The Memory Palace of Simonides

I realized last night when I was half asleep that I completely neglected to mention the Memory Palace of Simonides in yesterday’s entry on Dantalian no Shoka, which was mentioned as a mental device along with Vedic mathematics. This is really cool, so my neglect must be corrected.

I originally learned about the Memory Palace in my college psychology class (although not by that name) and I can attest first hand that it actually works. It’s a technique that enables you to expand your short term memory. The human brain’s temporary scratch memory is limited to seven things, on average, but you can remember many more. Try this as an experiment. Get a friend to write down a list of twenty objects. Have your friend read the list to you, slowly, saying the name of each object only once. Then repeat the list back to him, in order. How many did you get right?

Most people get around seven right (myself included) if they don’t have some technique for memorizing more.

Here’s how to get all twenty right. Think of a route you travel everyday (for me, it was the route from my dorm room to my first class). Decide on twenty waypoints on that route, and memorize them. Then get your friend to read a different list of objects. As he reads the list, associate each object with the waypoints on your route.

Let’s do an example using my route. First I would get out of bed, then I would go to the closet to get my toothbrush, then I would go past my roommate’s bed, then into the hallway, then to the bathroom, and then to the water fountain. So the first six stops. I’ll pick six random objects that are within my field of view: fan, football, quarter, tissues, mouse, and gravestone (my house for the summer is next to a cemetery, and my nearest neighbor is a corpse). Now let’s associate the objects with the landmarks. You would do this as the list is being read.

  1. The fan keeps me cool when I’m sleeping.
  2. I store the football in the closet.
  3. I’ll steal my roommate’s quarter.
  4. I blow my nose with a tissue in the hallway.
  5. I flush my mouse down the toilet.
  6. I rinse a gravestone in the water fountain.
Just pick the first connection that comes to mind, and don’t think about it too hard. Then, when the list is done being recited, imagine yourself walking along the path, stop at each landmark, and remember the association you made. Storing twenty things in your head is a cinch with the Memory Palace. It may take a couple tries to remember your list of landmarks though.

8 thoughts on “The Memory Palace of Simonides

  1. I remembered this back in my high school days. Another good example where to use this is when playing poker. Here’s a cool videoof Derren Brown and how he used it.

    1. Ooh, pretty cool application! I think it might take some practice with 52 * 4 things though. There was this one experiment where they took a random person, and gave him lists of numbers every day and had him repeat them back. After a few years he could memorize sequences of thousands of numbers after hearing them only once. What he would do is associate them with baseball stats since he was a fan. Eventually he also ended up using hierarchical layers of baseball stats… some pretty crazy stuff.

  2. Wow, this pretty interesting. I remember hearing about this, but thought had no idea exactly what is. Useful for when going grocery or other shopping trips (not that I need a list to remind myself).

    1. It’s still probably easier just to write down a list than to memorize it with this. Also for groceries there is an easier way to use your spatial memory than following a path you take. Just imagine your kitchen. Look on the proper shelf of the fridge in your mind, and look at how full the milk is. That problem is more readily solvable with your spatial skills than repeating a random list.

  3. This is also mentioned in another anime, though I cannot remember the name…and in the TV show The Mentalist.

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