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The Method of Loci
It was certainly a cause for celebration: the Greek noble had won yet another chariot race. While the usual feast would have sufficed, friends had cared to hire a poetic lyricist to honor their victorious host. But, as Simonides of Ceos begins his oratory performance, the noble becomes irate at the lyricist’s praise of mythological figures, and not his own achievements. Before the meal can be concluded, the host dismisses Simonides, who then departs the banquet hall. As he leaves, the orator hears the heavy sound of crumbling masonry, which soon becomes white noise to the terrifying screams of the dinner party. In moments, the beautiful structure is transformed into unremarkable rubble; the silence that follows is even more piercing than the desperate yells that had rang out during the initial collapse.
Not much time passes before both city officials and a mass of citizenry arrive at the site of the devastation with the intention of retrieving the remains of the deceased. Yet, as fragmented boulders are laboriously shifted to reveal the former dinner party, it becomes evident that the bodies are impossible to identify, leaving a question as to who, exactly, had fallen victim to the unexpected collapse.
Hearing of this complication, Simonides has a profound realization: he can aptly discern the identity of each guest by recalling his position around the banquet table.
Apparently, associating knowledge (the identities of dinner guests) with an image (the seated guests at the dining table) allowed Simonides to more easily retain information. By picturing the singular image of the occupied dinner table, the orator was able to contrive the guest list in his mind.
This use of space (a familiar path or the rooms of a house) and imagery (a certain painting or an obscene representation) to extract relevant information became known as the “method of loci”. As a mnemonic device, the method of loci functions by placing order upon an unorganized confusion of data. When the time comes to recall whatever is required, one can simply travel to a mental location and allow the designated imagery to trigger the memory.
While Simonides showcases this method perfectly, another example follows:
- Imagine a familiar location (reader, your home may be best to picture at the moment)
- Create a list of 5-8 items that need to be remembered (be it grocery list, mathematical formulas, what have you)
- Generate a representation for each item (12 MARCHing soldiers next to a picture of a loved one in order to remember that the loved one’s birthday is on March 12th) and mentally position it in your home
- Now, attempt to recall the list. In your mind, dear reader, walk through your home and locate each of the images. Once you place your sights on the representation you conceived, the item associated with it should immediately become evident.
By associating something foreign with a familiar location and object, the chances of recall are greatly increased. To discover more on the “method of loci”, consider the following links and book titles: