When some people say they have a bad memory, they’re referring to their ability – or inability – to remember a specific event that happened in their life. This is called episodic memory. By contrast, when people are trying to commit a series of facts to memory, as they often do when they are studying for a test, it is called semantic memory, and that type of memory can be bolstered through the use of different mnemonic devices. A mnemonic device is a technique that helps you retrieve information by improving the way that you encode it in the first place. The Loci Method is one of the most effective of these tools.
What is the Loci Method?
“Loci” is a late word for locations, and the Loci Method gets its name through its use of locations that are familiar to the person using the technique. At its most basic, the method helps the individual memorize multiple items, in a specific order, by associating each one with a location along a route that is extremely familiar to them.
The Ancient Origin of the Loci Method
There is no telling how long people have been using this imagery and location technique to help them remember, but Cicero attributed the origin of the Loci Method to a Greek poet named Simonides who lived from 556 to 468 B.C.E. According to Cicero’s telling, Simonides was in attendance at a banquet in Thessaly when he was called outside. During his absence the banquet hall’s roof collapsed, killing others who had been there with him and rendering many of them unrecognizable. In rendering assistance following the disaster, Simonides was able to recall who had been sitting in each spot, and was thus able to help identify the bodies based on the area from which they were recovered. After the shock of the experience, Simonides realized that the association of place and name was a powerful memory tool that could be used consciously and to great effect, and he advised orators to make use of its visual imagery to help them remember the various points that they wanted to make in a speech, in their proper order. (Stanford University [link removed])
Testing the Effectiveness of the Loci Method
The effectiveness of the Loci Method is supported both anecdotally and through scientific investigation. Numerous studies have shown that the way that knowledge is stored in the brain has a direct impact on the ability to retain it, recall it and apply it, and according to University of Nottingham psychologist Fernand Gobet, “What most mnemonics do is to impose meaning and structure to material that would otherwise be meaningless and unstructured. They do so by making associations between items to learn and items that are already stored in long-term memory. Mnemonics also force one to pay attention to relevant features of the material, and to ‘process’ the material more deeply than by simply rehearsing it. Various experiments have shown that these techniques are effective, although some of them can be hard and time consuming to learn.”
One such study involved a group of 78 second-year medical students who were divided into two groups who were learning about insulin and diabetes mellitus. Both groups were taught the material via two 2-hour lectures, with one group later being assigned a self-directed learning and memorization module while the second group was instructed in how to use the Loci Method to memorize the materials and provided with the setting for the loci based on familiar sites within their campus. Testing of members of both groups showed significantly better results in the group that was provided the mnemonic device, and the students in the second group indicated that they had found the task of remembering the information much easier than the first group had. Another study showed that the consistent use of the Loci Method may actually change the structure of the brain, making it easier for those who use it to remember other things in the future. (The Verge)
How You Can Use the Loci Method
The Loci Method depends upon the individual’s familiarity with a specific location or route. It can be an area as small as a single room or as diverse as a route that you take to work each day: what is most important is that it is so familiar that there is no question about where things are or the order in which you encounter them when you imagine them.
With your location in mind and the list of items that need to be memorized, associate a mental image of each item with a specific part of the location. If, for example, you want to remember U.S. presidents in order and you want to associate it with the route you take to work each day, you might picture George Washington standing by your car door in the morning, followed by John Adams hitching a ride at the first traffic light you encounter each day, Thomas Jefferson ordering a latte at the coffee shop where you stop each morning, and James Madison parking next to you in the train station parking lot. You could then imagine James Monroe standing on the train platform, John Quincy Adams taking the seat next to you on the train, and Andrew Jackson standing on the other side of the train doors as you exit the train.
The key to this technique’s success lies in the visual image of each thing you’re trying to memorize being associated with something that is extremely predictable to you, and each point of the location being distinct. If you are going to use a smaller space like a room in your home, you need to link your memory items to individual pieces of furniture or other items as you are most likely to encounter them – light switch, chair, coffee table, television remote, television. You can use the same location repeatedly for other memory tasks, but it is important that you always use the same order – if you’re using your route to work, don’t make the mistake of reversing it and using your route from home another time, as this will confuse your ability to remember things in the proper order. Another tip for making the Loci Method is to try to make the visual images that you associate with each place a bit silly or ridiculous or similar to the sound of what you’re trying to remember so that they are more memorable. When imagining Jefferson at the coffee shop, picture the barista calling out Jefferson out loud when his latte is ready for pick up. Picture James Madison as being angry – or mad – when he gets out of his car at the train station, perhaps slamming his car door and walking off in a huff.