Memory Techniques: The Loci Method
The Loci method is one of the most ancient memorization tools known, and is based on attaching individual items you need to remember, to individual points on a route you are familiar with, so you can easily recall the items as you "walk" that route in your mind. It's a particularly good method to use if you have to learn a long list of items in their proper order, since you will remember them in the same order every time. The word "Loci" is the Latin plural of the word "locus," which means location.
The Loci method is sometimes called the Roman Room, but that name is misleading, because you don't have to use a room. You can use any location that has several points in it. You could use your room, the route you take to work, the rooms of your house, your college campus -- any place where you follow the same path every time you mentally walk the route in your mind. The important thing is that the path you choose never varies in your mind and that you always use the same landmarks, whether they are pieces of furniture in your room, or the various buildings you pass while driving to work. The crucial element is that the route provides Order.
If you are memorizing a list of seven famous writers and you need to remember them in the order they were published, the Loci method is ideal. Let's say you're going to use your apartment as your Loci. Mentally picturing your apartment, you will "peg" each of the seven authors to a room or spot in or near your apartment, creating a mental image to reinforce the association. Let's take a look at our list of seven authors (in their proper order!) and then use the Loci system to memorize them:
William Shakespeare Nathaniel Hawthorne Pearl S. Buck Ernest Hemingway Arthur Miller Stephen King
Pearl S. Buck
Let's imagine you're going to use the Loci method and the path through your apartment to memorize the list. First, create your path. Imagine coming up the front steps of your apartment and entering your apartment. Hey, you already have two locations - the steps and the entry way! Then you walk into your living room, through to the dining room, and into your kitchen – three more locations. From the kitchen, you go down the hall to the office and bathroom, before ending up in the bedroom – three more locations. You even have a location to spare!
Now, let's assign each author to a location and build an association around it that is unmistakable and easy to remember:
- On the stairs is Geoffrey Chaucer, whose name sounds like saucer. So picture Chaucer sitting on the stairs holding a saucer or, better yet, landing a flying saucer carefully on the top step. (Remember, the sillier an image is, the easier it will be for you to remember it!)
- In the entryway is William Shakespeare. This one is easy – picture him shaking a spear at you, trying to prevent you from getting into your own home.
- Now you go into your living room, where you see a big hawthorn bush blooming, which reminds you that the next author on your list is Nathanial Hawthorne.
- To link the dining room to author Pearl S. Buck, you could picture a buck deer standing in the room with a pearl necklace draped around his antlers. (There's something you don't see every day!)
- The office is where you place author Arthur Miller. You could picture a giant miller (another word for a moth) fluttering around your office, or you could picture a miller grinding corn at your desk.
- In the bathroom, you need to link Stephen King. Hmm…this one is appropriate. Just picture King Stephen on his "throne" in your bathroom!
You'll quickly be able to recall all of the authors in the correct order after just a few mental walks through your home. The amazing thing about the Loci method is that you can use the same Loci for any number of lists, and it can actually be even easier with objects, than it is with names of people. For instance, use the same Loci to memorize a grocery list:
- On the stairs is a giant head of lettuce.
- In the entryway you notice a big sack of flour propped against the wall.
- In the living room there is a jug of milk left out on the coffee table.
You get the idea! It can be very straightforward for some items – like a shopping list – or you can create elaborate substitute images, if you are memorizing something more complex, like people's names, the names of countries, or other items that are difficult to picture (like we did with our authors earlier).
For the Loci method to work, the route you choose has to follow a few very important rules:
Let's look at each of these rules a bit more:
The route must be very familiar to you. That's pretty simple. If you choose a route that you aren't familiar with, you can easily become confused, so don't choose a route you only walk a few times a year. Instead, choose a route like the path you walk through your house every morning getting ready for work, or the way you drive to your girlfriend's house every day.
