• Mnemonic Techniques by Dr Jack Lewis

    Your Memory Palace should in fact NOT be a building where the royal family lives, but instead a location where you have an intimate knowledge of the layout (unless, of course, you happen to be a royal yourself, have been invited for tea, to receive a medal, or similar)

    Not so long ago most people didn’t know how to write and so if you needed to remember something your only option was to use your head. These days we tend to rely on various methods for jogging our memories such as post it notes, notebooks, diaries, the internet, smartphones and so on. But back in the day it was just you, your memory and tricks like the Memory Palace.

    Legend has it that the Memory Palace was invented in the 5th Century B.C. by a poet called Simonides of Ceos. He was the soul survivor of a catastrophe that may be the first ever documented cases of cowboy builders – an entire banqueting hall fell down all around him, killing every guest save himself. When asked who had been present, he is said to have closed his eyes and, in his mind’s eye, moved his attention around the room naming each and every person that had been in the room before the building collapsed. His Eureka! moment came when it occurred to him that this previously unknown human facility for recalling information from memory by moving sequentially around a location could be used to remember all sorts of information with a just a few slight tweaks.

    That makes the Memory Palace a very, very old technique that bards of antiquity from Simonides onwards used to memorise their poetry for the entertainment of many an Ancient Greek and Roman audience. Often the poems in questions were epics and using this particular memory trick they could recite verse for, quite literally, hours at a time. It is very much a tried and tested technique, having only gone out of fashion in recent decades. And if they could do that with it, just think how useful it could be for you.

    The contributers who used the chain mnemonic to remember 20 objects live on British television both improved marginally but those who played along in the comfort of their own home did much better!

    I described the chain mnemonic (a.k.a. memory trick) in both a previous brainpost and during my first appearance on THIS MORNING with ITV1’s Phillip Schofield and Jenni (a.k.a. Rachel – oops, you’ll know what I’m talking about if you were watching!) Falconer (in fact you can watch again if you live in the UK by clicking the link above). The two contributers whose challenge it was to memorise 20 objects live on television under the hot studio lights and the scrutiny of the nation improved, using the chain mnemonic, by one item each. Not as much as we had hoped for but, given the pressure, not bad all the same. However, a couple of viewers playing along in the comfort of their own home (and therefore without the distraction of feeling like they were being watched by thousands of people!) got in touch with me after the show via twitter to say that they improved from 12 out of 20 objects before they learned the chain mnemonic to 16 out of 20 afterwards and another said (claimed?!) that they managed to score a whopping 20 out of 20 using the chain mnemonic!

    The basic strategy for all mnemonic tricks, Memory Palace included, to make those memories “stickier” i.e. tougher to forget, involves:

    • intensely focusing your attention
    • vividly imagining the to-be-remembered items in your mind’s eye for about 20-30s each
    • imagining not just how it looks but how it sounds, smells, tastes and/or feels to the touch
    • imagining a scene that is dynamic, not static i.e. the object is doing something, not just sitting there
    • and make sure that whatever multisensory scene you dream up generates a potent emotion (e.g. frightening, rude, disgusting, bizarre etc.)

    The Memory Palace itself should be a real physical place where you know every nook and cranny like the back of your hand. Perhaps your primary/secondary school, your childhood house/flat, your current accomodation/place of work or a shopping/holiday desination you’ve been to many times. The idea is to use your imagination to take a SET PATH through that familiar location depositing the items you need to remember along the way. Having done this, you must subsequently retrace your steps in your mind’s eye, going to each nook and cranny where you placed your objects earlier and there they will be, firmly lodged in your memory.

    Whether memorizing teams that have won the football World Cup using the Chain or Memory Palace – my symbols for Spain, Italy & Brazil are a matador, pasta & Ronaldinho

    Often the items you want to recall aren’t actually physical objects, but that isn’t a problem, you just have to find an object that symbolically represents what you actually need to remember. For example, in my earlier brainpost about the Chain Mnemonic I demonstrated how I personally remember all the countries that have ever won the football World Cup. For me, the ultimate symbol of Spain (who won the World Cup most recently) is bullfighting, so my symbol for Spain is a matador in a bullring. My personal symbol for Italy is spaghetti. My personal symbol for Brazil is Ronaldinho etc. So although in the chain mnemonic my matador is holding a cape made out of woven Spaghetti which explodes everywhere when the charging bull’s horns make contact and then Ronaldinho turns up to add some Brazilian ingredients to my pasta dish to remind me that Spain won the cup in 2010, Italy in 2006 and Italy in 2002, when I used the Memory Palace trick I have a matador teasing a bull along the path that leads from the street to my house, spaghetti covering my my front door from top to bottom and Ronaldinho doing kickups in the hall.

    When you first try these tricks you’ll probably find that your imagination isn’t what it used to be and it’s a bit of a struggle to dream up scenes whacky enough to make the memory stick. But trust me, put in 20 minutes a day and in a week your imagination will be much better and much faster so the memorising part will become much more effective in no time at all.

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