Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Method of Loci – the Memory Palace

 Site Map of a Memory Palace, by avaDarlene, 24"x 28" overall (resin, nails, mixed media on wood) featured in Locate/Navigate: Exercises in Mapping Urban Culture Project - Charlotte Street Foundation Kansas City, MO 1 Feb 2008 to 22 Mar 2008 at     

I started thinking about memory the other day on campus when a Geography Ph.D. student who is working in my lab returned an old book to me, and was smelling the pages of it before she let it go.  She seemed to think that her actions required explanation (they did not!), and then we spoke about how scent is the most primitive of our senses and the most directly linked - hard-wired, really - to memory.  I off-handedly mentioned that old books must be her version of the “Madeleine moment,” a reference with which she was unfamiliar.  I was referring to the madeleine, a type of French cake or cookie made famous by Marcel Proust  in his book À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time).  (BTW, I certainly could never fault anyone for not having read the book – at 1.5 million words, it is one of the longest novels ever written!)  In the book, when the protagonist smells and has a taste of a madeleine dipped in tea many years later as an adult, it evokes an involuntary hidden (repressed?) memory from his childhood.  We associate memories, experiences, emotions, on a very base, almost unconscious, level to our sense of smell.  Anyway, this got me thinking about memory, how we use it, how it can influence our lives, and how there are techniques for spatializing thoughts for easier recall - Memory Palaces, for instance.  
Building a “Memory Palace” is a method of remembering things – complex lists, the order of a deck of cards, parts of a long speech, events in one’s life, anything, really.  It uses spatial association to attach objects (the things we wish to remember) in a spatial sequence, to physical locations that we can recall, perhaps easier than we can recall the actual things we want to remember. 
Spatial positioning of thoughts as an aid to memory turns out to mirror our natural thought processes of cognition.  Memory palaces are maps of thoughts and are used to navigate the world of ideas just as cartographic maps are used to navigate the world of things.
The “Memory Palace” and related approaches are all based on the Method of Loci, which developed from the recognition that people are very good at remembering locations, and if you can associate abstract or unfamiliar ideas with a well-known location, you can more easily recall the things you want to.
The Method of Loci is a very ancient device, and was in use with cultures that had an oral tradition in story-telling or oratory speechifying, and which celebrated current events and history with long saga-type poems with hundreds of stanzas.  The Method of Loci was used by the ancient Greeks, as written about in Aristotle’s De memoria et reminiscentia (On Memory and Reminiscence).  In 55 BC, the Roman philosopher Cicero also used the Method of Loci to remember long speeches, and wrote about it in De Oratore.  The idea then seemed to languish for centuries until Thomas Aquinas picked up on it in his writings Summa Theologica, which stated that the development of memory-enhancing techniques was part of the virtue of Prudence (and thus well within the realm of appropriate Christian practice).  According to St. Thomas, the arts of memory and of placing verse on images is the very essence of remembering: “Man cannot understand without images; the image is a similitude of a corporeal thing, but understanding is of universals which are to be abstracted from particulars.” [Quoted in Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (University of Chicago Press: 1966), p. 70.]

In the later 16th century, Giordano Bruno, a Dominican order monk, introduced the memory arts to the masses, and it subsequently became something of a fad.  His book, De Umbis Idearum ("The Shadow of Ideas") was published in around 1581, and integrated mnemonics, psychology, and hermetic magic.  He continued to popularize his memory techniques, which were apparently prodigious, and even demonstrated his memory skills to Pope Pius V.  He was (much later) burnt at the stake for heresy. 

Perhaps the best-known user of the Memory Palace was Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, who traveled to China in about 1583 on a conversion mission.  The young Confucians whom he hoped to convert were not particularly interested in learning about Christianity, however, so Ricci used the Memory Palace technique as a way to hook them in (and incidentally, to prove the “superiority” of Western science and religion).  The Method of Loci proved to be very useful to the young men in passing their complicated state examinations in order to ascend into the Imperial bureaucracy in a culture with numerous rituals and laws that had to be mastered “by heart,” thus garnering Ricci many students and some adherents.  
Ricci, who, by the way, was known as a very skilled mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer, used his own Memory Palace technique to learn the Chinese language, both written and spoken, and both classical and vernacular, thus becoming one of the first Westerners to master the language in all its complexity.  In 1602, Ricci and his Chinese collaborators created the first map of the world in Chinese, now called “The Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography,” because of its rarity, importance, and exoticism.  Its name in Chinese is Kūnyú Wànguó Quántú; literally “A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World”; in Italian, “Carta Geografica Completa di tutti i Regni del Mondo;” or “Complete Geographical Map of all the Kingdoms of the World,” printed in China at the request of the Chinese Emperor.   

