There are two types of memory: Natural Memory and Artificial Memory. Natural memory is the memory we create, without any effort, of an event, thought, sensation, etc. Artificial memory is the memory we deliberately make a special effort to build or retain. Thus mnemonics, which aid or exemplify the memory, have to do with the artificial memory; a mind palace, the subject of this post, is a kind of mnemonic. Mind palaces are not so much for memorizing things as for remembering them.
The ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC) is the one usually credited with inventing the mnemonic sometimes called a mind palace. This art of memory was taught by the ancients through to medieval times as an easy and accurate way to remember things in times when not many knew how to write.
Simonides was invited to write a poem in honor of a nobleman of Thessaly, he did and recited it at a banquet held by the nobleman. In a section of his poem Simonides praised the twin demigods Castor and Pollux. This angered the nobleman, who proceeded to tell Simonides that, because the poem was only half in his praise, he would not pay its full price. He told Simonides that if he wished for his full payment he must request it of the two gods themselves. Later that night as the banquet continued, a servant came into the room with a message for Simonides telling him two men were outside who wished to speak with him. Simonides went outside looking for the men, but found no one. As he stood outside, the roof of the banquet room collapsed, and the nobleman and everyone in the room were crushed and killed. So it was that the demigods Castor and Pollux paid for their share of the poem by drawing Simonides outside in time to save his life. After the accident when people came to retrieve the bodies for burial, the corpses were so mangled that they could not be recognized. However, Simonides was able to remember where each man at the table had been sitting in relation to the rest of the room and to the dinner table, and so was able to identify the remains. That is the story of how Simonides of Ceos discovered the principles of the art he is reputed to have created.
He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, … . (Cicero, De Oratore, II, lxxxvi – translation: Sutton & Rackham, 1942)
A mind palace is, quite simply, a building in which to store memories. The trick is that this building is not a memory but a place, and this place is contained within your mind. A mind palace for storing memories: it is, as Mycroft Holmes calls it, a memory palace.
In ancient Greece this art of memory was taught to students as a part of rhetoric. Were you to go back in time, you could watch a rhetoric student wander through a large and mostly empty building, memorizing the building until he could visualize it clearly with closed eyes. The building became a place in the student’s imagination to which he could go whenever he wished.
After making himself familiar with the building, a student would select different places in it such as an arch, the corner of a room, or a tabletop. These places are called loci (pronounced ‘loh-sigh,’ singular form locus). Then he would go, in his imagination, to a particular place in the building and put there an image of something that would remind him of whatever he wanted to remember. He could then walk through the building along a designated route, seeing the images he had put down as he went along and recalling as he saw them what they stood for.
There are two ways these images can be used: As a reminder of a particular word or as a reminder of a particular thing. However, images for words are much more complicated and time consuming than those used for things, and were not often used by the ancients except as a practice to strengthen the mind. The following notes and techniques for the building and use of a mind palace concern images for things only.
BUILDING A MIND PALACE
The palace is a place in a person’s mind where memories are stored. The first step in building a mind palace is to choose a building. A palace can be any type of building, real or fictitious. Learn your palace by heart so that you can walk through it with ease in your imagination, then choose a route to follow when moving through your palace.
Particular places in a mind palace are called loci. These places should have enough space between them that they don't become confused with each other, the distance needed is different for everyone. If the lighting around a locus is bad it may be difficult to see the images well, and if the room around a locus is very brightly colored or shiny it may be distracting. Designate loci throughout your mind palace. The more loci there are in your palace the more memories there are room for. The more the merrier.
Placed on loci are images, used to recall memories by the attachment of the image with the memory. An image can be of anything (friend, cupcake, etc.), but it must be associated in some way with what you want to remember. For example, the name of the object could rhyme with the name of what you want to remember. If you want to remember something a certain person said you could use an image of that person holding or doing something related to what they said. If you want to remember to get some eggs at the grocery store you could put a carton of eggs on the front porch of your palace. It might be added here that Whovians will have no problem finding images for numbers one through twelve. Images of people work well. The more memorable and unique an image is the better. Emotionally memorable qualities make an image easily remembered. A funny, beautiful, or grotesque image is much better than a banal one. A simple way to make an image more memorable is to mentally splash some red paint on it.
Once you have established your mind palace and loci, create a route in your palace and make a habit of following it. A designated pathway is very useful for memorizing long lists, as it insures that you will visit each locus, and in the correct order. It is best that this route always be followed both on the way in, and the way out, of your palace.
To store a memory in your mind palace, attach or associate the memory with an image, then go into your palace and place that image on a locus. Some find it useful to store different categories of things to be remembered into their own rooms, e.g. a certain room for names and a certain room for math formulas.
When reviewing your memories, go into your palace and walk along your designated route, stopping as you go along at each locus and its image to recall its memory. The more often you walk through your palace reviewing your images and loci the stronger they will become, try to review your loci and images at least once a week, if not daily. How often you review them depends simply on how important it is to you to keep them. It’s surprising though how long they will stay without being reviewed; I’ve forgotten to review my own for months at a time, only to find when I enter my mind palace again that they have not faded, though they may have grown shabby and accumulated dust. But I should add that before that I had been reviewing them constantly.
To delete an image, go to the locus it is on and stare at the image until it disintegrates and eventually disappears; or simply pick up the image and carry it out of your palace. Different people prefer different methods, and there are more than are listed here.
Mnemonics (arts of memory) have been valued through the ages not only as an aid to memory but also as a moral control of the imagination, which the stoics believed to be an important part of ethics. I think it’s neat that in his earliest work on rhetoric, De invention, Cicero defines virtue as, “a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature,” and lists, as one of its four parts, Prudence, which he describes as “the knowledge of what is good, what is bad and what is neither good nor bad. Its parts are memory, intelligence, foresight. Memory is the faculty by which the mind recalls what has happened. ...” Cicero’s definition of the virtues played an important role in the formulation of the four cardinal virtues during the Middle Ages, at which time the artificial memory was thought of as part of the cardinal virtue Prudence.
When I built my mind palace I originally planned to use it to remember stuff. And I do, but not very often. More often I use it as sort of place to go to in my imagination to think. It's a place where I can go to to be alone. I’ve never told anyone what it’s like, when I imagine it I’m the only one who’s ever imagined it: I have its only key. My mind palace is a place where can go to be still and to think and for me that’s wonderful.
x x x
Most of the information here was found in the book The Art of Memory, by Francis A. Yates. Various Wikipedia pages were also informative, but especially this post: How to Build Your Own Mind Palace, from the blog another boy who lived. I'd love to hear what you all think of mind palaces - if any of you use one or are thinking of building one. xx