How a ‘mind palace’ can improve your memory

Remember me: Sherlock frequently refers to his “mind palace” in the BBC’s TV series. © BBC

The technique was invented by an ancient Greek and beloved by Sherlock Holmes. Now scientists say that anyone can create a “memory palace” to improve their recall. Is it really worth it?

Imagine entering the room you are in now, and walking around its edges. Note ten distinctive objects that you would walk past — a chair, a clock, a cupboard and so on. Now imagine completing this route a few more times, noting the same objects in the same order.

We are building your memory palace.

Once the route and the objects are clear in your mind, decide something you want to memorise, like a to-do list or the first ten digits of pi. Imagine walking your route again — but this time create a symbol that represents each thing you want to remember, and associate it with the objects. Your science teacher is sitting in the chair, reminding you to do your homework. The clock is dripping with milk, reminding you to pick up some semi-skimmed on your way home.

People have been using this mnemonic technique for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks and Romans used it (called loci, places, in Latin) to deliver lengthy speeches without notes. Today the world’s top “memory athletes” often use it; they can walk around multiple different “palaces” to access many rooms full of information.

These people are not born with their amazing ability. Yesterday in a study published in the journal Neuron, neuroscientists revealed that anyone can use the method to dramatically improve their memory: ordinary people went from being able to recall 26 out of 72 random nouns, to 62.

After 40 days their brain patterns had begun to resemble those of the memory athletes who had trained them.

“In school, I nearly failed,” said one of the athletes, neuroscientist Dr Boris Nikolai Konrad. Then he discovered tricks like the memory palace. “I still don’t know why we don’t teach this to kids, to people, much more.” Although the method is ancient, this is the first study to show how it affects the brain.

In the age of Google and Wikipedia, scientists have often found that people are forgetting things more easily than ever, a phenomenon known as “digital amnesia”. Does it matter?

Total recall

Of course, say some. Outsourcing memory to the internet is a risky move — what happens if technology fails us? Besides, remembering stuff is valuable in its own right. You never know when a snippet of past knowledge may help you to understand something new. What a relief that this study proves we can all start getting better at it again.

A waste of time, reply others. A good memory is not the same as genuine intelligence, and not nearly as useful. Last year, a survey found that 46% of people thought that relying on Google freed them up to be more creative. Why spend time filling your head with readily available facts when you could be learning to play the piano, or analysing the information instead?

You Decide

  1. Do you think that Google has made you more forgetful?
  2. How important is having a good memory?

Activities

  1. Use Google to research some things that you would like to remember without technology — such as quotes, or useful facts from a school subject that you struggle with. Write them down on a piece of paper.
  2. Using your answers to Activity 1, build your own memory palace to help you to remember them. Next week, see whether it has worked. What about next month?

Some People Say...

“A good memory is one trained to forget the trivial.”

Clifton Fadiman

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would I ever need to learn the digits of pi?
You’re right — this is unlikely to be useful in your everyday life. But there are many things that it could be useful to remember (especially if you have exams coming up!) and many more that are simply enjoyable to have memorised. Literature lovers may like to remember their favourite poems, for example. Scientists may take pleasure in remembering the periodic table.
Why does it work?
Humans are remarkably good at visual memory — often we can recall faces in great detail, but not names. So the “mind palace” is not about unlocking superhuman abilities; it is more like using a type of memory that we are naturally good at to help us with something we all struggle with. In this way, it seems like simple common sense.

Word Watch

Pi
For the record: 3.141592653.
Mnemonic
Something which is designed to help memory.
Ancient Greeks
According to tradition the technique was developed by the poet Simonides. The legend goes that he was attending a banquet, and briefly stepped outside. Then the roof caved in, killing and maiming the diners, leaving many unrecognisable. However, by visualising where they had been sitting, he was able to identify their bodies. He realised that visualising a place could help him remember other things too.
Brain patterns
The scientists used functional MRI machines to measure brain activity (how blood flows to specific regions). There were subtle differences between ordinary people and memory athletes, but they had become closer by the end of the study.
Dr Boris Nikolai Konrad
The scientist holds the world record for memorising faces and names: 215 people in 15 minutes.
Digital amnesia
A University of Birmingham study in October 2015 found that over half of people in the UK turn to computers to recall information first.
Survey
This was conducted by research firm Opinion Matters in March 2016.

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