Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing involves a great deal of reference to memory, whether you’re a non-fiction writer trying to keep track of vital dates, a fantasy author trying to hold a whole fictional history in your head, or a writer of literary fiction who needs to keep each character ‘real’ by knowing their entire life story.
For authors, memory techniques aren’t just about making life a little easier (although that’s nice too.) Knowing the facts on which your work turns is different from just being able to look them up, and the easier it is to internalize information and allow it to mix and evolve, the better.
If you’re only joining us for part 2, I recommend taking a few minutes to catch up on part 1 of this article, in which we explored image linking and how recurring images can be used to turn strings of numbers into memorable stories. If, however, you’re clear on those basic memory techniques, let’s move onto the next step: building ourselves a palace.
The loci system
While we already learned how to remember long strings of information, you’ll have noticed that this technique has a glaring weakness – if the chain breaks, it’s difficult to progress past the point where you got stuck. We patched that hole a little bit by adding markers at relevant points – images that allow you to quickly travel to a given entry in the list – but if we’re going to build a memory palace, we need a better system.
In Tricks of the Mind, mentalist Derren Brown explains what he terms the ‘loci system:’
In its simplest form, the loci mnemonic works by attaching images to places along a familiar real-life route you know well. The images represent items to be remembered, and are placed in fixed locations you know you will always encounter on that route. For example, let us imagine that the route you choose is the path along your street to your home, and then into the house and each of the rooms in a natural and fixed sequence. If you decide on a starting point now, some way down your street, and begin to mentally walk towards your house, notice a few familiar points along the way. For example, there might be a shop or two you always pass, a zebra crossing you always use, or a post-box that stands out. These are your ‘loci,’ or locations.– Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind
The idea here is to turn a journey you’ve already functionally memorized into a set of locations. Elsewhere, Brown uses the metaphor of ‘pegs’ on which you can hang relevant information, and that’s what we’re going to do with your selected loci.
Let’s imagine you have a list of things to remember for the day… Now begin your loci route. Your first task is to buy stamps, so mentally place an obvious ‘stamps’ image in front of your first location. You are not ‘linking’ here so much as simply placing a strong visual representation of each task where you can see it. If that first location is a shop, perhaps imagine a huge stamp stuck across the window.– Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind
A reminder, here, that the images you use should be vivid and unusual, and that if there are multiple parts to them, those parts should interact so that no single element can be misremembered in isolation.
Here, Brown begins with a list of tasks, but the intent is to be able to use the loci system for both short and long-term memories. Brown goes on to describe how he uses a loci system in the Cambridge Theatre to remember all of Shakespeare’s plays in order.
The important thing for getting the most out of the loci system is to also use the image linking we discussed in part 1. Yes, you can imagine a big stamp, but you can also store complex information like sets of dates if you place the image that begins your image linking at the relevant loci. In part 1, we invented a story to remember the date of the moon landing. If I place a moon shuttle at my first loci, I can use it as a way into the story – I don’t have to have the whole thing playing out around the shop.
Crucially, the loci system is imaginary. You should know a place well enough to mentally journey through it and pick out key locations, but yet again you’re creating an imaginary space that allows you to file information as a different, more accessible type of information. To this end, you need to pick loci that exist in your mind – the store you actually walk past might change hands or burn down, but the one in your mind will always be there. Likewise, you need to pick loci that will always be apparent. It’s no good using a random bush as a loci in real life if you’re not going to remember it when you imagine the journey later.
Your memory palace
Again, though the loci system is useful, it’s far from perfect. After all, you can only use the route to your home so many times before you run out of loci or stock them with too much information to create a clear, memorable chain.
The memory palace is the next step. Simply put, the idea of a memory palace is to weld multiple routes together to create an imaginary storehouse of information. This is why the term ‘palace’ is so useful; you’re creating a sprawling space bigger than any building or any route – an imaginary house of endless doors, corridors, and loci.
A successful memory palace is like a museum, but every painting is an artefact that, when observed, brings to mind a host of useful information you decided you wanted to store. This is a fantastic tool for authors because, instead of having a good idea or hearing an interesting fact and then trying to jot it down on a napkin, you can instantly and reliably commit the information to memory, allowing it to slush around in your subconscious, mixing with all your other inspirations, rather than sitting in a notebook which you might never check again.
