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An ancient memorization strategy might cause lasting changes to the brain (theverge.com)
215 points by jaboutboul on March 19, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

There is a very interesting book on this topic - memory competitions - the book is about how ordinary people using an ancient Roman technique (Memory palace) becomes extraordinary memorizers. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything https://www.amazon.com/Moonwalking-Einstein-Science-Remember...

I could pickup the technique to help me in my day to day life. For very little investment in efforts it managed to drastically improve my life.

Context: I consider myself quite challenged when it comes to memorizing numbers.

The technique described in the book (and in this article) allowed me to remember details of a financial instrument which involves 32 numbers without any pattern. Whenever I have to use this instrument I have to input random 6 numbers out of those 32. Before I discovered this technique I had to pull out the hardcopy of the instrument every time for reference (it was painful - sometime it will be not in my possession, or it would be buried inside some cabinet etc.)

The technique that I use/adapted essentially is, I use mental map of a roadway which I’m intimately familiar with to place the 32 numbers on the various 32 landmark along the way (landmarks can be anything - a funny looking rock next to the road will also do. The key is one should be able to visualize it very clearly). So, whenever I need to retrieve numbers I mentally ’drive’ on the road and start checking out the landmarks. Example: I need to retrieve number corresponding to landmarks 5,9,15,20.. I start ‘driving’ reach landmark no. 5 and able to remember immediately this landmark is associated with number 29, then I move on and reach to next landmark, when I ‘reach’ that one I’m able to recollect that this landmark has number 89 associated with it, and so on…

Somewhere I read that it works so well because as a human species we have ability to remember geo spatial things much better than abstract things like numbers. I would guess that it has to do with our hunter-gatherer days when we were primarily dealing with spatial concepts; brain is hard wired to store those information much better than things like numbers.

Another good books to suggest are books written by Harry Lorayne[0]. You could also see his demonstrations in youtube. His books were published long before Moonwalking with Einstein, most of them are similar to Lorayne's system and I would recommend it for those who want to improve and train further on memorizing things.

Also for those who want a book that demonstrates the use of creating a memory palace, I would recommend The Memory Palace - Learn Anything and Everything[1]. You'll just learn the 37 plays of Shakespeare wherein almost of the descriptions were funny.

I also listen to a free audiobook Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It by William Walker Atkinson[2].

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Lorayne

[1] - https://www.amazon.com/Memory-Palace-Anything-Everything-Sha...

[2] - https://librivox.org/memory-how-to-develop-train-and-use-it-...

+1 for Harry Lorayne. I learned how to memorize long lists, numbers, dates, as well as decks of cards (backward, forward, by card number or if given a card, I'd call it's number in the deck). Fun stuff, and quite useful too.

And +1 for William Walker Atkinson. That man has written so much it's incredible.

Also highly recommended by Mr. Atkinson: The Power of Concentration (under his pen name Theron Q. Dumont) .

For numbers, I think mapping them to consonants helps: 1-> t/d, 2 -> n (as it has two things on bottom), 3 -> m (3 things on bottom), 4 -> r (ends in r), 5 -> l, 6 -> j/ch, 7 -> g/k, 8 -> f/ph, 9 -> p/b. Now plug in some vowels and make words / a sentence for whatever numbers you need, e.g. mud riddle -> 31415 -> 3.1415. I forgot where I learned this many years ago, but its probably on some random website.

According to your technique "mud riddle" should map to 314115. There're two d's. Anyway, the method seems interesting.

It's called the major system and it's based off the sonority rather than the spelling. Great system.

But then how do you remember a number that really does have repeated digits? I'd never be able to remember my phone number under this system.

To remember the number 1111, `to do today`. Or even "today today".

You construct words by mapping consonant sounds to numbers and using whatever vowels you need to construct words.

Other people learn gibberish sentences instead. They break down the number into groups of two, three, or four and use pre-memorized words for each group of words.

