Method of loci

This article is about Method of loci. For other uses, see Locus.
Cicero discussed the method of loci in his De Oratore.

The method of loci (loci being Latin for "places") is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualizations with the use of spatial memory, familiar information about one's environment, to quickly and efficiently recall information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique. This method is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises (in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero's De Oratore, and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria). Many memory contest champions claim to use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions' successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with using spatial memory[1] and the use of the method of loci.

The term is most often found in specialised works on psychology, neurobiology, and memory, though it was used in the same general way at least as early as the first half of the nineteenth century in works on rhetoric, logic, and philosophy.[2] John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel refer to:

'the method of loci', an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject 'walks' through these loci in their imagination and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use.[3]

The items to be remembered in this mnemonic system are mentally associated with specific physical locations.[4] The method relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish, order, and recollect memorial content. It is also known as the "Journey Method," used for storing lists of related items, or the "Roman Room" technique, which is most effective for storing unrelated information.[5]

Contemporary usage

Many effective memorisers today use the "method of loci" to some degree. Contemporary memory competition was initiated in 1991 and the first United States championship was held in 1997.[6] Part of the competition requires committing to memory and recalling a sequence of digits, two-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 have also 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. They then translate this back to the associated item. For example, Ed Cooke, a World Memory Champion Competitor, describes to Josh Foer in his book Moonwalking with Einstein how Ed Cooke uses the method of loci. First, he describes a very familiar location where he can clearly remember many different smaller locations like his sink in his childhood home or his dog's bed. Cooke also advises that the more outlandish and vulgar the symbol used to memorize the material, the more likely it will stick.

Memory champions elaborate on this by combining images. Eight-time World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brien uses this technique.[7][8] The 2006 World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house for his world record in "number half marathon", memorising 1040 random digits in a half-hour. Gary Shang has used the method of loci to memorise pi to over 65,536 (216) digits.[9]

Using this technique a person with ordinary memorisation 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 Simon Reinhard at 21.19 seconds.[10]

The technique is taught as a metacognitive technique in learning-to-learn courses.[11] 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, and
  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.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium and most other sources recommend that the method of loci should be integrated with elaborative encoding (i.e., adding visual, auditory, or other details) to strengthen memory.[12][13] However, due to the strength of spatial memory, simply mentally placing objects in real or imagined locations without further elaboration can be effective for simple associations.

A variation of the "method of loci" involves creating imaginary locations (houses, palaces, roads, and cities) to which the same procedure is applied. It is accepted that there is a greater cost involved in the initial setup, but thereafter the performance is in line with the standard loci method. The purported advantage is to create towns and cities that each represent a topic or an area of study, thus offering an efficient filing of the information and an easy path for the regular review necessary for long term memory storage.[14][15]

Something that is likely a reference to the "method of loci" techniques survives to this day in the common English phrases "in the first place", "in the second place", and so forth.[16][17]

Applicability of the term

The designation is not used with strict consistency. In some cases it refers broadly to what is otherwise known as the art of memory, the origins of which are related, according to tradition, in the story of Simonides of Ceos and the collapsing banquet hall.[18] For example, after relating the story of how Simonides relied on remembered seating arrangements to call to mind the faces of recently deceased guests, Stephen M. Kosslyn remarks "[t]his insight led to the development of a technique the Greeks called the method of loci, which is a systematic way of improving one's memory by using imagery."[19] Skoyles and Sagan indicate that "an ancient technique of memorization called Method of Loci, by which memories are referenced directly onto spatial maps" originated with the story of Simonides.[20] Referring to mnemonic methods, Verlee Williams mentions, "One such strategy is the 'loci' method, which was developed by Simonides, a Greek poet of the fifth and sixth centuries BC"[21] Loftus cites the foundation story of Simonides (more or less taken from Frances Yates) and describes some of the most basic aspects of the use of space in the art of memory. She states, "This particular mnemonic technique has come to be called the "method of loci".[22] While place or position certainly figured prominently in ancient mnemonic techniques, no designation equivalent to "method of loci" was used exclusively to refer to mnemonic schemes relying upon space for organization.[23]

In other cases the designation is generally consistent, but more specific: "The Method of Loci is a Mnemonic Device involving the creation of a Visual Map of one's house."[24]

This term can be misleading: the ancient principles and techniques of the art of memory, hastily glossed in some of the works, cited above, depended equally upon images and places. The designator "method of loci" does not convey the equal weight placed on both elements. Training in the art or arts of memory as a whole, as attested in classical antiquity, was far more inclusive and comprehensive in the treatment of this subject.

Spatial mnemonics and specific brain activation

Brain scans of "superior memorizers", 90% of whom use the method of loci technique, have shown that it involves activation of regions of the brain involved in spatial awareness, such as the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and the right posterior hippocampus.[25][26] The medial parietal cortex is most associated with encoding and retrieving of information. Patients who have medial parietal cortex damage have trouble linking landmarks with certain locations; many of these patients are unable to give or follow directions and often get lost. The retrosplenial cortex is also linked to memory and navigation. In one study on the effects of selective granular retrosplenial cortex lesions in rats, the researcher found that damage to the retrosplenial cortex led to impaired spatial learning abilities. Rats with damage to this area failed to recall which areas of the maze they had already visited, rarely explored different arms of the maze, almost never recalled the maze in future trials, and took longer to reach the end of the maze, as compared to rats with a fully working retrosplenial cortex.

