Memory: The Atlantis of arts

People do not take too kindly to memorisation. No surprises there. Rote memorisation (repeating something over and over) is simply unprepossessing to the modern individual. Scarcely can joy be derived from the act of repeating information until it blindly “sticks” in one’s expansive mental void. Any joy felt is due to either the intrinsic value of the information itself to the reader, or a sense of being closer to an overarching goal that the memorisation aids in fulfilling. Rote is somewhat reliable and freely accessible due to it being instinct, but that’s about it. Arduous sowing of rote memories guarantees necrosis of those memories, courtesy of the rote crop’s requirement to be pumped into turgidity by desperate repetition. Due to this and a plethora of educational revolutions revolving around the same concept, many people attempt to espouse creativity and intuition to make up for a perceived weakness in memory. After all, creativity is eulogised and hyperbolised; stereotypically manifesting as images of shrewd entrepreneurs, of composers dictating the very fibres of emotion with their études, of intellectuals jotting down solutions to unsolved problems on scrap paper. Memory, on the other hand, has been abandoned. Memorisation has become synonymous with factory-like classrooms where deadpan children unite in monotonous recitation. 

A gaping flaw with this mindset is that memory and creativity are interdependent. Psychologists are mostly in consensus that divergent thinking requires and is improved by a knowledge base, a concept that should not be astounding in the least. To provide a simple illustration of this concept, consider the following image.


Every red node on this graph represents a piece of knowledge. We could roughly define creativity as the ability to create meaningful new links between these nodes. More knowledge results in more nodes, which result in more possible connections to be made. However, creativity is obviously influenced by additional factors, such as education. In fact, approximately 10% of adults are as divergent in their thinking as 98% of children.

Memory is not the Problem

However, the problem is not with memorising. The predominant issue is the lack of publicly known alternatives, with emphasis on “publicly known”. This leads to a logical bias termed the “availability heuristic“. For rote, the bias may present in the following thought process:

  1. I only know how to memorise by rote.
  2. I do not like memorising by rote. Rote is strenuous…
  3. …therefore I do not like memorising.
  4. Memorising is difficult.

The bias becomes apparent in the third and fourth points. A person not being aware of a better memory method leads one to deduce that memorising is difficult, whereas the sound conclusion would be that memorising by rote is difficult.

It would be frankly bizarre if, after 5000 years of recorded human history, we have not discovered more efficient methods of memorising. Well, we have. Prior to the dawn of the printing press in the 15th century, the sole way of externalising memories to withstand the test of time was through laborious scribing. Due to this, prior to the printing era, we relied on human memory instead. This is, of course, in stark contrast to the status quo, where we heavily depend on electronic and hard storage. Before the current obsolescence of human memory, philosophers, intellectuals, and students would go out of their ways to train their memories. Cicero, a Roman statesman and renowned orator, mentioned in his De Oratore that one could make excellent use of a rather curious “method of loci” for memorisation.

Trip Down a Memory Palace

Most memory techniques count on the idea that connections, such as linking the number 12 to a dozen of eggs, or noticing that 2 comes after 1, ease recall. Each connection acts as an additional silver nugget that, when buried with the memory, can later make locating it with a mental metal detector easier. One such method is the aforementioned method of loci. Loci is the plural of locus, which just means the position of something. The method, also known as the Roman Room, takes advantage of the much more developed human visuospatial memory in favour of our less developed cognitive abilities, such as memory pertaining to text and numbers. In an attempt to empirically convey this, close your eyes and visualise any place you have rarely been to. This may be a friend’s house, another country, or a landmark. This experiment may aid in demonstrating that, despite a lack of exposure and conscious attention to those surroundings, you will be able to recall a considerable amount of visual information effortlessly. Dreams are also evidence for this.

To be brief, the technique revolves around encoding information into intense, vibrant images, mentally placing and linking those images in a journey around a place you are familiar with (e.g your home) at certain loci (think: couch, door handle, etc.), then mentally walking through the same journey and decoding images upon retrieval. There seems to be a common misconception in news articles that you plop text and numbers as is into your palace…which is a most clumsy and counterintuitive way of doing things. If a budding paramedic were studying advanced airway management, they would certainly not attempt to choreograph a mental pillow fight between the letters of “oropharyngeal airway” in a hotel lobby. Instead, they might imagine Bobby McFerrin (pharyn) biting into an oversized oreo (oro) on a multicoloured throne of slightly curved tubes (which is what the airways usually look like) on top of a mountain of junk (airway adjunct) food on their living room carpet. Give that image a few seconds of detailed visualisation and there is a decent to certain chance you would remember it two weeks later. (Speaking of which, using loci almost bypasses short-term memory entirely. You only need occasional refreshers.) Alternatively, one can fabricate mental megastructures (memory palaces) that do not exist, with similar efficacy to existing spaces. Their grandeur and vividness is constrained solely by imagination. Memories can be stored in forms ranging from escapades on multi-storey architectural spectacles, to reality TV in the Mariana Trench, to flying through video game environments. You can create palaces for Japanese adjectives just as you can for your phone’s contact list or for an upcoming quiz. Hopefully this description elucidates another advantage of using the method of loci compared to drudging through rote: stringing together a universe of elaborate mental capers may lead to flippant or plaintive images, but is always enjoyable and intriguing nonetheless.

A portrait of a museum belonging to Ferrante Imperato, an Italian apothecary, 1599

 The above image is found when performing an online search of “memory palace”. To an idiosyncratic Ferrante, who placed every object himself, the eccentricity of the museum coupled with the large amount of objects would make for an exceptional palace. To an observer, however, this might be more difficult to work with. The technique tends to result in more robust retention if images are not huddled together, contrary to what the image may have you think. Leaving space between information is often useful, as is not repeating actions. Personal preference, planning, and experimentation are advised to find comfortable guidelines for memory creation.

Friendly advice: As brilliant as they are, memory palaces should not be used blindly in all occasions, and it is prudent to couple them with other techniques, e.g spaced repetition. Storing all your memories by means of loci may be problematic as they do have to be refreshed by strolling through every once in a while.

A Note on the Revivalist Memory Movement

In 1991, the late Tony Buzan, who notably invented and publicised Mind Mapping, hosted the first World Memory Championships, creating the competitive memory sports scene. 29 years later, dedicated mnemonists spanning all continents have honed their techniques to perform incredible feats of memory, memorising the order of 52 playing cards in 13 seconds, 111000 digits of π, and more than 7000 binary digits in 30 minutes. Most, if not all of these strong-willed individuals started with average memories. In journals, published papers abound of fMRI scans that have been performed to isolate possible differences in brain structure between a mnemonist and your average person… but yielding no significant differences. The difference strictly lies in the techniques used.

Modern mnemonists share a passion for memory and some have projects and websites that try to incorporate memory in education. Currently, a respectable number of countries have national memory sport councils and competitions. Although resources are not necessarily in plentiful abundance, they are still widely available on memory forums. Some memory champions are even willing to take on mentees. 

Your memory is not inherently weak. Train it.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Alan Smith

    Exceptionally well researched and written. I’ve always found my most vivid memories linked to emotions, the ‘Roman Room.’

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