So to memorize the number "102457692" they might break it up into three groups: 102, 457, 692. Then they have a word memorized for "102" (ton) and a word for "457" (rolling), and "692" (cheapen). They memorize the number as `ton rolling cheapen`.

Words are easier to memorize than numbers, even if the words don't form proper sentences.

Most memorizers have preset mnemonic images for each number -- usually 0-9 and 00-99. Competitors often have images for 000-999 to further reduce repeated images.

Example: 123-555-2222

123 is always encoded as "tomb" in my phonetic system. 555 is always lilacs. 22 is always an onion.

When an image repeats, I place a mirror at that spot.

So 123-555-2222 becomes: a tomb, lilacs, an onion, and an mirror. I store them in a certain order with a story to keep them in order.

You can intersperse the vowels and the letters w, h, y anywhere you like.

Can confirm this works amazingly well. A buddy and I used to do this in a high school class. We'd give each other lists of 50 random words and have them memorized in a minute or so by 'attaching' them to items in the room. It's surprising how long those attachments were maintained.

Moonwalking is a fascinating book, but it is not actually a how-to-memorize-things book. It only mentions various techniques. See other comments here for Harry Lorayne's books if you just want nuts and bolts on how to memorize things.

When you are recalling these long numbers, how do you actually do it? The road construct sounds like it would take quite awhile as you 'drive down the road'. Do you write each number down, pause and recollect the next number, write it down, pause and recollect... etc.? How does this work if there people around? It sounds like you would need some quiet to do this. Thanks.

> The road construct sounds like it would take quite awhile as you 'drive down the road...

Not really. I phrased it that way ("driving down") for a simple explanation. I actually zip around at light speed on that road :-). After doing it for a while I can now 'jump' from landmark to landmark instantly.

> Do you write each number down, pause and recollect the next number, write it down, pause and recollect...

Yes. The moment I get a number I enter that in a text field (I'm actually using this to fill up a bank form for completing financial transactions). It does not matter if I'm in a noisy place or not, it does not need super focus or anything like that.

Interesting. Do you re-use the same map for remembering different numbers?

Good question. Actually no, once I tried doing it and it was a mess. But it could be due to my limited capacity of handling numbers. YMMV.

Dumb question I've always wondered. How do you reset the memory palace? I feel like old things you stored would stick in your memory and get confusing.

Memory palaces are not some magic thing which store images permanently in your head. You need to use spaced repetition with them if you want to achieve that effect. I can easily use the same palace/journey to store one list after another (in competition or in daily use cases). I know my palaces and if I want them clear then I simply see them clear, it is that easy, absolutely nothing is confusing. People are trying to analyze it too much instead of just using this very simple technique :)

I read "moonwalking with Einstein" and can relay what it said in the book about this.

You mentally walk through your memory palace and clean it out. You walk through every room and look at every nook and cranny and imagine them clean.

As far as I understand you don't do this every day, but every once in a while or before competitions.

This sounds analogous to a stop-the-world GC. I wonder whether it's possible to construct a method for dealing with memory palaces that is more analogous to a non-stop-the-world GC?

If you can figure out how to have two active conscious thoughts simultaneously, please share!

Learn to play and improvise on a polyphonic musical instrument.


The voices in my head sometimes talk over each other ;)

Lots, and I mean lots, of caffeine. Or just working in IT.

I'll happily task my Tulpa with cleaning the memory palace, after I finally manage to instantiate a Tulpa thread in my head...

Ive known of this technique since college, ~10 years or so now, and have always been interested in it, but have never fully committed to learning or mastering it. My memory is usually pretty good, almost photographic often times (though if so its certainly limited). That coupled with Google, I think, has made me think it not worth the effort, but I may need to rethink that.

you can do all kinds of things to "batch" things. Like make it all in ice, or jello, or water, etc etc.

however most of the time it isn't too much of a problem if you want to repeat memorization in short period of time if the things you are remembering are different. So when trying to remember something like cards it can be problematic without adding something like above.

