In this New York Times Magazine article, writer Joshua Foer recounts his year-long journey from having an average memory to becoming a U.S. record holder at the U.S.A Memory Championship. Foer and other mental athletes use techniques such as the Method of Loci or “memory palace” based on the Rhetorica ad Herennium, a Latin rhetoric textbook from the 90s BC. Basically, you construct a “palace” in your imagination and fill it with imagery that represents whatever you need to remember. A bear juggling cabbage might stand for the king of hearts, for example (the more bizarre, the better). Once you’ve constructed your visual palace, you can bring it up at any time and walk through it, recalling each item in order. The best mental athletes can use the Method of Loci to “memorize the first and last names of dozens of strangers in just a few minutes, thousands of random digits in under an hour and — to impress those with a more humanistic bent — any poem you handed them.”
“What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly,” Cooke said. He explained to me that mnemonic competitors saw themselves as “participants in an amateur research program” whose aim is to rescue a long-lost tradition of memory training.
When the researchers looked at the parts of the brain that were engaged when the subjects memorized, they found that the mental athletes were relying more heavily on regions known to be involved in spatial memory. At first glance, this didn’t seem to make sense. Why would mental athletes be navigating spaces in their minds while trying to learn three-digit numbers?
The answer lies in a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to berecalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.