How to get loci
In the year 384 BCE, a very peculiar kid was born.
He was brought up in a rich family, somewhere in the Athenian countryside. His father was a famous sword-maker and his mother a loving housewife. It was the perfect set up for him to grow healthy, rich, educated and influential. His family had the reputation, the money and, above all, the connections.
But it wasn’t all perfect; there seemed to be a little problem.
As years passed, his parents realized their son had serious trouble speaking. He stumbled, couldn’t really pronounce the letter “r”, and had real difficulties getting his messages across. They didn’t know it yet, but their son had a serious speech impediment. According to the best sources, his voice was:
“a perplexed and indistinct utterance and a shortness of breath, which, by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke”.Plutarch
That’s no bueno – especially during a time when public speaking and rhetoric were held to such a high standard. Athenians thought of politics as the highest career a man could partake in, so the kid’s father was deeply disappointed when he realized all his money, fame and network would be of no use to his son’s future. It’s okay though. Let’s not panic. I’m sure the boy could still excel in matters of physical training, right? Well, no. Not at all. He was also small, frail and often out of breath. He could barely run a mile without passing out. There wasn’t much this boy was good at… or so it seemed.
As you might have guessed, that can’t be the end of the story – for a few reasons. For one, I wouldn’t be wasting your time and mine by telling you about it. But most importantly, some obvious questions remain in the air: why do we know who he was, almost two and a half millennia later? Why do we know so much about his personal life? Why care about a fragile little kid with an unpromising future?
The answer to all of those is very simple: because he proved us all wrong.
That kid was Demosthenes. If you are a fan of ancient Greek history, I’m sure the name will ring a bell. After all, Demosthenes grew up to become one of the most important statesmen and public speakers in history. His speeches influenced the Greek art of rhetoric for centuries. Later, other wildly famous orators like Cicero and Quintillian referred to him as “the standard of oratory” ,“the one who stands alone among all other speakers” and even “the perfect orator who lacked nothing”.
That little kid – to put it bluntly, that nobody – grew up to shatter every single low expectation placed on him. More than two thousand years later, we still study his speeches. More than two thousand years later, his name lingers in our history books. More than two thousand years later, his imposing bust casts a shadow in the Louvre.
What a badass.
When he was 7 years old, Demosthenes was orphaned. He was then passed on to his caretakers – who (surprise!) did everything but take care of him. The three men went on to abuse their power over the child. They mistreated him, they manipulated him, and they stole his father’s fortune.
Demosthenes grew up in hell – but in hell he grew up mean.
A few years later, he decided to fight back against his abuse. He made a goal to denounce and defeat his caretakers in a court of law. Alas, nobody really cared to defend the boy, so he chose to take matters into his own hands: he would defend himself against the jury.
Demosthenes spent the next years training his ability to speak. But he wouldn’t just practice reading texts and trying to keep his speech impediment under control, no. That was too easy for him. Instead, he locked himself in his house and shaved half of his head, to assure that he would be too ashamed to go out in public. He would not come out again until his speech impediment was a thing of the past. He began by practicing oration with small rocks and pebbles in his mouth, which would force him to work extra hard to get the pronunciations right. Once he got good at that, he began reciting speeches whilst running uphill or projecting his voice over the roar of the waves that crashed against the Hellenic cliffs.
Demosthenes’ training was extremely rigorous. It had to be. Being a public speaker in the ancient times was no joke. Think about it, the Greeks had no TV, no newspaper, no phones. When important announcements needed to be made, it was time for orators to step in. They were the radios of the time. Hundreds of people would gather around a single speaker, and he would do his absolute best to persuade and inform the crowd.
His arguments needed to be powerful; his words, precise; his delivery, perfect.
What shocked me when I first learned about Demosthenes’ speeches (besides, you know, the fact that he practiced them with rocks in his mouth) was their length. Men like him were famous for giving talks that lasted two, three or even four hours. They weren’t improvising – they were reciting. How the hell did they do that? Nowadays we panic when we have a 15-minute presentation, even though we have boring PowerPoint slides to support ourselves with. How can anyone memorize a speech that is a dozen times longer than that and deliver it with ease? Even if you haven’t memorized it verbatim, you must still know the sequence of arguments by heart.
This blew my mind, so I looked into it. It didn’t take long to discover a fascinating fact. Those people you see on TV nowadays memorizing thousands of digits of Pi, or a deck of cards in under a minute? They use the same memorization technique that Demosthenes used to deliver his most famous performances in ancient Greece.
So, whether you want to quickly remember a lot of information for an exam, or you want to memorize a speech that will fan the flaming hearts of Greek citizens against the imminent invasion of Macedonian King Philip II and his soon-to-be-warlord son Alexander the Great, this technique will work wonders.
This mysterious system is called The Method of Loci, and today we are going dive right into it.
MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME
Welcome to my crib. It’s not much, but it’s enough for now. Let me show you around.
