About Loci

Method of loci

To use the method of loci bring to mind a familiar building, such as your house. Take a moment to conduct a mental walk through the rooms in your house.

Pay particular attention to the details , noticing any imperfections, like scratches: anything that makes your mental images more vivid. Make sure you can move easily from one room to another.

Along your route create a list of “loci” :i.e. well defined parts of the room that you can use later to memorize things.A locus can be a door, a bed, an oven, etc. Be sure that you can easily go from locus to locus as you visit the house.

Now, when you are faced with a list of words or ideas to be memorized, you must form visual images for each of the words and place them, in order, on the loci in your route. To recall the words or ideas now you take a mental walk throughout your house, asking yourself , “What is on the living-room door? What’s on the sleeping room bed. What’s in the oven?” And so on.

Associating the words or ideas to remember with the loci, you should create surprising images. More striking is the created image, more easily you will remember the thing.

This is all about the method! What follows is,instead, just a short FAQ if you are curious about what is behind this method.

Who invented the Method of loci?

According to Cicero’s De Oratore, the greek poet Simonides invented it. The legend says that Simonides escaped a disaster that destroyed the building where he was having a dinner with other dignitaries. He was able to name the victims by recalling where they had been seated.

What is the relationship between the method and the “Art of Memory”?

The Art of Memory was about the use of space to remember things and was based indeed on the method of loci.So the method of loci is almost a synonym of Art of Memory.This mnemonic technique was used by the ancient rhetoricians and later orators until the invention of the press.The major points of speeches were remembered using the method. The orator would visualize walking through the rooms of their memory palace and associating the next point to be addressed with a successive locus. This is perhaps why we now say “in the first place.”

Why Frances Yates is often cited when speaking of the Art of Memory ?

Frances Yates has written the best in depth account on the history of the Art during its long evolution from Simonides to its demise in the 17 century. In this book,named “The Art of Memory” and easily readable by anyone,Frances rediscovers the Art after two centuries of oblivion.Yates main point is that the learning of the Art was central to the formation of cultured people for twenty centuries. For this reason the Art is one of the central points in Western Culture.

Are there signs of the influence of the Art still visible in our cities ?

Medioeval cathedrals were build to work also as memory places.Dante also, in the Divina Commedia, builds a kind of memory place.

Can you give examples of uses of the Art by cultured people?

Monks used the Art to commit to memory their sermons, lawyers would memorize their speech in the same way.

What is the connection between the Art of Memory, Giordano Bruno and Hermetism?

Giordano Bruno , a dominican monk, left the convent where he learned the Art and wandered throughout Europe telling the secrets of the Art to all who would listen to him including the King of France.He was in 1600 burned at the stake for heresy.You can read online the most famous of his books : The Shadows of Ideas in latin but with some fascinating drawings of “memory wheels”.Bruno,following the teaching of Neoplatonists ,thought that learning the Art gave magic powers:this was the Hermetic Art of Memory. This is a short Introduction To The Hermetic Art Of Memory
Images stored in the loci become more than a mnemonic device. They help us in getting a better understanding of the world. Through them we discover the true essence of things and their relationship. They have also magical powers acting like talismans.They are in fact the “Shadows of Ideas”:the essence of reality.

After his death he was and is presented as a martyr of Science.The truth is that ,when he lived, modern science was not really born and we don’t really know why the Inquisition decided to condemn him( all documents about his process have been lost). But, if the idea that Bruno lost his life because of his support for Copernicanism is probably false, the idea that he was condemned because of his beliefs about the magic powers of the Art of Memory, is probably true.So he may very well be a martyr of the method of loci!

(Here other online texts from Bruno.)

What is the connection of the Art with the discipline of Rhetoric?

The Art was learned as part of the Rhetoric by Greek and Roman orators. Later it was integrated by Thomas Aquinas under the virtue of Prudence.

Can you give some specific example of striking images?

In an ancient text about the Art (Rhetorica Ad Herennium) there is this image to be used by a lawyer working on a case of poisoning to gain an inheritance with many witnesses: the defendant is at the bedside of the poisoned man holding in his right hand a cup(the poison) and in his left, tablets (inheritance) and a ram’s testicles (testes i.e. the witnesses in latin).
If you are curious this manual about mnemonics contains hundreds of examples of ridiculous images used to remember things plus some rules on how to create them.

What is the link between the Method of Loci and the Camillo Memory Theatre?

The “Idea” of the Theatre by Giulio Camillo, was essentially the following: instead of having cultured people imagine complex architectures to store all the knowledge,why not build a physical place and then store all knowledge in this place. Now you can learn simply by walking in this Memory Theatre.

Should we use necessarily real buildings or we can use also a imaginary place?

As “building” for the loci almost every structure both real and imaginary that extends in space, has been used.A city, an abbey, a tree, the human body, a schematic drawing, etc,etc.The so called mnemonic major system or peg system uses as loci images connected to the numbers 1 , 2, 3 ..This manual about mnemonics describes how these images are created in a systematic way from a list of words connected to the original numbers. You start from 1(t,d,th), 2(n), 3(m),4(r),5(l),6(g),7(c,k,gh),8(f,v),9(p,b),0(z,s) and then 16 becomes the word “dog” (d=1,g=6) and the image of the dog.