When constructing your memory palace, you might begin with your house, but then you can add an imaginary door that takes you somewhere else you remember: your mom’s house, your old school, your workplace – anywhere else so memorable that it offers up loci you’ll always remember when you ‘go’ there in your mind. You can also use imaginary places (many people swear by doing so,) but remember that the point is to take advantage of details that automatically jump to mind, which may be harder when you’re making them up (that said, a lot of people could draw the Simpsons’ living room from memory.)
You’ll find there’s a lot of ground to cover before you start struggling to add rooms to your memory palace, but once that’s the case, it’s easy enough to expand – just get familiar with a new space, take pictures if you have to, and you have a new set of loci.
If you’re smart, you’ll build your memory palace with purpose, giving each space a dedicated subject matter. Looking for facts you stored about vehicles? Well, all your vehicle loci are in the garage. Looking for historical periods? Well, mentally revisit your old filing job; each person you worked with is a different period, and their desks are full of clear visual signifiers which will guide you into a series of linked images that bring the facts to mind.
Building a memory palace can seem either intimidating or fanciful – there’s a reason pop culture uses it as a go-to signifier of genius – but it’s just a way of taking advantage of how your memory naturally functions. Most of us could still find our way around our high school or our first office, and you probably already know what details would jump out at you. In this way, building a memory palace isn’t even difficult – it’s all already there, you just need to stock those locations you already remember with other things you want to be able to recall.
As with image linking, be sure that your memory prompts are vivid and interact with their place in your memory palace. Imagine, for example, that you want to place the initial prompt of a lion on your mantelpiece. You could just have it sitting there, but you’re likely to find that it sometimes slips your mind. Instead, have it clinging on for dear life (the wildebeest scene from The Lion King should do the trick.)
Getting the most out of your memory palace means finding a way to fit as many loci into a familiar location as possible without becoming muddled. As a beginner, it’s likely you’ll begin with your own home, and here I have a tip for getting off on the right foot, and that tip is post-it notes.
If there’s a bunch of information you need to learn – perhaps you’re inventing a sci-fi universe and you want to create a galaxy of civilizations and planets, or perhaps you’re writing a historical romance and you want to keep track of the family trees – write it down in a very basic form on a series of post-it notes and stick them around your home. These post-its are loci you’ve created for yourself. Here, we’re breaking Derren Brown’s rule about utilizing loci that jump out at us, but we’re also learning how to use the loci system with training wheels.
Move between the post-its, placing your vivid images in such a way that they interact with that specific area. Do multiple, deliberate tours where you consciously recognize all your starter images over a week and then remove the post-its. Your images should now have distinct places, even if they’re packed together – that lion doesn’t need to take up the whole mantelpiece.
In general, it’s best to add more rooms to your memory palace than overfill them, but this should help you start your memory palace successfully, even if you’re skeptical. Remember to take advantage of the space you have by being specific – you can ‘hang’ one image on the front of a closet and ‘place’ another inside. Not only does this double up the space you’re using, but the specificity of how the images are positioned will also make your starting image more vivid.
Using your memory
The above techniques are effective not because they tap into some unused portion of your brain but because they work with the natural processes of memory. In many cases, they transmute seemingly random information into images or narratives that our brains can more easily retrieve. Likewise, information you barely even know you’ve memorized – like the route home from school – can be coupled with facts you’d struggle to learn on their own.
Still, weird as it seems, memory is a skill, and not everything above will click for you on your first try. If you want the benefits of an improved memory, put some time into unlocking it, starting with image linking and working your way up. Not everyone needs a sprawling memory palace, but in the course of writing, you may find that just being able to identify and utilize the loci in your own home is enough.
If you’re researching a given subject, try out image linking alongside your written notes – there’s a real benefit to having that information stored in your mind, where the subconscious author who does most of the work can get at it. If you’ve tried any of the memory techniques mentioned in this article, let me know how they worked out in the comments, and check out Psychology 101: Knowledge That Will Improve Your Writing and Learn How To Research Your Book With This Beginner’s Guide for more advice on this subject.