‘Mental Palaces’ are cool, but wouldn’t ‘Mnemonic Mansions’ be more memorable?

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose...

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose…

Saw an interesting piece in the NYT about this international Extreme Memory Tournament. I was particularly impressed with the explanation of the method used by the best “mental athletes” — a method that, despite efforts by upstarts to come up with alternative strategies, can’t be beat — to file memories so that they are available during the competition:

The technique the competitors use is no mystery.

People have been performing feats of memory for ages, scrolling out pi to hundreds of digits, or phenomenally long verses, or word pairs. Most store the studied material in a so-called memory palace, associating the numbers, words or cards with specific images they have already memorized; then they mentally place the associated pairs in a familiar location, like the rooms of a childhood home or the stops on a subway line.

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with first describing the method, in the fifth century B.C., and it has been vividly described in popular books, most recently “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Joshua Foer.

Each competitor has his or her own variation. “When I see the eight of diamonds and the queen of spades, I picture a toilet, and my friend Guy Plowman,” said Ben Pridmore, 37, an accountant in Derby, England, and a former champion. “Then I put those pictures on High Street in Cambridge, which is a street I know very well.”

As these images accumulate during memorization, they tell an increasingly bizarre but memorable story. “I often use movie scenes as locations,” said James Paterson, 32, a high school psychology teacher in Ascot, near London, who competes in world events. “In the movie ‘Gladiator,’ which I use, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe is in a field, passing soldiers, inspecting weapons.”

Mr. Paterson uses superheroes to represent combinations of letters or numbers: “I might have Batman — one of my images — playing Russell Crowe, and something else playing the horse, and so on.”…

One of the traits that makes these competitors so good is, paradoxically, their ability to forget — basically, they clean out their mental palaces between rounds, to make room for new memories.

However, they’re not as good at forgetting as they think they are. They will report that they forget everything, right away. But tests have shown that the following day, even after restocking their palaces with new memories, they can still regurgitate three-fourths of the old material.

I suppose this indicates the existence of a mental attic — a far less-organized place where memories collect dust and cobwebs, and you forget that you have them.

The fascinating thing about this method, I think, is that something so seemingly abstract as memory is so dependent on the concrete — objects and images in identifiable spaces. It’s almost like being dependent on your fingers and toes in order to count.

If I were one of these competitors, I’d call my palaces “mnemonic mansions.” That’s more memorable…

Of course, the interior of my palace or mansion would probably look like this.

9 thoughts on “‘Mental Palaces’ are cool, but wouldn’t ‘Mnemonic Mansions’ be more memorable?

  1. Doug Ross

    “it has been vividly described in popular books, most recently “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Joshua Foer.”

    I read that book. It was very good. I think. I may be remembering a different one. 🙂 Some of the techniques included placing items mentally within a familiar location as you “walk” from room to room. Or associating something with another sense – smell, taste, etc.

    Whenever I listen to the weekly rebroadcasts of Casey Kasem’s Top 40 shows on Sirius/XM’s 70’s on 7 channel, I’m amazed at how many songs from 40+ years ago I remember.

      1. Doug Ross

        The same room where I keep the names of all the 8th grade girls who snubbed me. It’s a warehouse.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Let me tell you about my biggest romantic triumph of my 8th grade year. (Actually, it was an achievement that stood for several years thereafter.)

          That year, everybody wore silver (or at least, silver-colored) ID bracelets. As embarrassing as it is to admit to such an affectation now, I had one. They were an essential accessory at Karr Junior High School in greater New Orleans.

          There was this rather attractive 9th-grade girl who rode on my bus. I don’t remember her name, but let’s call her Janice. And yes, given the time of life, she looked like a rather attractive young woman, while I looked like the scrawny little kid that I still was. You could have been forgiven for thinking she was twice my age, had you seen us together.

          Anyway, one day, Janice asked if I’d let her wear my ID (we just called them “IDs,” being way too insecure to say the word, “bracelet”). She quickly explained that it was to make an older boy jealous, and thereby draw his attentions. I didn’t care. This was progress, and I handed it over gladly.

          This arrangement lasted for several days, and I made the most of it. I kept bringing it up around people I wished to impress. I’d rub my left wrist with my right hand, and say something like, “Man, I just can’t get used to not having my ID on…”

          If I were in luck, someone would say, “Well where IS it?” But even if they didn’t, I’d plunge on… “Yeah, Janice is wearing it… you know Janice? You know, 9th grader? No? Well, you should see her. Maybe I’ll point her out… Yeah, she asked me the other day to let her wear it, and I said sure, why not…” (Note that I didn’t lie; I just let the other kids draw their own conclusions.)

          Are you picturing a 12-year-old Woody Allen, or Wally Cox, only shorter? If so, you’re pretty close to the mark. Probably more Woody than Wally. I was a pretty brash little wise guy.

          I milked that for as long as it lasted. I even had the satisfaction of seeing some people’s eyes widen at the news.

          In case anybody checked, the thing that worked in my favor was that it was in Janice’s interest to pretend that it was for real, to the extent that her self-esteem would allow it. Of course, she had to make sure that none of her friends, and especially the guy in question, got a look at ME.

          It helped that we attended a huge school, which allowed for some anonymity…

        2. Norm Ivey

          8th grade girl? Her name was Carol. I liked her; she liked Sven. How does a Norman compete with a Sven?

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Sounds too much like the old saying that neurotics build castles in the sky and psychotics live in them.

  3. Norm Ivey

    We did a memory activity in a principles of learning class back in the 1980s in which the professor gave us a list of 20 grocery items we had to memorize. He taught us this method (he called it Method of Loci) using a mental tour of campus. I was able to remember most of the items on the list for many years, but the only two I can recall now are milk (which we attached to Navy ROTC guys at their gym on Pendleton (?)) and peas (the Navy guys urinating off the Pickens Street pedestrian crossover).

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