Many people have probably heard of the method of loci, but have no idea what it is. Let me paint you a picture: it is sometime in the fifth century, BC. Simonides, a Greek poet, had just finished reciting one of his poems at a banquet when he was called outside by another guest. While he was outside, the building that the banquet was being held in suddenly collapsed, leaving all of the guests gruesomely crushed underneath. In order to properly bury the guests, their names were needed, but it was next to impossible to identify the mangled corpses. Enter: Simonides. By picturing the banquet hall in his mind, Simonides remembered where everyone was seated, picturing the exact locations of each seat around the table. By looking at where the bodies were found, he could name each one to complete a proper burial. This was the supposed origin of the method of loci.
The method of loci is a mnemonic technique that requires you to picture a specific geographical location (a house or your university campus, for example) and place the particular items you need to remember throughout the location at different spots. When it is time to remember, you picture yourself walking through the house or campus, and coming across the different items you “placed.” If you wanted to remember a grocery list, you could place a cow in the living room to remember the item milk.
If one wants to put this technique to good use, it is essential to remember two things: meaning, and order. For this technique to be effective, you need your location to mean something to you. If you use a mall that you have only visited once, the whole technique will fall apart because you can’t picture the location vividly, therefore, losing the location of the items you need to remember. The best places include your own home, your workplace, your church, or your school. Any other location will work, of course, as long as you can picture it vividly.
The second thing to remember is the order of the items you place. You need to place the items in the order you will use them. If you are using this method to remember your main points in a speech you plan to give, you will put the item that reminds you of your introduction at the entrance of the house and your conclusion items near the back of the house.
This sounds good in theory… but does it work? Jennifer McCabe believes it does. She put the method to the test with 57 undergrad students enrolled in her memory course. The students learned about the method of loci, then tried it out themselves. They used their campus as the location, and the items to be remembered included a grocery list with 12 items. The study showed a significant improvement in the recall of grocery list items when using the method of loci. The study also revealed that many students continued to use the method of loci after the study in their daily lives.
Want to put this theory to the test? Pick your own location and write a list of 10 items to remember. Once you have your location, draw a map of your location with the different rooms, writing what item will be in what room. Review the map, and go through the location virtually in your mind, going through each room in the correct order. Then, the next time you’re out, try to remember all of the items. You will probably be surprised at how well it works. I find that the best way to use this method is for groceries… Personally, I never have time to write a list. I always intend to but somehow always manage to forget. This method allows me to remember the items without even having to write them down.
I find it fascinating how we can still use this mnemonic method in the grocery store today that was once used by fifth-century Greek poets, connecting the past to the present in such a unique way.
Thomas, N. (2014). Mental Imagery > Ancient Imagery Mnemonics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-imagery/ancient-imagery-mnemonics.html
McCabe, J. A. (2015). Location, location, location! Demonstrating the mnemonic benefit of the Method of Loci. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 169–173. https://doi-o rg.ezproxy.aec.talonline.ca/10.1177/0098628315573143