Method of loci  

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Method of lociIllustration: Theatrum Orbi engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry
Method of loci
Illustration: Theatrum Orbi engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry

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The Method of Loci or Ars memoriae (art of memory in Latin) or Mnemotechnics is a technique for memorizing many things and has been practiced since classical antiquity. It is a type of mnemonic link system based on places (loci, otherwise known as locations), used most often in cases where long lists of items are concerned. It was taught for many centuries as a part of the curriculum in schools, enabling an orator to easily remember a speech or students to easily remember many things at will. There are different techniques and approaches for the "Method of Loci", and in medieval schools (as in Aristotle, Topics, Bk. 8), "Ars Memoriae" was considered to be equally a part of dialectics as of rhetoric.


Loci as architecture and the "Memory Palace"

In ancient advice, loci were physical locations, usually in a familiar large public building, such as a market or a church. To utilize this method, one walked through the building several times, viewing distinct places within it, in the same order each time. After a few repetitions of this, one should be able to remember and visualize each of the places in order reliably. To memorize a speech, one breaks it up into pieces, each of which is symbolized by vivid imagined objects or symbols. In the mind's eye, one then places each of these images into different loci. They can then be recalled in order by imagining that one is walking through the building again, visiting each of the loci in order, and viewing each of the images that were placed in the loci, thereby recalling each piece of memory or speech in order.

In all mnemonic arts, advice is given that the mental palaces should be well lit, clearly set out in a particular order, at moderate intervals apart. The more architectural elaborations of rooms, passages and niches it has the better — in the sixteenth century, the sequence of architectural loci was sometimes called a "Memory Palace." But the loci were also to be grouped or "chunked" in "brief" sets of items, no more than what the mind's eye can encompass in one glance: this is the medieval equivalent of what we now call a "working memory" (Carruthers, 1990, Dudai 2002). Loci can actually be used to remember more than one set of ordered things. The images may be replaced by new ones--the loci are the "wax tablet" or "page" on which one writes the images, as one can write with a stylus onto a more permanent surface. The characteristics of the images one uses are very important. They should be unusual, vivid and striking, and it is good if they have emotional content as well. Humorous, obscene or sacrilegious ones (as they may seem to us) are often used. The goal is to make a uniquely memorable picture (Frances Yates 1966, Small 1997).

Because one can readily imagine moving through a memory structure starting at some arbitrary point, one can easily recall the list starting from any point in it, and even recall it easily in reverse order. Prodigious memory feats have been attributed to this method. The art of memory is an aid to composition and rhetoric, not an aid to rote memorization. In the Middle Ages, it was carefully distinguished from rote, for with rote memory, one must always go in the same order. The use of loci within a system produced a sort of memory which one can enter from an infinite number of places, and thus one can work with it-- change it about, shuffle, go backwards or forwards or jump around (Carruthers 1990; Carruthers, Ziolkowski 2002).


The method comes down to us through a work in Latin by an unknown author. (Yates 1966) The piece, called Rhetorica ad Herennium, is estimated to have been written around 85 BC, though it is unlikely that it was original with this author. The author of this textbook of rhetoric examines each of the five parts of rhetoric, including as the fourth part memoria in which he explains the method of loci. It is the only complete source from the classical world to survive, although there are brief references to the method by others, including Cicero and Quintilian, the chief teachers of rhetoric in the ancient and medieval worlds, and later in the Renaissance.

It was used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Cicero himself as Cicero describes it in his work De Oratore. (Yates 1966) According to De Oratore, the method was invented by Simonides of Ceos. As the story goes, Simonides was attending a dinner with a number of notable Greeks, after which he had stepped outside. Suddenly, the roof of the building collapsed, killing everyone inside. During the excavation of the rubble, Simonides was called upon to identify each guest killed. He managed to do so by correlating their identities to their positions (loci) at the table before his departure.

The early monks adapted an art of memory as an art also of composition, as it had been taught in the ancient schools of Dialectics and Rhetoric and of meditation. It became the basic method for reading and meditating upon the Bible. Within this tradition, the art(s) of memory were passed along to the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance (or early Modern period). When Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian were revived after the thirteenth century, humanist scholars understood the language of these ancient writers within the context of the medieval traditions they knew best, which were profoundly altered by monastic practices of meditative reading and composition (Carruthers, 1990, 1998).