Some good resources for beginners: https://mullenmemory.com/ http://artofmemory.com/

You can't just imagine something and remember it forever, combine mnemotechniques with: http://www.retrievalpractice.org/ https://www.supermemo.com/en/articles/20rules http://rs.io/anki-tips/

Thanks for the mention. :)

If anyone is near SF you can learn how to do the techniques (free) at our memory club: http://artofmemory.com/sf and train for our upcoming memory championships (SF Bay Area and internationally) at https://memoryleague.com/

Source study without The Verge garbage-ification


Memory palace tutorial: http://artofmemory.com/start

Is this the one used in the study mentioned in the article?

the original paper says they used memocamp

How easy is it to reuse the memory palace?

Ultimately I'd like to use this technique to remember played cards during a card game. I can remember most cards quite easily, but often when it comes to the last 3-8 cards, I can't be 100% sure what they are.

Though I'm not sure it's worth my time. I already remember more cards than my usual opponents.

Joshua Foer never explains how to forget and reuse. I've never understood it. I can still remember the shopping list I memorized while reading his book six years ago.

There is a passage in the book about cleaning up the palace before the last competition. He mentally walks through all the rooms and imagine them empty and clean.

I think he spends a day or a weekend to thoroughly clean up before the championship.

Think remembering birthdays is difficult? Try memorizing two decks of cards in five minutes or less. That is what Joshua Foer did to win the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship...

“Moonwalking With Einstein” does just that: It takes the reader on Foer’s journey from memory novice to national champion.


The (unofficial) current card memorization record is 14.09 seconds on http://memoryleague.com/

even the opening of the article is misleading. memory palace is great for silly memory competitions but I've never seen anyone mention they used it to remember birthdays.

I'm using it for that, I have database of all my friends and family. You can use memory palaces for everything. Just remember that you need to use spaced repetition as with every other thing you want to know forever.

How do you structure it? Do you have a palace ordered by months/dates with people placed in?

No, I have these people standing in locations on the journey. Each person have information stored in parts of their bodies. Place for scenes encoding birthdays is on their heads, I need to "zoom" there to see it. E.g scene on my girlfriend's head: Joanna Jędrzejczyk (01) is standing in the heap of chestnuts (october), while Adam Nowak (19) is stomping dynamically (71) on something. I'm using PAO ( http://artofmemory.com/wiki/Person-Action-Object_(PAO)_Syste... ) with Dominic System ( http://artofmemory.com/wiki/Dominic_System ) which gives me ability to store up to 6 integers as one image, but I encode months symbolically and not as numbers.

There is some information on this page on reusing memory palaces: http://artofmemory.com/wiki/Memory_Palace

I started practicing the method of loci when I was in Toastmasters. Over the course of a year, I went from literally reading my entire speech off of paper, to speaking without any notes at all. That one change made an unbelievable difference in my confidence and helped turn me into a pretty damned good public speaker.

I highly recommend it to anyone who dislikes doing presentations.

how do you apply this technique to speeches? Like, what do you store in the locations? Topics, or whole sentences?

Key ideas of the speech.

Some people remember transition phrases but that never seemed helpful for me.

In the end spend time remembering a few core ideas and practice the speech freely a few times.

I actually don't write speeches anymore - i just think of a rough structure and practice until i get through it in a way i like. Then refine beginning and ending, make sure the core ideas are clear to me - and it's in my head for a while. Means I'll never give the same speech twice, but it's also more fun for me as i learn new things/ideas while speaking :)

From PGP's Passphrase FAQ:

> "Shocking nonsense" means to make up a short phrase or sentence that is both nonsensical and shocking in the culture of the user, that is, it contains grossly obscene, racist, impossible or other extreme juxtaposition of ideas. This technique is permissable because the passphrase, by its nature, is never revealed to anyone with sensibilities to be offended.


