February 15, 2008

Improve Your Memory with the Loci System

If you think you have a bad memory, it might be that you’re just using your memory inefficiently. The root of the problem might actually not be a built-in genetic inability to memorize things, but rather problems in the recall phase when you are frantically digging your memory to find the thing(s) you stored earlier. Therefore improving recall should do wonders to remembering things.

You can make a normal memorizing task become an assisted recall task by linking the memorizeable information with something you already know well. One such technique is the Loci system. It is an old mnemonic link technique dating back to Simonides of Ceos and the year 500 BC (yes, the technique is more than 2500 years old!). It uses well-known locations as cues to aid memory recall. It can be used when trying to remember lists (e.g. shopping lists, lists of foreign words) or other linked information (e.g. presentation speeches, food recipes).

The Loci System

The main idea is to imagine a set of locations which one knows well, and to associate the individual locations with the items to memorise. The locations are places in space, for example a route through your house, or a familiar path in the city or a forest.

Recall is done by mentally going through the original locations again, and the familiar places will act as cues to recall the memorised items. The places should have some natural or logical order. This means that you don’t go to outer space via the kitchen cupboard, or that you would enter the attic through the oven.

You can reuse the set of locations for many memorising tasks. However, in such a case you might encounter interference from other memorised things. One way to avoid interference is to split the location into smaller locations, e.g. put certain things into the kitchen drawers instead of spreading them around the house. Another way is to be familiar with multiple locations (e.g. different big houses) and use them varyingly. For example, Dominic O’Brien (multiple times a World Memory Champion) has described learning several walking routes for this purpose.

Worked Example

Suppose you want to memorise the following list:

  • dog
  • star
  • pumpkin
  • number 5
  • original

Assume that your set of locations is those of your house. You would start by imagining yourself entering the house. After the front door, you imagine seeing a dog which wiggles its tail and barks. As you walk towards the hallway, you see stars in the roof - blinking as if you were really outside watching the sky. And as you turn to the kitchen, on the kitchen table you find a pumpkin with a number 5 carved into it. Next you imagine yourself shouting from the kitchen window: “How ORIGINAL!".

To recall the list, you imagine yourself going through the locations - in other words, taking a route - from the outer door to the hallway to the kitchen. As you go through the places, you will recall the dog, stars, etc. and can thus reconstruct the originally memorized material.

While you memorize the list by doing the associations to locations, you can easily test yourself about your progress by going through the route until you can remember all the items in order. Testing yourself is essential part of the method - you need to overlearn, and therefore you will likely not memorize the entire list with just one walk-through attempt.

Note, that the information to be stored does not necessarily have to be inherently sequential. Even nonsensical lists like the one presented above can be memorised with this method. Also, random access to the items in the memorised list is possible if you remember the locations well enough. This means that you can visit the places in any order, and still get out the things you have stored.

Why Does it Work?

The Loci system helps your memory by altering the original difficult free recall (="remember something about the issue, anything”) task in three ways: first, the locations act as cues, thus the task becomes an aided recall task - in other words, one gets hints about what to remember. Second, there is an element of paired-associate learning: the location is the first word in each pair, and the item is the second word of the pair, and this also helps recall. Third, the Loci system uses serial learning, as the locations are organised in natural serial order - yet another thing which helps recall.

Example Locations

Example places which you can use are your workplace, your university, your childhood home, your local supermarket (the shelves are great for putting items in), your own body, your local golf course, your car, and so on.

You can also use the places you see while going along some route. Example routes, which you can use, are your route from home to work, the route from your home to the nearest food shop, the route you usually take with the bus, a path through a forest (with places being rocks and particular trees), and so on.

Read More

Higbee, Kenneth L., Ph.D.: Your Memory, How it Works & How to Improve It. ISBN 1-56924-629-7. (Chapter 10)


The title picture is by Ugne Vasyliute on Unsplash.