Saint Thomas Aquinas was an important influence in promoting the method when he defined it as a part of Prudence and recommended its use to meditate on the virtues and to improve one's piety. In scholasticism artificial memory came to be used as a method of how to remember the whole universe and the roads to Heaven and Hell (Carruthers, Ziolkowski 2002). The Dominicans were particularly important in promoting its uses (Bolzoni 2004), see for example Cosmos Rossellius. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who from 1582 until his death in 1610, worked to introduce Christianity to China, described the memory palace technique in his work, A Treatise On Mnemonics, but he advanced it only as an aid to passing examinations (a kind of rote) rather than as an instrument of new composition, though it had traditionally been taught, both in dialectics and in rhetoric, as an instrument of composition. Ricci was trying to gain favour with the Chinese imperial service, which required a notoriously difficult entry examination (Spence 1984).

Perhaps following the example of Metrodorus of Scepsis, described in Quintilian, in about 1582 Giordano Bruno used a variation of the technique in which the loci were astrological symbols of the zodiac. His elaborate method, based on the combinatoric concentric circles of the Spanish missionary preacher Ramon Llull, and filled with the images representing all the knowledge of the world, was to be used, in a magical sense, as an avenue to reach the intelligible world beyond appearances, and thus enable one to powerfully influence events in the real world. Of his five major printed works, three of them were treatises on this Hermetic occult system. Such enthusiastic claims for the encyclopedic reach of the arts of memory are a feature of early Renaissance (15th-16th century), but they gave rise as well to serious developments in logic and scientific method during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Frances Yates, 1966). Memory art came to be defined primarily as a part of Dialectics, and was assimilated in the seventeenth century, by Pierre Ramus and Rodolphus Agricola into the curriculum of Logic, where it survives to this day as a necessary foundation for the teaching of Argument (Rossi 2000, Bolzoni 2001}.

The method of loci was also related to the broader concept of learning and thinking. Aristotle considered the technique in relation to topica, or conceptual areas or issues. Thus Aristotle considered anyone who uses the method on conceptual ideas may be adept at discussing or arguing through those concepts. Students are taught the method in some educational learning to learn courses as a support for learning or manipulating the key ideas in a subject.

In 1584 a huge controversy over the method broke out in England when the Puritans attacked it as impious because it calls up absurd and obscene thoughts; this was a sensational, but ultimately not a fatal skirmish. Erasmus of Rotterdam and other humanists, Protestant and Catholic, had also chastised practitioners of the arts of memory for making extravagant claims for its efficacy, although they themselves believed firmly in a well-disposed, orderly memory as an essential tool of productive thought (Carruthers, Ziolkowski 2002; Rossi 2000). The arts of memory as such were then largely dropped from the curriculum in schools and universities, and are now mostly taught and practiced informally, though, redefined as Argumentation, versions remain essential in college composition and logic courses. Arts of memory were also taught through the nineteenth century as useful to public orators, including preachers and after-dinner speakers.

Contemporary usage

A reference to these techniques survives to this day in the common English phrases "in the first place", "in the second place", and so forth.

All top memorizers today use this technique to a greater or lesser degree. Contemporary memory competition was initiated in 1991 [1] and introduced to the USA in 1997 [2]. Part of the competition requires committing to memory and recalling a sequence of digits, 2-digit numbers, alphabetic letters, or playing cards. In a simple method of doing this, contestants, using various strategies well before competing, commit to long-term memory a unique vivid image associated with each item. They also have committed to long-term memory a familiar route with firmly established stop-points or loci. Then in the competition they need only deposit the image that they have associated with each item at the loci. To recall, they retrace the route, stop at each locus and observe the image. This they then translate back to the associated item. Memory champions elaborate on this by combining images. Eight-time World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brien[3] advocates this technique. His name for it is journey method. Or the current World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used for his world record in number half marathon, memorizing 1040 random digits in a half hour, a 300-point-long journey through his house.

Using this technique a person with ordinary memorization capabilities, after establishing the route stop-points and committing the associated images to long-term memory, with less than an hour of practice can remember the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards. The world record for this is held by Ben Pridmore at 26.28 seconds[4].

The technique is taught as a metacognitive technique in learning to learn courses. It is generally applied to encoding the key ideas of a subject. Two approaches are; 1. Link the key ideas of a subject and then deep-learn those key ideas in relation to each other. 2 Think through the key ideas of a subject in depth, re-arrange the ideas in relation to an argument, then link the ideas to loci in good order. It has been found that teaching such techniques as pure memorization methods often leads students towards surface learning only. Therefore, it has been recommended that the method of loci should be integrated thoroughly with deeper learning approaches.