A later variation of Ricci's map.  The original 1602 Ricci map is a very large, 5 ft (1.52 m) high and 12 ft (3.66 m) wide, xylograph of a pseudocylindrical map projection, showing China at the center of the known world.  Its projection is similar to the 1906 Eckert IV map.  It is the first map in Chinese to show the Americas.  It was originally carved on six large blocks of wood and then printed in brownish ink on six mulberry paper panels, similar to the making of a folding screen.  For a high resolution map (16 MB) of the original with all the detail, see: 
For another (more unusual!) view of the Ricci map, see my blog post on the Royal Geographical Society at

Small scale north polar projection world map at the top of the first left panel of 1602 Ricci map

I’ve been familiar with the Memory Palace and associated concepts for a long time.  Since I was a small child, I have used mnemonic devices to remember things – some were the usual things we learned in school or music lessons, like Every Good Boy Does Fine, to remember the order from top to bottom of the lines on the treble clef (E, G, B, D, F), for instance; or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, for the order of algebraic operations (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction); or the hierarchy of flora and fauna in biology:  King Phillip Could Only Find Green Socks (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species);  ROY G BIV for the colors of the rainbow, and HOMES for the names of the Great Lakes.  Some have gone out of date, such as the one for the naming of the planets in our solar system, now that Pluto’s been demoted. When I was about three years old, I used to amaze my parents’ friends and neighbors by reading aloud to them whole sections of the book “Through the Looking Glass,” one of my favorites.  But what I was really doing was even more amazing than a three year old reading – I didn’t learn how to read until I went into First Grade a few years later.  What I was really doing was reciting from memory whole passages of the book that my great-grandmother, Maggie Barnacle, had read to me at bedtimes over and over again.  I still can recite most of the poem “The Jabberwocky” from the book.
 In fact, when I was in primary school, back in the antediluvian era, we had an actual class every day called “Memory.”  In addition to Arithmetic, English, Spelling, History, Science, Social Studies, (no Geography, though!) we also had Memory class, where we would be obliged to memorize short poems and Biblical verses “by heart,” and with no mistakes whatsoever.  There was no analysis of these texts, just pure rote memorization and recitation.  We all thought it was a hideous, useless, pointless exercise at the time, (and talk about BORING!) but it proved to be very valuable skill in my later schooling and all throughout my professional career.  Even now, after I write something, I can reconstruct it, if need be, almost word for word, which definitely comes in handy when the computer crashes or some other untoward event occurs!  At some point in high school or college, I came across the Memory Palace technique, but I was already using a DIY method of my own invention, which did involve spatialization of items to be remembered, so didn’t think about Memory Palaces too much more at the time. 
Fast forward a number of years (to 2003) when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor sitting on my optic nerve, and there was a very real possibility that I would lose my eyesight.  Prior to the brain surgery, I started (but regrettably, never fully finished) a type of memory palace of my life, to catalogue, both in my head and on paper, all the important events in my life, and link them to the geographical locations where they took place, and in the proper temporal order, complete with as many visuals as I could muster.  This was an exercise that I also continued post-surgery in the Intensive Care Unit, when I was not allowed to so much as raise my head off the bed with a pillow, never mind being able to read or watch TV, (or eat, except lying down and through a straw!) so I literally had nothing to occupy my time and take my mind off the pain except building my Memory Palace (although it’s STILL unfinished!).  Building a Memory Palace is very relaxing, and induces an almost Zen-like state of mind.
Recently, I regained an interest in Memory Palaces through an op-ed piece by Tony Judt, published last fall in the New York Times, called “My Endless New York,” which is an excerpt from his book The Memory Chalet.  Tony was an amazingly articulate and erudite person who knew a great deal about many things (as historians are wont to do), and when he was diagnosed with an incurable degenerative (and terminal) disease, he started writing his last book.  The disease left him in a lot of pain and sleepless at night, but he was immobile, so all he could do was to use his mind and play internal games, to try to avoid panic.  He was imprisoned in his own body.  He used the Memory Palace method to put the most meaningful events of his life in order, and to riff on things that linked greater themes in the world to his individual experiences.  Rather than a Memory Palace, he built a Memory Chalet, using his recollections of a particularly memorable Swiss inn his family had vacationed in a number of times when he was a young boy, and with which he had extremely happy associations. 
I am including the entire op-ed piece here.  I ordinarily would have just included a link to the piece in the New York Times, but they have gotten so peculiar recently about needing a subscription to access archival pieces (not to mention only being able to view 20 current articles a month now without a subscription – 20 articles A MONTH! That’s less than one per day!) that I decided to just copy the whole thing.  After the op-ed piece are a few short blurbs about other interesting Memory Palace books, and some links to sites that describe the Memory Palace technique – how to build your own Memory Palace! 

