Recently I ran to the grocery store for two things. By the time I got there, I could only remember one item.
I know — that’s what grocery shopping apps are for. Thing is, I’d spaced on logging a list, and I’d forgotten my phone at home anyway.
The next morning, trash cans overflowing, I remembered: garbage bags.
This scenario happens to the best of us. Neuroscience shows as we age, pathways to the hippocampus — the seat of memory — degrade.
It’s critical, then, at midlife to reinforce our mental well-being by strengthening our resilience. So, while your body might be a temple, it’s time to think of your memory like a palace.
Give Recollection the Royal Treatment
To enhance recall, memory athletes use an age-old technique called “The Method of Loci” or “memory palace.” It’s a mnemonic device inadvertently discovered by Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos after he narrowly survived a banquet hall roof’s collapse and later used visual and spatial clues of the room from memory to identify his deceased dinner mates.
While this may sound like a lofty tool reserved for poets and performance mental athletes, new research suggests anyone can benefit from building a memory palace. After only six weeks of practicing the technique, regular people exhibited brain activity patterns similar to the pros and reported more long-lasting memories.
Who needs a password vault (or a grocery shopping app, for that matter) when you’ve got a brain hack that holds the keys to the castle of better mental retention?
Memory palace building blocks go back to toddlerhood when you learned to walk. Spatial memories — layouts of places and the placement of items in those spaces — helped you navigate the world. These impressions tend to persist over time.
Recollections of the past help you build a memory palace:
When we’re learning something new, it requires less effort if we connect it to something we already know, such as a physical place. This is known as elaborative encoding. Once we need to remember the information, we can ‘walk’ around the palace and ‘see’ the various pieces.
In other words, it’s a literal trip down memory lane. To encode new information, you place an oddball item for your brain to grab onto in that familiar place.
So, for example, I might picture my childhood bedroom and place a giant, smelly squid flowing out of the small pink wastebasket under my desk. Multiple sensory associations in a specific location helps make the mental reminder (i.e., buy trash bags) stick.
Don’t settle for letting memories light the corners of your mind. Instead, spark up your memory palace to illuminate associations that make life easier (with fewer trips to the grocery store).
The Method of Loci: Build Your Memory Palace (Farnam Street)