In fiction

  • Memory palaces appear in Thomas Harris' novel Hannibal, in which serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter organizes his memories in an elaborate memory palace. Harris exaggerates the potential of the palace by having Lecter read entire books and transcripts of interviews with patients, but also raises the fascinating, and possibly original proposition that the palace can be a dangerous place for its owner. In one scene Lecter retires to his palace in search of comfort only to become haunted by horrific memories he, or his subconscious mind has stored there. He also uses it as a sanctuary; when he is being tortured with a cattle-prod, he enters his memory palace and lays his face against the coolness of a statue there.
  • The character Jonesy in Stephen King's novel "Dreamcatcher" uses a memory palace area as a special power.
  • In Bruce Sterling's cyberpunk novel Holy Fire, characters access a virtual reality memory palace, where memories are encoded into objects found in the rooms.
  • They also play a large role in John Crowley's World Fantasy Award-winning novel "Little, Big," where they are used as a pseudo-magical or divinatory technique by the magician Ariel Hawksquill.
  • In Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's books "The Cabinet of Curiosities", "Still Life With Crows" and "Brimstone", Agent Pendergast uses a memory palace to recreate crime scenes.
  • In Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist, the work's title character, who loses all recent memory every time he sleeps, constructs a memory palace. It is the only method by which he is able to remember anything for longer than a day.
  • Another example appears in The Ice Age cycle of the popular Magic: The Gathering books, in which many of the mages, most notably Jodah, store their repertoire of spells in a 'mental mansion'.
  • Katharine Kerr describes the usage of memory palaces throughout her Deverry novels.
  • The method is similarly used in the Black Magician Trilogy, by Trudi Canavan. Her characters all create uniquely structured "houses".
  • In Jacek Dukaj's novel Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość the protagonist uncovers a memory palace previously laid out by himself or entities who constructed and used him. At one point the character gets to actually walk and interact with the palace in a confusing kind of reality.
  • In Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert, the Monk sisters build a vast memory palace in order to augment their memories. However, the place is insidious; as new people are shown into it, they face the danger of becoming insane from information overload if they do not remember "the order of places, the order of things."
  • In Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad, Marina constructs memory mansions of the collection of the Hermitage Museum where she worked during the Siege of Leningrad.

In John C. Wright's The Last Guardian of Everness, the generations of the guardians of Everness use the method of loci to remember intricate and extensive dream lore while in a deep dream state. In the book, the method of loci used exactly corresponds with the real House of Everness that the guardians live in.

Linking in as of 2022

Activity space, Alex Mullen (memory athlete), Andi Bell, Andrea Muzii, Aphantasia, Art of memory, Ben Pridmore, Bernard de Lavinheta, Brevitas et facilitas, Chester Santos, Chronographer, Chunking (psychology), Clarice Starling, Clemens Mayer, Damnatio memoriae, De Oratore, De umbris idearum, Dominic system, Elaborative encoding, Exceptional memory, External memory (psychology), Frances Yates, Grand Master of Memory, Hannibal (Harris novel), Hannibal Lecter, His Last Vow, Ideation (creative process), International Association of Memory, Jack Dann, Johann Heinrich Alsted, Johann Schreck, Johannes Mallow, Joshua Foer, Leon of Modena, Les Lieux de Mémoire, List of people claimed to possess an eidetic memory, List of Sherlock characters, List of Sherlock episodes, Locus, Lynne Kelly (science writer), Markus Hofmann, Martin M. Wattenberg, Memoria, Memorization, Memory augmentation, Memory improvement, Memory sport, Memory, Metamemory, Mnemonic link system, Mnemonic major system, Mnemonic peg system, Mnemonic, Mnemonist, Moonwalking with Einstein, Moriarty the Patriot, Multiple trace theory, Natasha Mostert, Outline of thought, Paracosm, Passphrase, Patrick Jane, Pelmanism (system), Pi, Piphilology, Plateau effect, Primavera (Hannibal), Retrosplenial cortex, Rhetorica ad Herennium, Semiosphere, Simon Critchley, Simonides of Ceos, Sketchnoting, Solomon Shereshevsky, Songline, Spatial memory, Sri Vyshnavi Yarlagadda, Study skills, The Abominable Bride, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, The Art of Memory, The Hounds of Baskerville, The Memory Cathedral, The Memory Palace, The Quantum Thief, Tony Judt, Topics (Aristotle), Twin Mirror

See also

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