Memory Palace

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 Herennium, Cicero'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 specialised works on psychology, neurobiology 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 rhetoric, logic 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 unrelated items, or the "Roman Room" technique, which is most effective for storing unrelated information.[5]

Contemporary usage

Many effective memorisers 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 Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house for his world record in "number half marathon", memorising 1040 random digits in a half hour. One individual has used the method of loci to memorise pi to over 65,536 digits.[8]

Using this technique a person with ordinary memorisation 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]

Applicability of the term

The designation is not used with strict consistency. In some cases it refers broadly to what is otherwise known as the art of memory, the origins of which are related, according to tradition, in the story of Simonides of Ceos and the collapsing banquet hall.[12] For example, after relating the story of how Simonides relied on remembered seating arrangements to call to mind the faces of recently deceased guests, Steven M. Kosslyn remarks "[t]his insight led to the development of a technique the Greeks called the method of loci, which is a systematic way of improving one's memory by using imagery."[13] Skoyles and Sagan indicate that "an ancient technique of memorization called Method of Loci, by which memories are referenced directly onto spatial maps" originated with the story of Simonides.[14] Referring to mnemonic methods, Verlee Williams mentions, "One such strategy is the 'loci' method, which was developed by Simonides, a Greek poet of the fifth and sixth centuries BC"[15] Loftus cites the foundation story of Simonides (more or less taken from Frances Yates) and describes some of the most basic aspects of the use of space in the art of memory. She states, "This particular mnemonic technique has come to be called the "method of loci".[16] While place or position certainly figured prominently in ancient mnemonic techniques, no designation equivalent to "method of loci" was used exclusively to refer to mnemonic schemes relying upon space for organization.[17]

In other cases the designation is generally consistent, but more specific: "The Method of Loci is a Mnemonic Device involving the creation of a Visual Map of one's house."[18]

This term can be misleading: the ancient principles and techniques of the art of memory, hastily glossed in some of the works cited above, depended equally upon images and places. The designator "method of loci" does not convey the equal weight placed on both elements. Training in the art or arts of memory as a whole, as attested in classical antiquity, was far more inclusive and comprehensive in the treatment of this subject.

Spatial mnemonics and specific brain activation

Brain scans of "superior memorizers", 90% of whom use the method of loci technique, have shown that it involves activation of regions of the brain involved in spatial awareness, such as the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and the right posterior hippocampus.[19][20] The medial parietal cortex is most associated with encoding and retrieving of information. Patients who have medial parietal cortex damage have trouble linking landmarks with certain locations; many of these patients are unable to give or follow directions and often got lost. The retrosplenial cortex is also linked to memory and navigation. In one study on the effects of selective granular retrosplenial cortex lesions in rats, the researcher found that damage to the retrosplenial cortex lead to impaired spatial learning abilities. Rats with damage to this area failed to recall which areas of the maze they had already visited, rarely explored different arms of the maze, almost never recalled the maze in future trials, and took longer to reach the end of the maze, as compared to rats with a fully working retrosplenial cortex.

In a classic study in cognitive neuroscience, O'Keefe and Nadel proposed "that the hippocampus is the core of a neural memory system providing an objective spatial framework within which the items and events of an organism's experience are located and interrelated."[21]

In popular culture


  • In the 1981 fantasy classic Little, Big by John Crowley, advisor-mage Ariel Hawksquill uses the method to link obscure information to aid her clients, and notes that:
"...the greatest practitioners of the old art discovered some odd things about their memory houses the longer they lived in them ... it was discovered, for instance, that the symbolic figures with vivid expressions, once installed in their proper places, are subject to subtle change as they stand waiting to be called forth... also, as the memory house grows, it makes conjunctions and vistas that its builder can't conceive of beforehand..."
  • The technique is employed by the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal, the third of a series of novels by American author Thomas Harris. In several passages in the book, Dr. Lecter is described as mentally walking through an elaborate memory palace to remember facts.[22]
  • The technique is depicted in the Matthew Reilly book Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves. The main character, Shane Schofield, uses the technique to lock away good memories and prevent psychological torture.
  • The technique is also the main focus of the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.
  • Derren Brown, in his book Tricks of the Mind, showed how to use the Loci system in conjunction with a linking and number-pegging system. He demonstrated the technique in the BBC Four series Trick of the Mind.


  • The technique was depicted in the BBC series Sherlock in "The Hounds of Baskerville", where Sherlock Holmes uses his "mind palace" to seek important facts and associations in his memory relevant to the case.
  • Holmes uses the method of loci to recall where he heard a phrase in CBS's Sherlock Holmes adaptation Elementary, in the episode called "The Long Fuse."
  • The memory palace concept is also used in several episodes of the CBS series The Mentalist by the titular mentalist Patrick Jane to help colleagues and witnesses remember things such as playing card locations in a deck or information and names of guests at a party.
  • The concept was illustrated in the episode of the documentary television series, The Day the Universe Changed titled "A Matter of Fact", in which James Burke explains how it was used in medieval times when literacy was rare for sophisticated scholastic and business affairs.



  • Dann, Jack (1995) The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo da Vinci: Bantam Books 0553378570
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