Is the method still used today?

Some memory performers on stage or television use the method.One of these is the famous italian mnemonist Gianni Golfera.
Also the most studied mnemonist, a certain Shereshevsky(S.) followed for 30 years by the russian psychologist Luria, discovered the Method by himself.He really didn’t need it to remember things: apparently ,for him, being synaesthetic,every experience was so compelling to be unforgettable.But when asked to remember ,for example, 50 items in order, he would put them along some street that he knew very well.This would make the recollection of the items in the right order more easy for him.
This paper reports that in many known cases of normal people with exceptional memory (excluding thus autistic people with savant syndrome) this method is used.
Many Universities and colleges include the Method as a mnemonic device in their pages of advices to students. This is a typical example of information on mnemonic devices for students.
The famous novelist Thomas Harris in the novel about Hannibal Lecter (“Hannibal”) describes in detail how Dr. Lecter uses the method . Unfortunately all this has been lost in the movie version.

How many things can you memorize with the method of loci?

People would memorize palaces with hundreds if not thousands of loci .With such a memory palace you can remember a lot of things but you also need to train a lot to use properly such big places. Memory performers use them routinely but their experience is that they have to rehearse for hours every day to use them.

There are images left by the ancients of these memory palaces?

Yes there are some striking images included in memory treatises or just printed without accompanying text to be used specifically for this purpose.Medioeval university teachers would,for example,represent all the items of their subject matter organized spatially in some striking image and have this image used by students to learn their topic.
You find some examples here.

Why some authors consider the Art of Memory as a tool of creation?

Mary Carruthers and others modern authors point out that the ancient Art of memory was considered more than a way to remember things, a tool to create new things. We now think about this technique as something where you have, for example, a sermon already written and then you memorize the main points using the Art and then recollect your images to deliver the speech. Something that in modern days would be done by reading the words from a sheet of paper. In fact, things were slightly different. There was no previous written sermon! The sermon was created directly from the memory images! In the same way people would create also literary composition like poems or simply meditate about God or other items. For example, in the case of meditations, the written word (in the Bible) was only a starting point, then the creation of the memory images and its recollection walking in memory palaces would organize and expand the original material allowing the person to explore and learn more about the subject matter.

What is the relationship between memory palaces and hypertext?

Both use space to make learning easier.An hypertext with its clickable icons and images is like a memory palace and each link is a locus .When you click, the idea stored there appears as a new document.The only difference is that you don’t have to memorize the structure . From this point of view hypertext is much more like the Camillo Theatre: a physical space where you learn by walking.
See also Hypertext and the Art of Memory from Visible Language 31.2:1997

What is the relationship between the memory palaces and virtual reality?

Virtual Reality is essentially a 3D hypertext.You now navigate not only with the mouse but with all your body:the dream of Camillo becomes true.We can now build a place where you learn only by walking.

What is the relationship between the Art of Memory and computer interface?

It is by now clear that both the human and digital memory aren’t merely a repository, but a theatrical stage. We access computer data by clicking and in general using an interface based on a spatial metaphor.The same we do with our memory using the method of loci.So the Art has been the first computer interface invented by man and used to make better use of the biggest computer ever built:our brain.It was the first model for data storage and retrieval and now is driving the the research on new computer interfaces.
You can read an introduction on this fascinating matter on this paper by Peter Matussek about the The Renaissance of the Theater of Memory

What is the relationship between the Art of Memory and scientific visualization

The Art of Memory is a special case of visual thinking : i.e. high level manipulation of visual information by our brain. Scientific visualization tries to help our powerful capacity to handle visual information by creating visual representations of abstract or invisible objects for example a molecule or the interactions between particles. Like for the development of computer interfaces, we don’t know why some representations seem to work and others no, but the method of loci is a powerful paradigm that we know works, and that helps us find effective visualizations. In the method there are two fundamental components:

  1. the interiorization of the images in the loci
  2. the interiorization of the path (a muscular activity)

So ,for example, the successful visualization of a complex molecule includes not only static images of its parts but also the capability to travel inside the molecule using the mouse.

Does the method really work?

Yes,although there is no proof that it works better than other methods, like for example rote learning.An interesting article on this subject(This is the electronic version without pictures of:

Bower:Analysis of a mnemonic device-Am.Sci. Sep,Oct 75?

. See also this Master memories are made not born. And also Testing-the-Limits in a mnemonic technique: A study of cognitive plasticity in very old age.In these studies the participants are trained in using the method as a mnemonic device to remember word lists.

Works Cited

  • Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
  • Carruthers, Mary. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
  • Parker, Cahill,McGaugh A Case of Unusual Autobiographical RememberingNeurocase(2006) 12, 35-49
  • Rossi, Paolo. Logic and the Art of Memory. Trans. Stephen Clucas. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.
  • Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.