Method of Loci

The Method of loci (plural of Latin locus for place or location), also called the memory palace, is a mnemonic device introduced in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises (in the anonymous Rhetorica ad HerenniumCicero's De Oratore, and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria). In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. Many memory contest champions claim to use this technique in order to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions’ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with their technique of using regions of their brain that have to do with spatial learning.[1]
The term is most often found in specialized works on psychologyneurobiology and memory, though it was used in the same general way at least as early as the first half of the nineteenth century in works on rhetoriclogic and philosophy.[2] John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel refer to:
'the method of loci', an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria(1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally 'walks' through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use.[3]
The items to be remembered in this mnemonic system are mentally associated with specific physical locations.[4] The method relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish, order, and recollect memorial content. It is also known as the "Journey Method," used for storing lists of related items, or the "Roman Room" technique, which is most effective for storing unrelated information.[5]
Contemporary Usage
Many effective memorizers today use the 'method of loci' to some degree. Contemporary memory competition was initiated in 1991 and the first United States championship was held in 1997.[6] Part of the competition requires committing to memory and recalling a sequence of digits, two-digit numbers, alphabetic letters, or playing cards. In a simple method of doing this, contestants, using various strategies well before competing, commit to long-term memory a unique vivid image associated with each item. They have also committed to long-term memory a familiar route with firmly established stop-points or loci. Then in the competition they need only deposit the image that they have associated with each item at the loci. To recall, they retrace the route, "stop" at each locus, and "observe" the image. They then translate this back to the associated item.
Memory champions elaborate on this by combining images. Eight-time World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brien uses this technique.[7] The 2006 World Memory ChampionClemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house for his world record in "number half marathon", memorizing 1040 random digits in a half hour. Gary Shang has used the method of loci to memorize pi to over 65,536 digits.[8]
Using this technique a person with ordinary memorization capabilities, after establishing the route stop-points and committing the associated images to long-term memory, with less than an hour of practice, can remember the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards. The world record for this is held by Simon Reinhard at 21.19 seconds.[9]
The technique is taught as a metacognitive technique in learning to learn courses. It is generally applied to encoding the key ideas of a subject. Two approaches are:
  1. Link the key ideas of a subject and then deep-learn those key ideas in relation to each other, and
  2. Think through the key ideas of a subject in depth, re-arrange the ideas in relation to an argument, then link the ideas to loci in good order.
The Rhetorica ad Herennium and most other sources recommend that the method of loci should be integrated with elaborative encoding (i.e., adding visual, auditory, or other details) to strengthen memory. However, due to the strength of spatial memory, simply mentally placing objects in real or imagined locations without further elaboration can be effective for simple associations.
A recent variation of the "method of loci" involves creating imaginary locations (houses, palaces, roads, and cities) to which the same procedure is applied. It is accepted that there is a greater cost involved in the initial setup, but thereafter the performance is in line with the standard loci method. The purported advantage is to create towns and cities that each represent a topic or an area of study, thus offering an efficient filing of the information and an easy path for the regular review necessary for long term memory storage.[10]
Something that is likely a reference to the "method of loci" techniques survives to this day in the common English phrases "in the first place", "in the second place", and so forth.[11]

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