In a classic study in cognitive neuroscience, O'Keefe and Nadel proposed "that the hippocampus is the core of a neural memory system providing an objective spatial framework within which the items and events of an organism's experience are located and interrelated."<ref This theory has generated considerable debate and further experiment. It has been noted that "[t]he hippocampus underpins our ability to navigate, to form and recollect memories, and to imagine future experiences. How activity across millions of hippocampal neurons supports these functions is a fundamental question in neuroscience, wherein the size, sparseness, and organization of the hippocampal neural code are debated.":[27]

The technique is also used for second language vocabulary learning as polyglot, Timothy Doner, described in his 2014 TED talk.[28]

The "memory palace" technique can be applied to learn the vocabulary of a foreign language. The method is described in Anthony Metiver's book "How to learn and memorise German vocabulary". What the author suggests is creating a memory palace for each letter of the German alphabet. Each memory palace then shall include a number of loci where an entry (a word or a phrase) can be stored and recalled whenever you need it.

In popular culture


"...the greatest practitioners of the old art discovered some odd things about their memory houses the longer they lived in them ... it was discovered, for instance, that the symbolic figures with vivid expressions, once installed in their proper places, are subject to subtle change as they stand waiting to be called forth... also, as the memory house grows, it makes conjunctions and vistas that its builder can't conceive of beforehand..."



Visual arts



  1. Jusczyk, P.W.; Klein, R.M., eds. (August 1, 1980). The Nature of Thought: Essays in Honor of D. O. Hebb. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Psychology Press. pp. 217–218. ISBN 0898590345.
  2. e.g. in a discussion of "topical memory" (yet another designator) Jamieson mentions that "memorial lines, or verses, are more useful than the method of loci." Alexander Jamieson, A Grammar of Logic and Intellectual Philosophy, A. H. Maltby, 1835, p112
  3. O'Keefe, John; Nadel, Lynn (December 7, 1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map'. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198572060.
  4. Carlson, Neil R. (2010). Psychology the science of behaviour. Pearson Canada Inc. p. 245. ISBN 9780205645244.
  5. "The Roman Room Technique". Retrieved October 24, 2013.
  6. Foer, Joshua (March 16, 2005). "Forget Me Not: How to win the U.S. memory championship". Slate. Retrieved October 24, 2013.
  7. "1997 World Memory Championships". Mind Sports Worldwide. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved October 24, 2013.
  8. Memory town system
  9. Raz, A.; Packard, M. G.; Alexander, G. M.; Buhle, J. T.; Zhu, H.; Yu, S.; Peterson, B. S. (2009). "A slice of π : An exploratory neuroimaging study of digit encoding and retrieval in a superior memorist". Neurocase. 15 (5): 361–372. doi:10.1080/13554790902776896. PMC 4323087Freely accessible. PMID 19585350.
  10. "5 Minute Speed Cards". World Memory Statistics. World Memory Sports Council. Retrieved October 24, 2013.
  11. Learning how to learn
  13. Quintilian on Memory
  14. Bremer, Rod (September 20, 2011). The Manual - A guide to the Ultimate Study Method (USM). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Fons Sapientiae Publishing. ISBN 978-0956990709.
  15. Memory techniques for Brazilian Portuguese
  16. Finger, Stanley (October 11, 2001). Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations Into Brain Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 333. ISBN 978-0195146943.
  17. "In the First Place, in the Second Place"
  18. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, University of Chicago, 1966, p1-2
  19. Stephen M. Kosslyn, "Imagery in Learning" in: Michael S. Gazzaniga (Ed.), Perspectives in Memory Research, MIT Press, 1988, p245; it should be noted that Kosslyn fails to cite any example of the use of an equivalent term in period Greek or Latin sources.
  20. John Robert Skoyles, Dorion Sagan, Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence, McGraw-Hill, 2002, p150
  21. Linda Verlee Williams, Teaching For The Two-Sided Mind: A Guide to Right Brain/Left Brain Education, Simon & Schuster, 1986, p110
  22. Elizabeth F. Loftus, Human Memory: The Processing of Information, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1976, p65
  23. For example, Aristotle referred to topoi (places) in which memorial content could be aggregated - hence our modern term "topics", while another primary classical source, Rhetorica ad Herennium (Bk III) discusses rules for places and images. In general Classical and Medieval sources describe these techniques as the art or arts of memory (ars memorativa or artes memorativae), rather than as any putative "method of loci". Nor is the imprecise designation current in specialized historical studies, for example Mary Carruthers uses the term "architectural mnemonic" to describe what is otherwise designated "method of loci".
  24. Gutman, Sharon A. (December 1, 2007). Quick Reference Neuroscience For Rehabilitation Professionals. Thorofare, New Jersey: SLACK Incorporated. p. 216. ISBN 978-1556428005.
  25. Maguire, E. A.; Valentine, E. R.; Wilding, J. M.; Kapur, N. (2002). "Routes to remembering: The brains behind superior memory". Nature Neuroscience. 6 (1): 90–95. doi:10.1038/nn988. PMID 12483214.
  26. Parasuraman, Raja; Rizzo, Matthew (February 13, 2008). Neuroergonomics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0195368659.
  27. Hassabis, D.; Chu, C.; Rees, G.; Weiskopf, N.; Molyneux, P. D.; Maguire, E. A. (2009). "Decoding Neuronal Ensembles in the Human Hippocampus". Current Biology. 19 (7): 546–554. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.033. PMC 2670980Freely accessible. PMID 19285400.
  28. Donor, Timothy. "Breaking the language barrier". Retrieved 19 February 2015.
  29. Harris, Thomas (1999). Hannibal. Delacorte Press. ISBN 0-385-29929-X.


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