My Endless New York, by Tony Judt
Published November 7, 2010, The New York Times 
I came to New York University in 1987 on a whim. The Thatcherite assault on British higher education was just beginning and even in Oxford the prospects were grim. N.Y.U. appealed to me: by no means a recent foundation — it was established in 1831 — it is nevertheless the junior of New York City’s great universities. Less of a “city on a hill,” it is more open to new directions: in contrast to the cloistered collegiate worlds of Oxbridge, it brazenly advertises itself as a “global” university at the heart of a world city.
But just what is a “world city”? Mexico City, at 18 million people, or São Paulo at near that, are unmanageable urban sprawls; they are not “world cities.” Conversely, Paris — whose central districts have never exceeded three million inhabitants — was the capital of the 19th century.
Is it a function of the number of visitors? In that case, Orlando, Fla., would be a great metropolis. Being the capital of a country guarantees nothing: think of Madrid or Washington (the Brasília of its time). It may not even be a matter of wealth: within the foreseeable future Shanghai (14 million people) will surely be among the richest places on earth; Singapore already is. Will they be “world cities”?
I have lived in four such cities. London was the commercial and financial center of the world from the defeat of Napoleon until the rise of Hitler; Paris, its perennial competitor, was an international cultural magnet from the building of Versailles through the death of Albert Camus. Vienna’s apogee was perhaps the shortest: its rise and fall coincided with the last years of the Hapsburg Empire, though in intensity it outshone them all. And then came New York.
It has been my mixed fortune to experience these cities at twilight. In their prime they were arrogant and self-assured. In decline, their minor virtues come into focus: people spend less time telling you how fortunate you are to be there. Even at the height of “Swinging London” there was something brittle about the city’s self-promotion, as though it knew this was but an Indian summer.
Today, the British capital is doubtless geographically central, its awful bling-bloated airport one of the world’s busiest. And the city can boast the best theater and a multicolored cosmopolitanism sadly lacking in years past. But it all rests precariously on an unsustainable heap of other peoples’ money: the capital of capital.
By the time I got to Paris, most people in the world had stopped speaking French (something the French have been slow to acknowledge). Who now would deliberately reconstruct their city — as the Romanians did in Bucharest in the late 19th century — to become “the Paris of the East,” complete with grand boulevards like the Calea Victoria? The French have a word for the disposition to look insecurely inward, to be preoccupied with self-interrogation: nombrilisme — “navel-gazing.” They have been doing it for over a century.
I arrived in New York just in time to experience the bittersweet taste of loss. In the arts the city led the world from 1945 through the 1970s. If you wanted to experience modern painting, music or dance, you came to the New York of Clement Greenberg, Leonard Bernstein and George Balanchine. Culture was more than an object of consumption: people thronged to New York to produce it too. Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered — drawing others in their wake. Nothing else came close.
Jewish New York too is past its peak. Who now cares what Dissent or Commentary says to the world or each other? In 1977, Woody Allen could count on a wide audience for a joke about the two magazines merging and forming “Dissentary” (see “Annie Hall”). Today? A disproportionate amount of the energy invested in these and certain other small journals goes to the Israel question: perhaps the closest that Americans get to nombrilisme.
The intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs — or else they fight it out in academic departments to the utter indifference of the rest of humanity. The same, of course, is true of the self-referential squabbles of the cultural elites of Russia or Argentina. But that is one reason neither Moscow nor Buenos Aires matters on the world stage. New York intellectuals once did, but most of them have gone the way of Viennese cafe society: they have become a parody of themselves, their institutions and controversies of predominantly local concern.
And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.
Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.
Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time.
All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city.
Such variety is doubtless available in London. But the cultures of contemporary London are balkanized by district and income — Canary Wharf, the financial hub, keeps its distance from the ethnic enclaves at the center. Contrast Wall Street, within easy walking distance of my neighborhood. As for Paris, it has its sequestered quarters where the grandchildren of Algerian guest workers rub shoulders with Senegalese street vendors, while Amsterdam has its Surinamese and Indonesian districts: but these are the backwash of empire, what Europeans now refer to as the “immigrant question.”
One must not romanticize. I am sure that most of my neighborhood traders and artisans have never met and would have little to say to one another: at night they return home to Queens or New Jersey. If I told Joseph and Sal they had the good fortune to live in a “world city,” they would probably snort. But they do — just as the barrow boys of early 20th-century Hoxton were citizens of the same cosmopolitan London that Keynes memorialized in “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” even though they would have had no idea what he was talking about.
We are experiencing the decline of the American age. But how does national or imperial decay influence the lifecycle of a world city? Modern-day Berlin is a cultural metropolis on the make, despite being the capital of a medium-sized and rather self-absorbed nation. Meanwhile, Paris retained its allure for nearly two centuries after the onset of French national decline.
New York — a city more at home in the world than in its home country — may do better still. As a European, I feel more myself in New York than in the European Union’s semi-detached British satellite, and I have Brazilian and Arab friends here who share the sentiment.
To be sure, we all have our complaints. And while there is no other city where I could imagine living, there are many places that, for different purposes, I would rather be. But this too is a very New York sentiment. Chance made me an American, but I chose to be a New Yorker. I probably always was.