If you look to your left, right next to the entrance, you will see a group of old men loading coal into some money-printing machine. And if you follow me along, soon you will see a flickering lamp that we just can’t seem to get fixed. I know, I know, it’s not very luxurious – but have you seen the views from the window? Look, you can see a bunch of intertwined highways full of American monster trucks.
I’ve not gone crazy; at least not yet. The paragraph above is a simple example of how you can use The Method of Loci. I know it looks like absolute nonsense… but let me explain.
You may have heard about this method with a different name: The Mind Palace. Yes, it’s the one Sherlock Holmes uses in the books, movies, and series. I call it the Mind Crib because it’s a little less pretentious, and because I get to walk you through it just like an MTV star who’s desperate to stay relevant in today’s rotten pop culture.
Regardless of semantics, the method works like this:
A Memory Palace is an imaginary storage place for your mind, one where you can keep things you want to memorize. I don’t mean “place” lightly: we are literally talking about a location. Your Memory Palace should be a location you can visualize easily and inside which you can store information. The end-goal is to create a path through that familiar place and fill it with stops or stations (Loci in Latin) where your information will be placed. This is known as the Memory Journey. In summary:
- Memory Palace: An imaginary place where you store information.
- Memory Journey: The path you take within that place to recall the information.
Sounds confusing? Let’s try a simple example. Here is a list of 8 words:
If I gave you 30 seconds to memorize these (in order!) you might try the old method of repeating them very quickly in your head, hoping that the sequence will stick. And you know what? Perhaps it would work just fine. But if I asked you to tell me the list again in 5 minutes… I doubt it would be a success.
With the Memory Palace you can easily memorize these 8 words, and you will remember them for days, weeks or even months. Here’s how to do it in 5 easy steps, I call them the 5 “P”s.
- Picture a familiar space, like your room, house, office, etc.
- Plan a specific route within that space and walk through it mentally (maybe clockwise, maybe the route you usually take… whatever you want).
- Pick certain spots, within that route, on which you will place the information (perhaps a table, a chair, a closet, a sink, etc.)
- Place images for the words that we wrote down within those spots, according to your route.
- Practice and familiarize yourself with the space to recall the information.
In our example, perhaps you would open the door to your bedroom and would find a sleeping monkey right in front of it. Then as you turn to your bed you see that it has a can of Coke on top, and a bunch of hammers in your nightstand table. Then you would find some oysters in your closet and a mailman next to the window, then…
Sure, it seems a little better than simply repeating the words mentally, but this is quite tedious. And are you sure you would remember that there were hammers laying on your table? Maybe you would think that’s where the oysters were. And what if the things you had to remember were abstract? Does this only work for lists of random words?
I hear you. It’s time to give our Mind Palace some steroids.
In order to truly make this technique effective, you need to keep in mind three rules about the things you want to remember:
- It just needs to be a cue: The image does not need to be exactly what you want to remember; it can just be something that reminds you of it.
- It needs to be dynamic: If the image moves, you will be much more likely to remember it. Your mind is much better at discerning things that move – that’s how it has always noticed predators.
- It needs to be absurd: The more absurd, the better. This is the most important rule. You won’t remember boring and expected things; you will remember funny and absurd ones.
With that in mind, let’s walk through our example again:
Imagine you open the door to your room now and find a bloated monkey, laying down, chugging a 2L bottle of Coke. He sees you and quickly gets up. He jumps into your nightstand, picks up a tiny red hammer and smashes a gigantic oyster that was sitting on your bed. The oyster cracks open and out comes a mailman. He approaches you and hands out a package. You open it and realize it’s full of bees, so you run to the closet to hide – only to find a witch right inside of it, tripping on LSD.
As you can see, we made the images be a cue (e.g. LSD being a type of acid drug), we made them dynamic (e.g. running monkey) and we made them absurd (e.g. giant oyster with a mailman inside). This makes memorizing the items infinitely easier.
Don’t just take my word for it, try it out with random items yourself. The reason I know this is much easier to remember is because I memorized this exact list of items around 4-5 years ago, when I first learned about this technique… and I still remember it. I have merely tried to recall it a couple of times since, and it was always surprisingly easy to do so.
Dr. Nils Mueller, neuroscientist at Radboud University, became particularly interested in “memory masters” – that is, people who have proven their almost-superhuman capacity for recalling information at world championships. His team wanted to prove whether or not the brains of memory masters were wired differently that those of mere mortals like you and I. The answer was, quite surprisingly, no. Their ability came from training with the right tools, not from being biologically gifted.
In a 2017 study published by Martin Dresler & colleagues, researchers put together 23 of the most renowned memory masters in the world against 51 average joes with no history in mnemonic training whatsoever. Both groups were then given 20 minutes to memorize a list of 72 words. The memory masters would use their well-established memorization technique (the Mind Palace), and the rest of participants would try to learn the words however they wanted. After the time was elapsed, the researchers tested both groups and noted down how many words they were able to memorize.
