Store Memories Where You Can Find Them: The Loci Method
Why did ancient educated Greeks and Romans have such amazing memories? They translated information into images their mind could remember. Then they stored these mnemonic images in mental “places” so they could find them again. The Latin word for places is loci, so we call this the loci method.
So what is a “memory place”?
A memory place is … well … a place you remember. Like your house. Have you ever tried thinking about walking around your house? You can move from room to room, and see each room clearly. If you test yourself, you’ll be surprised at how much you remember.
Begin in the Kitchen
For instance, if I imagine walking clockwise around my kitchen, I see:
- a stove
- a toaster
- a dishwasher
- a sink
- a refrigerator
Not the loveliest possible place to imagine, I suppose. But I do remember it. Are your appliances in a different order? Ah. Then you remember your kitchen too.
Pick Some Mnemonics (Reminders)
Now suppose you’re leading a seminar on the first five novels by Charles Dickens:
- Pickwick Papers
- Oliver Twist
- Nicholas Nickleby
- Old Curiosity Shop
- Barnaby Rudge
In real life, you’d probably need to much remember more than a list of titles. Don’t worry. You can. We’re just starting with the basics.
First, we translate each title into a mnemonic image.
Dickens crafts such striking characters that you might just use the hero of each book. Or, you might happen to know people named Oliver, Nicholas, and Barnaby. And Pickwick.
But let’s try:
- Pickwick Papers: picnic basket
- Oliver Twist: gigantic green olive
- Nicholas Nickleby: huge nickel
- Old Curiosity Shop: dead cat (killed by curiosity)
- Barnaby Rudge: huge barn made of light fudge
If you don’t like any of these mnemonic images, that’s fine. Your own mnemonics will always be better than any suggestions.
But having a set of mnemonics isn’t enough. You might remember the enormous olive, but not the dead cat. Or vice versa. And if chronological order matters, you’re doomed.
Put the Mnemonics Where You’ll Find Them
Now, this is the fun part. You can “put” these mnemonics onto something in your memory place, just by imagining them together. Once you’ve made this connection, when you remember that place, you’ll remember the mnemonic.
For instance, you can imagine:
- the picnic basket burning on the stove
- the gigantic green olive jammed into the toaster
- the huge nickel crammed into the open dishwasher
- the dead cat in the sink (ugh)
- the huge barn of fudge shoved into the open refrigerator, smashing the shelves.
Yes, at first glance, it’s pretty weird. But the “weirdness” is precisely its power.
The images are weird because they’re arbitrary. Olives have no logical connection with toasters. And yet, if you imagine cramming a gigantic olive into a particular toaster, they become connected. Snap! Your amazing mind has made another connection.
If you couldn’t imagine anything weird, you couldn’t imagine anything new. What is creativity, if not new mental connections?
(Besides, they’re funny. And no, your head won’t get all full of weirdness. Think of all the weird things you could remember but don’t.)
When you think of that toaster now, you’ll see the gigantic olive. And you’ll remember Oliver Twist.
If you’d chosen any old toaster, this would just be another new pair of socks tossed into the memory closet. But you chose a toaster in a locus, a place you already remember.
You can already find your kitchen toaster at a moment’s notice. Now, you can find whatever you mentally put there.
You can walk around your kitchen, and remember the first five novels of Charles Dickens. In order. That’s the loci method.
Going Further. Much Further.
Think about all the rooms and places you know, right now. All the hundreds, even thousands of things that are already bolted securely into your mind. Waiting to be recycled. Augmented. Adorned.
Do you have a lot to remember?
Go to it.
No, wait, don’t! Not just yet. Some books and sites will get you roughly this far, then shove you out the door and send you on your way.
But we’ve only gotten started. You could memorize the years of those novels, plots, whole passages. Not that we’re only interested in novels. We have all kinds of techniques for all kinds of data.
And in fact, the loci method isn’t even always your first choice. Exciting as it is, it takes a lot of work; you should always try just using flashcards or even a poem first.
Sometimes, though, loci are perfect for the job.