Have you ever wondered how some people manage to learn multiple decks of cards in perfect sequence, list thousands of items, or recall vast tracts of poetry? These feats are so foreign to our sense of what our memory is normally capable of that we often assume that some kind of special brainpower is the only way to account for them.
In almost all such cases, though, a remarkably simple technique can take the credit. Memory palaces are said to be the brainchild of a man named Simonides, who famously nipped out of a banquet at the moment the hall happened to collapse, killing the guests inside. His luck was twofold: not only did he survive, but he realised he could recall the exact location of the less fortunate dinner guests, and thereby identify their otherwise unrecognisable remains.
After Simonides, the Greeks came to understand that our most robust and powerful memory is for spaces and what happens in them. We learn their structure and contents effortlessly, absorbing hundreds of "facts" without even noticing it. Whenever we conjure up a memory, one of the first things we recall is where the event took place. This is most likely a legacy of our mammalian ancestors, who had plenty of practice at locating familiar sources of food and shelter.
The Greeks' innovation was to co-opt these powerful spatial and visual systems into the service of learning more abstract information. They practiced transforming lists of words into colorful sets of objects, which they arranged in their imagination around familiar spaces. Then they learned to automatically translate these images back to their original meaning.
How to create your own memory palace
Let's explore how this works by attempting to learn 40 of Shakespeare's plays in chronological order (see PDF below). This may sound like a daunting task, but if you follow these six steps, you should be able to do it.
• First, think of a familiar route. The path from your bedroom to the local shop, for example, via the rest of your house. The first stop might be your bed, the second your wardrobe, then your doorway or bathroom. Don't be afraid to pass through walls. Try and imagine a 40-stop route in total.
• Think of an image to correspond with each play. As we know, vivid images are marvellous for memory. Imagine The Two Gentlemen of Verona as two men in bowler hats wrestling, for instance; The Taming of the Shrew could be a vicious shrew being tamed; King Henry VI parts 2, 3 and 1 might be Prince Harry, aged six, trying to count to three, and instead counting 2, 3, 1... You get the picture. Remember, always go with your own personal associations – not necessarily the examples given here. We've left a column on the PDF for you to fill in with your own vivid images.
• Imagine walking along the route, linking the images and locations together in your mind. The two gentlemen might be wrestling on your bed, for example; the shrew might be in your wardrobe; a six-year-old Prince Harry could be standing at your bedroom door, and so on. Continue in this way until each play has found a place in the sequence. Try to feel the emotion you would experience if these scenes were actually taking place in your house: disgust, elation, suspicion, surprise. This will help etch the images into your memory.
• Practise recalling the plays in order. After a couple of walk-throughs, in which you practise recalling the images in the correct order, you're ready to recite the plays of Shakespeare in chronological order. Close your eyes, go along the route and translate each image into the correct play as you encounter it. Sometimes, you might find that you can't remember what the image stands for. Don't worry about that, just make a mental note and try again. It'll soon become automatic.
• Practise recalling the plays backwards. One of the great advantages of spatial memory is how flexible it is. You should be able to list the plays backwards as well as forwards. Also, try challenging yourself by asking: "What comes before Cymbeline? What comes after?" (This is also a good way to while away time on the commute to work.)
With this method, it's possible to learn lists that are thousands of items long. Spatial memory is extraordinarily capacious in this way: if you are willing to spend the time arranging a thousand images in your mind, you'll be able to learn a thousand item list. Imagine that!