Make Loci on a Car Trip

You can “store” memories in real-life places, or “loci”, that you remember well. You might think that you would run out of memorable places. Actually, you can make loci out of places you only see once. It’s time to change the way you think about pit stops.

Unlikely loci: transforming the humble pit stop

On a recent car trip, I was reviewing a long poem that I’d hoped I’d mastered months ago. Turns out I hadn’t. Deep down, I’d always known that certain passages were just too repetitive. But when those passages came up for review after a long interval, I was even shakier than I expected. So I finally decided to add some visual mnemonics.

But those mnemonics had to go somewhere, and I didn’t have any loci ready. The problem was still unsolved as we pulled over to get some gas.

My daughter and I went into the gas station store to use the bathrooms. As I waited for her to finish, I looked around. If only gas stations didn’t all look the same. I could use this place right here as one of my loci.

Then I took a second look. As you walked in, a strange little alcove huddled on the left, with a random bench. I’d never seen anything quite like it. What else was in this “typical” gas station store?

See the world with an artist’s eye

I could try to describe what else I saw, but I’d need copious detail to explain why this newspaper rack or ATM machine was unique.

The key was that I tried to see with an artist’s eye. An artist can get excited about a bowl of apples, because if you really look at it, this particular bowl of apples is entirely unique in the history of the cosmos.

When I looked around this gas station store, I didn’t quite find a suitable still life, but I did find enough unique places to store my mnemonics.

In a gas station store.

Pit stops may surprise you

I needed more loci, so I gave our next two pit stops the same treatment. One was an ordinary family restaurant, but its features included an oddly narrow bathroom and an alcove with one of those claw machines.

The third stop was a real surprise. What looked like a gas station store turned out to conceal a 1950s diner. Bar counter with chrome, stools, the works.

As I looked around, I got a new shock: mounted above a booth was the largest reproduction of da Vinci’s Last Supper that I have ever seen. It had to be eight or nine feet long.

If I’d made my usual beeline for the bathroom, I’d have never even seen that.

You only need to see the place once

The most amazing part? I can still remember these places after seeing them once. I think it helped that I put my mnemonics in right away. That ensured I’d review both the mnemonics and their loci.

I’d read about old mnemonists making loci as they traveled, but I’d had my doubts. Now I know it can work. Even with a pit stop. Look closely, and the world is full of all the loci you’ll ever need.