Thinking With Space

An Introduction to the Method of Loci

We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements. There is no other reason to have a brain. Think about it. Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you. Now that’s not quite true. There’s one other way, and that’s through sweating. But apart from that, everything else goes through contractions of muscles.
-Daniel Wolpert Ted Talk (2011)

Dr. Wolpert’s reasoning sets up the first premises in the an argument I often use to set the stage for the importance of spatial processing:

  • An organism’s primary objective is to stay alive and reproduce
  • In order to do so, an organism must acquire resources and mates while avoiding that which will lead to its demise.
  • This requires moving about your environment, purposefully.
  • In order to move purposefully, as opposed to randomly, the organism must have a memory of where it has been and what was found there.

Using such logic, it would follow that the earliest neural architectures should have been dedicated to encoding spatial information to support purposeful navigation. Thus, should an organisms’ most advanced cognitive feat be that of encoding space, it would be the system most subject to evolution’s relentless force towards achieving maximal facility.

I argue that if we piggyback on this spatial system by using it as scaffolding for remembering non-spatial things, we can take advantage of its evolutionary prowess and increase our memory! In fact, most powerful mnemonic used today (The Method of Loci) does just that.

An Introduction To The Method of Loci

The Method of Loci encourages you to take a list of to-be-remembered items (e.g. a list of grocery items) and, with your eyes closed, mentally place each of the items at locations of your choosing as you walk about a familiar environment (e.g. your childhood home). When the time comes to try and remember those items, all you need to do is imagine yourself back in that environment where you can observe all the items you previously placed.

The History of The Method of Loci

The Method of Loci is first noticed in Marcus Cicero’s De Oratore (written in 55BCE – translated by A. S. Wilkins Clarendon in 1963). Cicero in his De Oratore shares the story of the poet Simonides of Ceos who was dining whilst sharing his poetry in Thessaly at a large banquet table. Halfway through his poem, Simonides was called for a message outside. During this time, the building collapsed with such destruction that it not only killed all the guests inside, but also left their bodies unidentifiable. Simonides was left with the task of attempting to relay to the deceased’s relatives which body belonged with which name.

Simonides was astounded by his ability to recall the locations where each of the guests (whom he had just met that night) had sat. He was subsequently able to use this information for the identification of the mangled bodies. As a poet in Ancient Greece, Simonides was already enthralled with the art of memory; spellbinding oration for the presentation of poetry mandates an intimate acquaintance with the verse at hand.

Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realized that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.
-Francis Yates The Art of Memory (1966)

Simonides went on to develop a mnemonic method that could bundle the benefits he observed that fateful day. Since the mnemonic benefit hinged on Simonides’ traversal about the perimeter of the table in his mind’s eye, the technique was named after the Latin word for path (loci).

Current Popularity of The Method of Loci

The Method of Loci, also known now as the memory palace technique, has been popularized most recently by Joshua Foer in his book “Moonwalking with Einstein”, where he recounts his ascent to becoming the national memory champion within just the span of a year by using this strategy. BBC’s Sherlock also brought a resurging interest in the technique when a character exhibited impressive memory feats that had the additional benefit of being private.

It’s no surprise to me that a method that hinges on thinking with space has stood the test of time. By the line of reasoning introduced at the beginning of this post, our spatial memory is our greatest cognitive feat. So long as humans continue to exist in space, that feat will continue to be enhanced. With such a head start, it seems as though our spatial processing mechanisms should always serve as the foundation for all that we learn.

Enter: Virtual Reality

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the world’s recent fascination with VR is one that is oftentimes overlooked: in VR, we are given infinite space. Thus, our exposure to new environments that are inherently more memorable than those we experience IRL (a purple lava pool serving margaritas is certainly more remarkable than my childhood home) allow for the creation of even more robust memory palaces.

Tune in to Part II (Thinking With Space: How VR Can Bolster Cognitive Abilities) to see the ways in which we can harness the power of VR to give ancient techniques a 21st century reboot. Be sure to sign up for the Altar mailing list to stay dialed in to all things VR and cognition!

– Nicco

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