Each location within the route must be distinct from the others, so that you don't confuse them with each other. In other words, if you choose to use the path in your house, be careful if you decide that two of the points along your route will be the top of the stairs and the bottom of the stairs. Will this be confusing later? Should you just make the stairs one stop along your route to avoid confusion? The simplest route is generally the best, so stick with choosing points that won't be confusing. If you discover that your route doesn't have enough landmarks or stopping points in it, you are probably better off choosing a different route altogether than to try and squeeze more spots out of a short route.
Actually, you'll be amazed, once you start using the Loci method, at how easy it is to find landmarks for even very long lists. Remember how many landmarks we found in even a small apartment when memorizing those authors?
You must be able to always follow the route in the same order in all circumstances. Don't make things confusing by using a Loci route forward one time and backward another time. You can use a Loci route over and over to memorize different things, but always start from the same point, and move in the same direction, to avoid confusion and make memorizing things in the proper order easier.
When you are using a substitute image, the more creative it is, the easier it will be to remember. The mental pictures we created to remind us of our authors were vivid – a deer with pearls wrapped around his antlers, an angry author shaking a spear at us, a giant miller flying around the room, and a king sitting on the toilet -- all of these images worked because they were a bit ridiculous, which made them easier to remember.
Choosing Your Routes
The location you choose doesn't have to be your house. It could be any route or location that has several points in it that you can clearly visualize. Keep in mind the rules we mentioned, and try to picture a variety of routes that might work for you. Some popular Loci routes could be:
- The various businesses and landmarks on your way to work
- The houses along your street
- All of the floors in the building where you work
- The cities you drive through on vacation
- Walking through your bedroom (Instead of rooms as locations, you can think of points -- such as the closet, your bed, the dresser, the window, etc. -- as your locations.)
Or you can use something else entirely. If you want to use something else entirely, you can make a Loci list that isn't actually based on locations. The key is to make the list personalized, and make sure it is constant; you don't ever want the list to change its order.
If you love animals and have always had pets, you can probably remember the name of every pet you've ever had. You could create a Loci list based on the names of your pets, starting with the first pet you had, and ending with the one you currently own.The planets of the solar system, or the books of the Bible, could also be good Loci choices, if you are an astronomer or a minister. As long as the locations or items on your Loci list are significant to you, this will be one of the most powerful memory techniques you can use.
Sometimes you want something a bit simpler than the admittedly complex number alphabet to help you remember lists of items, or perhaps help you remember specific information. Fortunately, many people have come before you and developed a variety of ways to learn and retain information that are simple and effective!
While there are many memory systems, such as the Loci method, there are also little memory "tricks" you can use to help you remember specific information that are called mnemonics. The word mnemonics is from the ancient Greek word mnemonikos, meaning of memory, and was related to the Greek Goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses.
Just What Are Mnemonics?
Mnemonics are usually word tricks that help us remember particular bits of information.You probably know quite a few mnemonics already that you learned in school, from your piano teacher, or from friends over the years – you just didn't realize what they were called.
The most common types of mnemonics are rhymes and acronyms.
The reason rhymes are so effective at helping us remember things is that, like song lyrics, they are easy to remember and can quickly get stuck in our heads. Once there, in fact, it can be difficult to dislodge them. It's why rhyming mnemonics are so popular for learning information.
Many students memorized this grammar poem to help them learn a rather difficult spelling problem in grade school:
"I before E except after C,
or when sounding like A,
as in neighbor and weigh."
And this one for remembering when America was discovered:
"In fourteen ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
This little verse can help you remember how many days each month has:
"Thirty days hath September, April, June,
and November, all the rest have 31 (except February)."
For those who watch the sky to predict the weather, this rhyme reminds them what a brightly colored sky means, depending on the time of day:
"Red sky at night, sailor's delight;
Red sky at morning, sailor's take warning."
You get the idea. If you have information that's crucial to learn, try making up a quick rhyme about it, and it's much more likely to stick in your mind.