Tony Judt, who died in August, was the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University.  He is the author of the forthcoming collection, “The Memory Chalet,” from which this essay is adapted.
[NOTE from the Map Monkey: The Memory Chalet was published in 2010, and I highly recommend it.]

Recommended Memory Palace books:

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
by Jonathan D. Spence , Viking Press, 1994

In 1583, Father Matteo Ricci of the Jesuit order went to China to spread the faith.  To try and entice young Confucians to listen to him, Ricci used the Memory Arts as a hook, teaching them the Method Loci so they could pass their examinations.  He got a willing audience and became one of the first Western monks to learn Chinese well enough to have an idea about the country he made his home.

The Memory Chalet
By Tony Judt, Penguin Press, 2010

The Memory Chalet is a memoir unlike any you have ever read before.  Each essay charts some experience or remembrance of the past through the sieve of Tony Judt’s prodigious mind. His youthful love of a particular London bus route evolves into a reflection on public civility and interwar urban planning.  Memories of the 1968 student riots of Paris meander through the divergent sex politics of Europe, before concluding that his generation ‘was a revolutionary generation, but missed the revolution.’  A series of road trips across America lead not just to an appreciation of American history, but to an eventual acquisition of citizenship.  Foods and trains and long-lost smells all compete for Judt’s attention; but for us, he has forged his reflections into an elegant arc of analysis.  All as simply and beautifully arranged as a Swiss chalet-a reassuring refuge deep in the mountains of memory.”  From the book’s dust jacket flap

Chambers for a Memory Palace
by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore, MIT Press, 1996

Two distinguished architects adopted the Memory Palace metaphor and wrote a beautiful gem of a book that consists of an exchange of letters on the subject of how we view our world and how we make our world.  This is one of the better books on the art of place-making.  (Charles W. Moore was one of the most famous teachers of architects, serving among other duties as the Dean of Yale's School of Architecture.)

The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, 
Mary Carruthers and Jan Ziolkowski (eds.) University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003

“In antiquity and the Middle Ages, memory was a craft, and certain actions and tools were thought to be necessary for its creation and recollection.  Until now, however, many of the most important visual and textual sources on the topic have remained untranslated or otherwise difficult to consult.  Mary Carruthers and Jan M. Ziolkowski bring together the texts and visual images from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries that are central to an understanding of memory and memory technique.  These sources are now made available for a wider audience of students of medieval and early modern history and culture and readers with an interest in memory, mnemonics, and the synergy of text and image.
The art of memory was most importantly associated in the Middle Ages with composition, and those who practiced the craft used it to make new prayers, sermons, pictures, and music.  The mixing of visual and verbal media was commonplace throughout medieval cultures: pictures contained visual puns, words were often verbal paintings, and both were used equally as tools for making thoughts.  The ability to create pictures in one's own mind was essential to medieval cognitive technique and imagination, and the intensely pictorial and affective qualities of medieval art and literature were generative, creative devices in themselves.” From: Amazon Reviews

 Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer, Penguin Press, 2011

“The ‘art of memory’ refers to a set of techniques that were invented in ancient Greece.  These are the same techniques that Cicero used to memorize his speeches, and that medieval scholars used to memorize entire books.  The ‘art’ is in creating imagery in your mind that is so unusual, so colorful, so unlike anything you've ever seen before that it's unlikely to be forgotten.  That's why mnemonists like to say that their skills are as much about creativity as memory.”  From: an interview with Joshua Foer, on

Some good websites about Memory Palaces:

This is a very clear and simple explanation of how to make the Memory Palace technique work:

1 comment:

  1. Your exploration of the Method of Loci on your Geographer at Large blog is fascinating! The concept of using spatial memory for enhanced recollection is a powerful technique. Your detailed explanation and historical context make the topic accessible and intriguing. It's always a joy to discover unique approaches to memory enhancement. Right Brain Training Thanks for sharing this insightful journey into the Method of Loci!