The group of memory masters was able to recall an outstanding 71 words out of 72, on average. The group of average Joes, though, could only remember around 26.
But the study doesn’t end there.
The group with no memory training was then subject to, well, memory training. For 6 weeks, 30 minutes a day, they were taught how to develop a Mind Palace. After the regime was over, they had to memorize a different list of 72 words again. After only a little more than a month of training, the participants were able to recall more than double the amount of words than they did in the beginning – scoring an impressive 62 out of 72. What’s even more impressive is that, even 4 months after the study concluded – and without having had any additional training – the participants were still able to recall an average of 48 words. That’s almost double the 26 they could memorize on their very first attempt. Not so average anymore.
There are two mains reasons why the Method of Loci (or the Memory Palace) is such an incredibly effective method.
First, around 60% of your brain is devoted to processing vision, in one form or another (I don’t mean strictly seeing but rather seeing and tracking, locating, spatial navigation…). You have a vast amount of neural tissue that is more than happy to deal with visual and spatial information. Your brain loves figuring out what things are, as well as where they are. We have evolved as hunter-gatherers, after all, so it makes perfect sense that we rely so heavily on seeing (predators, prey, plants, etc.) and locating (following tracks, remembering where food was, etc.). The Method of Loci makes use of both advantages.
Second, humans are not computers – we are social animals. It is much easier for us to remember information that has an emotional component to it, rather than just random bits of data with no connection. We love placing valuable insights within stories and have oral traditions that go back to the very dawn of our civilization. The Method of Loci works best when you can make little stories within it. If you make the information have an emotional component to is (make it funny, absurd, sad, etc.) you will truly start milking the best out of it.
There is a reason why all the best memory masters adhere to it: the method of Loci takes full advantage of how your brain works.
By this point I assume you are both interested and slightly disappointed. The technique seems very impressive, but we rarely need to memorize lists of random words. Isn’t it a bit useless then? No, not at all – you just have to use it right.
Let me give you a personal example.
A couple of years ago I did a university exchange program in Toronto, Canada. If you have ever been an exchange student, you know those semesters are known for being quite loose in terms of workload. It was all fun and games until I woke up one day and realized I had an exam about Canadian national and foreign policies the next day, and I had yet to buy the class book. In the midst of chaos and desperation, I did what any student worth his salt would have done: waste all day complaining about how much there is to study, without actually studying at all.
I knew I would be in trouble because the exam consisted of open questions, it wasn’t a standardized multiple-choice question test (MCQ).
There is a reason most students find MCQ tests to be easier than open-question ones: the former asks you to recognize information, whereas the latter asks you to recall information. Recognizing is way easier than recalling. If I showed you a picture of a man you met a couple of weeks ago, you would most likely tell me that you can recognize him. But what if I asked you his name? Would you be able to recall it? Probably not, at least unless I gave you a list of 4 different name options… in which case you would only have to recognize it again. If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language like Mandarin or Japanese, you will have noticed that reading is significantly easier than writing.
The same principle applies: recognizing is easy, recalling is not.
Back to my Canadian odyssey. It was starting to get late, and I decided to go all-in with the Method of Loci because I simply did not have enough time to study the conventional way. I sat down with the information and simply tried to place it all in my mental dorm room, according to a specific path. I focused on following the 3 rules (cue, dynamic, absurd) as much as possible. After a couple of hours, I went to bed. The next day, I woke up early, walked through my Mind Palace a couple more times, made some simple adjustments and just went straight to the exam.
At the risk of sounding slightly insufferable, I am happy to say I got the best grade in the class.
Let’s get something straight here: this is simply evidence of how effective the technique is. I don’t have incredible memory, and I clearly don’t have a great study regime. I simply had the best tool for the job. Even if you were the best lumberjack in history, I would probably cut down a tree before you if I had an axe and you were using a pool noodle (I mean, I hope). The Mind Palace is such a great tool that two years after the exam, I can still list some of the policy information. Remember the Mind Crib example I gave before about the American monster trucks and the old men loading coal into a money-printing machine? Those are some of the images I used for it.
The beauty of the Mind Palace technique is that it’s virtually expandable ad infinitum. You can always place new cues that remind you of things you struggle remembering. Even if you were studying something as vast as Canadian policies, you can dedicate certain zones within your palace for the different cues (e.g. my room is going to be about monetary policies, my bathroom about fiscal policies, my closet about environmental policies, etc.). That doesn’t mean you need to place all of the information within your palace – you just need enough to not forget the overall message. If you have read the information, the remaining bits and pieces of info will come by themselves with enough context.
Hopefully by now you have been bitten by the memory bug and will start implementing this method in your daily life. This goal of the article was not to teach you everything about it, but to introduce the topic, pique your interest and help you discover whether or not this is something you would like to get into. In order to really drive this home, I will list down below some of the best resources on the Memory Palace (and mnemonic training in general) that I have come across: