deck of cards, a shopping list, or the states in the union, but not so well for things you want to recall in no particular order, or without going through the whole list from the beginning.

Anyway, Moonwalking with Einstein is a fantastic book and you should read it.

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