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What's the Easiest Memory System?

You have probably heard of the loci memory system, whether by that name or another. With this mnemonic system, you "place" the things that are to be memorized in set locations in your imagination, so you can "find" them there when you need them. This system is generally attributed to Simonides, from a story told by Cicero, an ancient Roman philosopher.

The story is that the poet Simonides stepped outside during a party, and the roof of the hall collapsed, killing many people. The bodies were crushed beyond recognition, but Simonides knew the guests, and was able to identify the bodies by remembering where each had been sitting. This experience lead Simonides to the idea of a system for memorizing things by associating mental images of them with locations.

Ancient Greek and Roman orators used his system to memorize speeches without written notes. For example, the "parts" of the speech could be mentally placed in different places along a familiar path, and while giving the speech, the speaker would walk the path in his or her mind to "see" the next part of his presentation. It was possible to rehearse and further memorize a speech by repeatedly taking that walk in one's imagination, and reviewing the important points along the way.

Memorizing Speeches

Suppose you're going to give a speech on the need for better education for children. For this system, you use a stretch you've walked near your house, with twenty locations along the route as place-holders. They might include a tree, a store, a corner, a house, and anything else that works for you.

As you give the speech, you imagine your mental route. A mailbox along the route - one of your place-holders, has books spilling off the top. It's an image you created while rehearsing a part of your speech about the need for better textbooks. It brings to mind that part of the speech, and you find it easy to continue. Soon you have moved in your imagination to the next stop on the walk, of course, with another image that will help you recall the next important points in the speech.

If it helps, you can place more than one item in each location. In the example above, as you reach a big tree that is along your way, you might see examinations falling out of the tree and a huge cake underneath it, to help you recall what you want to say about testing and rewards for good grades. With this system, strong associations help. That usually means unusual associations, such as those exams falling from the tree - but more on that in a moment.

Other Uses for the Loci Memory System

For many years, my own loci memory system used ten locations in my house. The first was a window at the front of the house, followed by a microwave oven, the kitchen sink, and so on around the home. My locations or "place holders" were in order, starting at the front of the house and ending near the back. This makes it easy to move from one "loci" to the next mentally.

When I remember to use the system (no joke intended), it works very well for memorizing and recalling lists of things or even ideas. If, for example, I am on my way to the store and have a list of things I need to buy, I quickly place them in order in my places. At the store I can easily walk through my house in my mind and recall everything.

One key is to make your mental images outrageous. If, for example, the first three things on my list are bread, bananas and potato chips, I might imagine someone throwing slices of bread at my window, bananas dancing in the microwave, and someone carefully washing potato chips in the kitchen sink. If I need to fit more than ten items into my ten places I can also have potato chips dancing with bananas in the microwave oven.

Wild images like these make it easy to recall everything on the list, even hours or days later. I take a quick mental tour of the house and everything is there. It's one of the easiest memorization systems you can try, requiring only that you permanently memorize ten or twenty locations initially.

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