The Method of Loci

The oldest known mnemonic strategy is called the method of loci ("loci" is the plural of locus, which means location, or place). It's based on the assumption that you can best remember places that you are familiar with, so if you can link something you need to remember with a place that you know very well, the location will serve as a clue that will help you to remember.

Devised during the days of the Roman Empire, the method of loci is really a sort of linking method with a twist. According to Cicero, this method was developed by the poet Simonides of Ceos, who was the only survivor of a building collapse during a dinner he attended. Simonides was able to identify the dead, who were crushed beyond recognition, by remembering where the guests had been sitting. From this experience, he realized that it would be possible to remember anything by associating it with a mental image of a location. The loci system was used as a memory tool by both Greek and Roman orators, who took advantage of the technique to give speeches without the aid of notes. Dating back to about 500 b.c., it was the most popular mnemonic system until about the mid-1600s, when the phonetic and peg systems were introduced.

This method works especially well if you're good at visualizing. Here's how it works:

  • Think of a place you know well, such as your own house.
  • Visualize a series of locations in the place in logical order. For example, picture the path you normally take in your house to get from the front door to the back door. Begin at the front door, go through the hall, turn into the living room, proceed through the dining room and into the kitchen, and so on. As you enter each location, move logically and consistently in the same direction, from one side of the room to the other. Each piece of furniture could serve as an additional location.
  • Place each item that you want to remember at one of the locations.
  • When you want to remember the items, simply visualize your house and go through it room by room in your mind. Each item that you associated with a specific location in your house should spring to mind as you mentally make your way through your home.

Here's how it would work if you wanted to remember the following shopping list:

  • shaving cream
  • peaches
  • hot dogs
  • ketchup
  • ice cream

As you visualize your house, imagine spraying shaving cream all over the front door. Don't just imagine the word "shaving cream." Really see it as you depress the nozzle and spray the foam all over the front door. Try to imagine the smell of the shaving cream, as well.

Now open the door, enter the hall, and imagine a giant peach rolling down the steps in the front hall and heading right for you. Now walk into the living room, and visualize a six-foot-tall hot dog in a bun wearing a cowboy hat and lounging by the fireplace. Enter the dining room and picture a bottle of ketchup, dressed in an old-fashioned maid's uniform, setting the table. Finally, go to the kitchen and picture a gallon of ice cream, melting as it slaves over a hot stove.

After you've visually placed all your list items around the house, when you try to remember your shopping list, all you have to do is visualize your front door. You will instantly see the shaving cream; as you enter the hall, the peach will pop into your mind; and so on. The more outrageous and unusual you make your mental images, the easier you'll find it is to remember them.

You can use this method to remember lists of items, important points in a speech, names of people at an event or meeting, things you need to do, even a thought you want to keep in mind. This method works well because it changes the way you remember, so that you use familiar locations to cue yourself about things. Because the locations are organized in an order that you know well, one memory flows into the next very easily.

You can adapt this system by adding other buildings you know very well: your office building, a mall, your friend's house, a trip through your town, your garden -- any place you know well. It doesn't matter how close or how far apart each room or location is. What is important is how distinct one place is from another. In other words, you might not want to use your town library, which is probably built with identical aisles of shelves filled with books. In addition to making each location very distinct and memorable, you'll want to be sure to have an association between an item and its location by having the item and location interact. If you were trying to remember the First Amendment and visualized a reporter just standing beside a desk in the front hall, it would not be as memorable as it would be if the reporter were busy typing the Constitution at the desk in your front hall.

You can also place more than one item in any location. If you have a list of 50 grocery items to remember, you could place 5 items at each of 10 locations. Each of these five items should interact at its location.

For example, you might think of your daily routine, beginning at home:

  • your bedroom
  • your bathroom
  • your kitchen
  • your garage
  • the driver's seat of your car

Now you must link the items that you want to remember to each of these places. Of course, first you must remember the places, but this should be easy, because they are a part of your daily routine. Then chain each item to a place; remember, the more creative and vivid your ideas, the better. Using the grocery-list example: You wake up next to a giant can of shaving cream; you find a giant peach having a bubble bath in your bathroom; a hot dog in a chef's hat is cooking you breakfast; a bottle of ketchup on wheels is parked in your spot in the garage; and a gallon of ice cream, wearing a seatbelt and sunglasses, is melting in the driver's seat. You could then picture five more items along your route to work, five more in your office, and so on.

Both the linking and the loci methods allow you to remember items on a list, but neither lets you locate just one particular item. For example, if you wanted to find the tenth item using the linking system, you'd have to work your way down through the first nine items to get to it. Of course, this is true for anything we learn in a serial way: Most people wouldn't be able to name the nineteenth letter of the alphabet without counting from A to S first.

The way around this problem is to place a distinguishing mark at every fifth place. Using the loci method, at the fifth place, you could incorporate a five-dollar bill into the image. At the tenth location, you could incorporate an image of a clock with its hands pointing to ten o'clock.

The same thing can be done with the linking method: Incorporate a five-dollar bill image into the link between the fourth and sixth items, for example, or a ten-dollar bill between the ninth and eleventh. Using these added touches, there is really no limit to the number of things you can remember with either of these two methods.

On the next page, learn about peg systems, which allow you to use associations with familiar ideas to help you remember new information.

To learn more about the various aspects of memory, see: