Memory Techniques: Memory Palace, from Roman times to today

by David Fadul
6/3/2017 – The Memory Palace is a name that has grown steadily into the mainstream of thought and culture. What not many realize, is that this system dates back over 2000 years and was written about in detail by intellectual giants such as Cicero, who was an enthusiastic proponent. In this first part on the Memory Palace, you will be introduced to what it is and its history (and how it can eventually be used with chess).

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If you read my previous article about memory techniques, you saw the kind of results that can be achieved with the diligent application of mnemonics. Things as amazing as what was accomplished by Timur Gareyev, who last year broke the world record for most games played in a blindfold simul. Since you are here now, I assume that you decided to give memory techniques a try. I am sure you will be glad that you did and I hope that mnemonics changes your life for the better, as it changed mine.

Since this tutorial is directed at beginners, I’ll assume that you are completely unfamiliar with the subject, but even if you are an intermediate practitioner, I think you’ll find some of the tips useful. My main goal in this and the following articles is to help you avoiding the mistakes that stalled my progress as I started with mnemonics, since those can be quite frustrating and even had led me to give up for several years. Here is the first hint – and is rule number 1:

#All memory techniques and tricks have this in common: the more effort you put into the groundwork, the more powerful the results will be.

Remembering that fact alone goes a long way. The techniques I will describe are exactly the same applied by world class memory competitors – and yet you and I will probably never get to their level unless we practiced for several hours a day, like they do. Mnemonics is a skill and mastering it to world class levels requires almost unbelievable discipline and effort.

2013 World Memory Championship

Luckily, just as one can play, enjoy and get benefits from chess even if one never becomes a grandmaster, the same is true about memory – I cannot memorize a thousand digits in an hour, but I can memorize a hundred digits in 20 minutes and that has been enough for all practical purposes.

But rule #1 has another implication: you will only reap the rewards after investing your time and effort into it. If you want great results, you will spend months laying the groundwork (Timur’s preparation took the better part of a year). And there’s the rub: most people would be unwilling (for very good reasons) to spend weeks learning how to apply some technique without seeing any results.

That is why we are going to start small, and build a simple Palace where you can temporarily store just ten items. It is nothing earth shattering, but will serve as a proof of concept – something to show you that it is possible to remember things in a different way.

If your goal is to apply memory techniques to chess (or to study or other practical purposes really) then you need to learn how to store the memories permanently. In our lives we condition ourselves to 'cram' for tests, knowing full well that more often than not, a lot of that study will be lost weeks later at the most.

Still, there are time when one only needs to remember the information for a limited amount of time – for example, in memory competitions, a person may need to memorize the order of a deck of cards or a list of hundreds of random words or digits but after the competition is over, there would be little reason to cling to this information. The same would be the case if you were using mnemonics to play a blindfold simul. On the other hand, if you are memorizing chess games or openings, you will want to make that information permanent.

The reason why getting something we just studied to stick is so hard is due (in part) to how limited our short term memory is. Every bit of information that we want to remember for more than a few seconds must be encoded into our long-term memory, and after it is there all you need is to review it – constantly, at first, but with increasingly longer intervals between reviews.

However, there are two problems: first, the way we naturally memorize information makes reviewing it systematically very hard, so most people will do it only when revisiting the book or video where they saw the information (or finding it in some other venue). Second, in order for the data to be encoded in the long term memory it must first be stored in the short term memory, which is, well, pretty bad, comparatively.

According to memory researchers (Cowan, 2001) we can only store 4 to 6 items (more if we can combine the item into groups) in our working memory (the distinction between short term and working memory is disputed, technical and unimportant for our purposes) and only for the duration of, at most, 30 seconds. If you ever had to repeat a phone number or address until you could write it down, then you already know the limits of short term memory. Repeating the information is a way to ‘put it back’ in your working memory – if you stop repeating, the number disappears. Don’t worry; it will not happen again after you learn mnemonics.

Even thou we are starting small, it is always good to keep an eye at the prize, so to speak. If your intention is to apply the techniques to chess, let me show you the road that lies ahead. If your interest in mnemonics is not chess-related (or at least not exclusively chess-related), don’t worry, you will learn many methods to memorize different things for different purposes. Each one of them is a necessary step toward our goal, but all of them can be used separately. Besides, the techniques can be easily (but not effortlessly) adapted to other purposes.

This is our road: First, we will see how to temporarily memorize a small list of items. That will show that there are different ways to remember and, with some practice, can be indefinitely expanded to memorize arbitrarily long lists. The missing link between this simple exercise and a Memory Palace adequate for chess is the Peg system. It is the Peg system that really facilitates memorization and that allows memory champions to memorize a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds. A ‘peg’ is basically an image, often a person, that you imagine in lieu of something you want to remember. So, after you have the Memory Palace under your belt, I will show you how to create some pegs – as there are some tricks to make the process easier. A peg system will also facilitate the process of transforming temporary Palaces into permanent ones.  Finally, we will wrap it all up by creating pegs specifically for chess.

Our first technique, the Memory Palace, has a very long and proud tradition that goes back (allegedly) to Ancient Greece. It has been called by a number of names such as mind palace and the method of loci (loci meaning ‘places’ in Latin). Sometimes, it is facetiously called the Dominic Hotel, when used in conjunction with the Dominic System, but, in my opinion, none of these names have the same ring to it as ‘Memory Palace’.

Legend has it that the poet Simonides was attending a banquet and, as he was absent from the hall, disaster struck and hall ceiling fell not only killing, but also rendering the all the guests unrecognizable. As the story goes, the families of the victims – unwilling to risk taking the wrong body and mourn for a Montague who was actually a Capulet – asked Simonides if he could identify any of the bodies. As it was, he said he could identify all of them. He did so by correlating the position where a guest was seated to his position. And that would have inspired Simonides to develop the Method of Loci.

Simonides being lured away from the deathtrap by the ghosts of Castor and Pollux, as told by Cicero. I did mention that it was a legend, didn’t I?

Whatever the truth of the legend, there are clear records of it dating from the Romans, and the panegyric of the Memory Palace has been sang by none other than Marcus Tullio Cicero, who, in De Oratore, tells us the nice anecdote about Simonides and the crushed dinner guests.  Cicero was an enthusiast of the art of memory and dedicates several passages to its history and use.

Copy of De Oratore by Cicero, recorded by hand on vellum

Cicero, who lived in the final days of the Roman Republic and died with it in 43 BCE, described – over 2000 years ago –  the basic ideas behind the Memory Palace and while much progress has been made since then, it is truly fascinating that in its essence the method has not changed – it has only been complemented.

Marcos Tullio Cicero, former consul of the Roman Empire, is also one of the most influential writers of all time

Another Roman orator, Quintilian, who lived in the Imperial period a few decades after Cicero, also describes the Method of Loci in his Institutio Oratoria. He emphasizes the importance of the ars memoriae – as the romans called mnemonics, the art of memory – as memoria is one of the five canons of the practice of oratory.


Just as famous Romans such as Cicero and Quintilian wrote about and used these techniques over 2000 years ago, the same techniques can be and are used today to memorize a full chapter of Moby Dick as in the illustrative video above

Presently there is a plethora of knowledge and information available regarding the mnemonics and the Memory Palace in particular – not to mention scientific literature that explore the topic. An increasing number of World Champions now make a point to share their improvements to the classical techniques, and fine-tuning, and help develop the mnemonic’s community collective knowledge. One world champion in particular, Dominic O’Brian, created the aptly named Dominic System, which helped him win the world memory championship no fewer than eight times.

People like Dominic O’Brian or Jonas Von Essen and other memory champions are not savant or anti-social autistics, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, counting cards without even thinking about it. Many of them are regular, run-of-the-mill nerds – like you or I – and some are distinguished gentleman, such as Mr. O’Brien. In fact, there is no reason to even suspect they have a particularly good memory, O’Brien even states point blank that he used to have a poor memory, suffering from dyslexia and ADD as well.

Enhance Your Memory by Dominic O'Brien (8 Times Memory World Champion)

Like all other memory techniques, the principles behind the Palace are exceedingly simple: to take advantage of what the human brain remembers easily (images and locations) and to circumvent what it remembers poorly (random numbers or items).

#All memory methods and tricks use the principle of avoiding what is taxing and focusing on what is naturally easy for the human brain.

Now that you are familiar with the concept of a Memory Palace, we must see how to use it in practice. But, first, so that we can have a baseline to compare with our improvements, let us test our memories without using any methods or tricks. Let’s try to memorize ten items the old fashioned way. I just googled a grocery list and typed it bellow – read it twice and don’t use any technique that you may already know; but, if you think it will help, you can read it slowly or repeat the items continuously or do anything you would normally do when trying to remember a similar list. After reading it twice, cover it, count to ten out loud (this is an important detail), and then write down all the items you can remember:

  1. Bread
  2. Chocolate
  3. Honey
  4. Tea
  5. Orange Juice
  6. Butter
  7. Coffee
  8. Biscuits
  9. Eggs
  10. Rice

So, how many items you got? If you are like most people, you remembered between four and six (most likely the first and last items and two or three between). If you organized the items in categories, you probably remembered a few more.

I just took the test as well – for the first time in years I memorized something without using a memory technique, and I must say that I didn’t expect it, but I had to consciously avoid using my Palace and it wasn’t easy! The process has become automatic in ways that I had not realized before now. Anyway, apparently, I have a completely ordinary memory as I could only remember six items, even though I had just typed the list. Oh, well, I suppose the cat is out of the bag now. Then again, the whole point of memory techniques is to be able to avoid doing what we just did.

We will try again, but next time we will use our palaces.

David graduated in Law in Brazil in the early 2000's. During his college years, he was introduced to memory techniques and its applications under the tutelage of one of his professors. He is currently a PhD candidate in Epistemology, with a focus on analytical philosophy.


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