The Memory Palace

If objects can take on personal meaning beyond their function or value as a commodity, it seems apparent that memory may play an important role. Why would this be so? A clue to the answer might be found at the World Memory Championships. There, competition consists of rote memorization of random information such as numbers, images, or words, which must be committed to memory and then recalled exactly in sequence. To give just one example, the current world record in recalling sequential binary numbers is four thousand, one hundred and forty digits, set by Ben Pridmore in 2007.

The competitors at these events typically do not claim to have been born with exceptional memory. In some cases, they developed their interest in competition because they had trouble with memory during childhood, and they developed techniques to compensate. In other words, memory is a learned ability rather than a gift.

The technique that is nearly universally employed at these events is called the method of loci, which uses memorized spatial relationships between objects to store, correctly sequence and recall information. The method relies on the use of a detailed mental construct of a real or imagined place, often referred to as a ‘memory palace’, into which are situated objects that through associations or mnemonics will later trigger recollection of the arbitrary information to be memorized.

It seems that human spatial memory can be powerful and precise. Most of us have had the experience of viewing an object and suddenly recalling a person, place or experience that it was associated with – even decades later. Perhaps one reason why we ascribe personal meaning to objects is that under certain circumstances they are akin to the virtual construct of the memory palace. Maybe our refined spatial memory, hard-wired into our brains over millennia, helps us to remember the rapidly expanding array of abstract and emotional information which is an integral part of modern life – and which we must adapt our existing memory systems to accommodate.

Image: Taj Mahal with Four Thousand, One Hundred and Forty Binary Digits

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