Acronyms are words formed by the first letters of a phrase or group of words. These are particularly popular with organizations and governments (think about the FBI, CIA, FDA, AMA) because people can so easily remember the initials and associate them with the organization. For memory purposes there are many examples of acronyms used to help students remember information:
The Great Lakes are easier to remember if you keep in mind that they spell out HOMES:
Another one has to do with the colors of the rainbow, which are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Put together, and these can be remembered as a name (although admittedly a rather odd one):
ROY G. BIV
Another Way to Use Acronyms
Another form of acronym is created when you use the first letters of a particular series of words you need to learn, and form a new series of words that is more memorable in order to jog your memory.
For instance, if you want to learn all of the planets in the solar system:
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune
You could learn the sentence:
My very educated mother just served us nothing.
Or, if you're the romantic sort, you could remember:
Mary's violet eyes made John stay up nights.
The key to these mnemonics is that you do have to already know the planets, but the acronym will help you recall them from where they are "lost" in your memory. Most of us have lots of information stored in our memory somewhere; it's the process of recalling it when needed that can be the problem. When our memory is jogged or prodded by something as simple as the first letters of the planets, we get that "A-ha!" moment, when the light bulb above our head goes on, and the names of all those planets comes tumbling out of wherever they were stored in our brain.
We bet that if you read the acronyms and rhymes in this section through completely a few times, you'll have learned the information they teach by the time you've read through the chapter three times! Think about it, you'll be able to recall the planets in the solar system, the Great Lakes, the colors of the rainbow, the notes of the treble clef (coming up, don't worry!) and more! Give it a try and you'll see just how powerful acronyms and rhymes can be.
Here are a few more:
The treble clef in music is the top five lines in typical sheet music. If you took piano lessons as a child, you probably remember your teacher telling you that the notes corresponding to those five lines were E, G, B, D and F. If you were lucky, she taught you to remember them with this acronym:
Every good boy does fine.
For the notes corresponding to the spaces between the lines, it was even easier because they spelled out an acronym on their own:
F A C E
Biology students are expected to classify living things into specific groups. The largest group is Kingdom, and they are broken down from there. It can be hard to remember the order of these groups, which are:
Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Group and Species.
But there are at least two acronyms that can help. Choose whichever one seems most memorable to you:
Kids Pour Catsup Over Fat Green Spiders.
Kindly Put Clothes On For Goodness Sake!
For the metric system, which is unfamiliar to most U.S. students, it can be difficult to keep straight when to use which prefix (is it mega- or hecto-?). One way to keep them straight is to use a memorable acronym. For the record, the series, from largest to smallest, goes:
(base) for instance, meter
Now here are a few sentences you could use to remember these:
Many Kids Have Dropped Dead Converting Metric.
Notice that the sentence above doesn't use a word for the "base." That's fine, but the next two sentences do use a word that represents the "base," which also works, depending on which method you prefer. Just don't get confused when you refer to one of the other.
King Henry Dances Better Drinking Chocolate Milk.
Kiss Her Daily Because Divorce Costs Money.
There are countless other mnemonic devices to be found in books and on the Internet. You can find them by typing "Mnemonics" into any major search engine. For more specific ones, try "medical mnemonics" if you are studying for an exam in your anatomy class or "musical mnemonics" for ones that might help you if you are studying an instrument.
Some people see mnemonic memory aids as "tricks" and point out that they are merely ways to jog your memory – after all, you have to have the information in your memory in the first place in order to recall it. But isn't that what improving your memory is all about?
Mnemonic devices are a great aid to improving your recall of countless bits and pieces of information that you have learned over time. The most difficult part of learning is often that you do learn the material, but we don't file it effectively in our brain. Once it's stored away somewhere in your brain, it can be difficult to retrieve it because we aren't sure how to get back to it. It's that feeling of "I know I know this, it's right on the tip of my tongue…" Mnemonic devices such as rhymes or acronyms can help trigger the specific memory so that we can retrieve the needed information at the right time.
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