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The Method of Loci

One of the oldest mnemonic systems is the method of loci [LOW-sye]. A "locus" is a location, "loci" is the plural. The method of loci uses locations of a familiar place (imagined in memory) as a framework for memory retrieval.

To use the method of loci, you associate items you wish to remember later with locations of a familiar room, building, or street. Then, to retrieve the information, you mentally "stroll down memory lane" and visualize the same locations. If the method works, the information you stored in various locations will come back with the memory of the location. To be effective, one must usually visualize an object "doing something" or interacting in some way with the objects at a particular location (see the following section on interactive imagery).

What is the story of Simonides, and how does it illustrate the Method of Loci?

The method of loci is ancient. Cicero, the Roman orator, recommended it. Lecturers in his day were not allowed to use lecture notes, so memorization techniques were valued.

Cicero told a traditional story about how the method of loci was discovered. A Greek poet named Simonides was entertaining a group of wealthy noblemen at a banquet. Suddenly a pair of mysterious figures called him outside. They turned out to be messengers from the Olympian gods Castor and Pollux, praised by Simonides in his poem. As soon as Simonides stepped outside, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, squashing everybody inside. The mangled corpses could not be identified until Simonides stepped forward, pointed to the place where each victim had been sitting, and said each name in turn.

How did Simonides accomplish this feat? He mentally recreated the scene of the banquet, visualizing each reveler in his place. When he saw the places, it helped him remember the person who had been sitting there.

How did a mother use a technique similar to the method of loci?

The mother of one student used a technique similar to the method of loci with her children.

I can remember quite clearly something Momma did when we were small. If she told us to do something and we forgot what it was, she would make us go and sit or stand where we were when she told us, until we remembered. If we went to tell her something and forgot what it was, she would tell us to go back to where we were when we decided to tell her and we would remember what it was.

I can recall her doing this to me only twice but I recall laughing at my sisters and brothers when she did this. I was only about five or six years old, the baby of twelve children and they actually looked stupid to me doing this. It worked though, and we still find ourselves doing this to remember things up to this day. It doesn't seem as crazy as it did about fourteen years ago. [Author's files]

What is the underlying process that makes this work?

Why did this work? The children associated their memories with a location, like Simonides in the classic story. When the children returned to the location where they encoded the memory, they got some cues that helped them retrieve the memory. So the underlying process was the same for the children and for Simonides: locations provided cues to jog memory. This is a particularly good technique to use with children, because memory for location involves implicit memory. One does not make a conscious effort to remember locations; it just happens. Children are just as good as adults at implicit memory, which is not true of other forms of memory.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey