Creating Memory Palaces

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I just read the most amazing article in the New York Times magazine – Secrets of a Mind Gamer, by Joshua Foer (thanks to my good friend, Louise).  If you haven’t read it – go there now and do it. You’ll thank me later.

If that name sounds familiar to you, Joshua is the younger brother of Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Everything is Illuminated and Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close). What a family.

Joshua Foer is a journalist who began an investigation of so-called “mental athletes” – people who efficiently and expertly memorize great volumes of information quickly – first and last names of dozens of strangers, long lists of random numbers, the precise order of a deck of cards. Apparently there are televised championship tournaments – check out the website for the USA Memory Championship, to be held next month in New York City. By now I’m sure you’re thinking what I was thinking when I started reading the article – who cares?  Who cares about the craft of memorizing long lists of random numbers or decks of playing cards?  Well, I can tell you that it all got a whole lot more interesting when I read Foer’s account of how these memory athletes accomplish their feats.

In true investigative journalist style, Foer decided to try the memorization methods himself and the NYTimes article is the story of his journey (which wound up with him winning the U.S. Championship!).  To put it in a nutshell (his article does a much better job), these memory athletes rely on a centuries old tradition from the ancient Greeks of creating “memory palaces”.  What they do is to construct a building in the imagination and fill it with imagery of what needs to be recalled.  The distinctive objects they place in these imagined rooms are like coat hooks for memories. As you walk through the imaginary edifice and see the distinctive objects (the more distinctive and wild, the better), you recall the material “stored” there. Very cool idea.

This approach to memory is recorded in a Latin book called Rhetorica ad Herennium, written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C.  You can find an outline of the book here and a complete translation of it here. The techniques described in this book were used extensively in the ancient and medieval worlds as a fundamental element of a classical education.  Our Greek and Roman ancestors trained themselves, not to memorize trivia, but to commit foundational texts, ideas, and stories to memory, to become walking indices of everything worthwhile they’d ever read or learned. And they did it by intensively reading (in order to remember) using these visual motifs.

Of course, I can’t help but make a connection between this idea of “memory palaces” and virtual worlds.  Is that, perhaps, one of the underlying reasons why these three-dimensional landscapes are so compelling for us?  Is that why I have such vivid, penetrating, and persistent memories of everything I’ve ever built in a virtual world?  Why I can conjure up clear-as-day mental pictures of the role-playing space I created or the building classroom that Chimera Cosmos and I built over our virtual home on Jokaydia? Relating ideas and concepts to spatial positions, walking around our mind’s eye with our avatars? Is that what we’re doing in there – creating virtual memory palaces?


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