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The memory palace
The memory palace technique, or method of loci as it is also called, dates back to ancient Greece. The basic principle is that you use mental images, usually an environment you are familiar with, and place the things you want to remember in this mental space. For example that could be things like your grocery list where you (mentally) place the things you need to get around your house. This mental space does not need to be a place that exists in real life. It is best to have the same route around this memory palace every time you use it for remembering too. The crazier or weirder the mental image, the easier it will be to remember. When you need to recall what you wanted to remember you ‘walk through’ this memory palace, and recollect the things you placed in it. It is also good to make these mental images multisensory: it could be things that are moving, smelling a certain way, being very vibrant and colorful. The more hooks there are to hold on to, the more likely it is to stay remembered.
How the brain adapts like a muscle
So, this method has been around for a long time, but now there is also scientific evidence that this technique really does allow you to train to get better at remembering. There is also evidence that it helps improve your memory for a longer period of time, and affects your brain activity while doing so.
In a recent study researchers compared 23 “memory athletes” from the world’s top 50 with people who had not used the memory palace technique before but were trained in it for 6 weeks. The study found that this memory training helped to make memories last longer, both in “memory athletes” and those who were new to the technique. Moreover, the benefit of improved memory was still present after 4 months, and this was linked to changes in brain activity while remembering. They found that in those who were new to the memory palace technique after the training had increased brain connectivity between the hippocampus and neocortex (both important brain regions for forming memories) compared to before. Specifically, the more increase in connectivity there was, the better people performed at remembering.
What makes this method so useful is probably that it combines important aspects of memory: visualizing and moving in a (imaginary) space, having earlier knowledge by using a space you are very familiar with, and adding newness with the things you place to remember. It is rather incredible that such an old technique can help boost not only remembering the grocery list for tomorrow or the names of your new colleagues, but that it can also improve your ability to remember things long term.