Interesting, Whenever i have trouble understanding an algorithm/code its usually because of not being able to remember what everything does. It usually not a due to a lack of logical reasoning.

As much as I disliked my time spent with perl several decades ago, the terseness did allow for some impressive "stunts" due to the amount of moving parts one ~80x40 window of code could present to the coder.

God help anyone trying to read that stuff after the fact.

> one group was trained in the method of loci, and they practiced using an online course for six weeks, 30 minutes per day.

Does someone know if the course referred to in the article is available to anyone?

It's not so difficult as to require a course. Literally, the Art of Memory website and forum will do you well (they even discuss more advanced techniques on there such as Gavino's Massive Memory Palace).

I can confirm that within two hours of learning the technique, I was able to memorize a list of 100 random objects with 100% recall hours later, even days later without practice. You could ask me where an object was in relation to another, you could ask me to name them backwards... you could even pick an object at random and I could work forwards and backwards from it.

The effectiveness of the method of loci shocked me to say the least. And I showed anyone that was willing to see. Everyone thought there was some sort of trick, it seems impossible to be able to memorize that many objects so easily. Truth be told, you can go to 1,000+ if you want to. It's all just a matter of what you want to remember.

You can train with the techniques at https://memoryleague.com/

Start with "images" by linking each image to the next one to form a story, and pick up the techniques for the other disciplines at http://artofmemory.com/start

Wow, this is why HN is awesome. Just wanted to say thanks for Art of Memory! It's helped me a lot, especially the discussion forums.

Thanks for mentioning the site, and glad to hear that it's useful. :)

I kind of used that technique when I was working as sales for small gastronomy single-use plasticware.

I went to a customer without notepad, he was telling me what he needs like 20-30 items with amounts, and the way I was able to remember that list was because at the time person was telling what he needs I was imagining place in the truck where I had what he needed.

So only reading that story I realised that I was using some technique that I never heard before.

I enjoyed Moonwalking with Einstein, but I felt that it was more story than technique.

I found [Unlimited Memory](https://www.amazon.com/Unlimited-Memory-Advanced-Strategies-...) a nice follow-up to the former.

Nearly any habitual task causes "lasting changes to the brain". Plasticity is not only real, but normative.

This is true. Indeed, the true question usually revolves around transfer. That is, as your brain changes in response to a certain memory task (e.g. recognition of visual objects) to get better at it, will those changes transfer benefits to other types of memory tasks (e.g. recall of visual objects), or tasks which have a memory component (e.g. navigation).

Transfer has been the bane of most cognitive training paradigms. Improvements are seen in the same task, but do not seem to transfer to conceptually related tasks. One idea to overcome problems in transfer has been to identify tasks which inordinately rely on core cognitive processes of memory (e.g. recollection vs. familiarity; Yonelinas, 2002), or relational binding (Konkel & Cohen, 2009). Another idea might be to train using memory strategies, like loci. Typically that research looks to whether using a particular strategy benefits memory, and frequently, does that strategy work in a particular population with poorer memory (e.g. children, adults with Alzheimer)

Very interesting. Did these ideas bear fruit?

I diverted my attention to lower hanging fruit in my Ph.D., so stopped following that literature closely. Overall I think that unless you already exercise regularly, exercising will have a larger effect on cognitive ability than any task-based cognitive training regimen.

Amen. Let's stop getting all excited every time someone shows the brain changes in response to some repeated activity. That's what it's supposed to do!

Moreover if it didn't cause lasting changes to the brain, there would be no memories!

On a dofferent note this story is on the front page from past several days even though it has only 49 points as of now.

How unusual :) I'm reading Conceptual Blockbusting, based on the recommendation in programming pearls (another great book btw). It just walked me through the method of loci technique as a demonstration of using long term memory.

Does this explain why it's easy to remember complex concepts using analogies as we're mapping new ideas to something we're familar with?

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