The Method of Loci

Photo by Rodolpho Zanardo from Pexels

For piano recitals, I always brought my sheet music. Can’t recall if the other children brought theirs.  Before my turn to play, I was raw nervous. After my turn, I sat and rehearsed any mistake I’d made. In retrospect, my time would have been better spent practicing more, which might have resulted in worrying less. Chamber music groups need sheets because they contain the parts the other instruments play. Memorizing all of that would be insane, kind of how I feel about how often the location of my phone is out of my memory or how I manage to forget what I want to get done on any given day.  I usually remember it after I crawl into bed.

My children’s memories differ from mine. “Mamma, you said you would babysit the kids every Saturday, October through April?” I recall saying, “I will babysit for you one Saturday between October and April.” Grandkids have good memories. “Amma, you said I could climb the oak tree at the playground when I turned six.” I believe Kai. The fact I don’t remember saying it holds no water in my bucket with holes. But now I wonder, is there a way to putty the holes? 

What Alice Forgot, Before I Go To Sleep, and Still Alice are fiction books where the main characters can’t hold onto their memories for one reason or another. Suspenseful and engaging, reading them makes me think about my memory lapses and what remains from decades ago. Life with diminished memories is a bit like knock-out-roses, beautiful but no fragrance.

A remembrance starts in short-term memory. After repeatedly practicing the 12 major scales on the piano, like riding a bike, the skill (memory) moves to long-term memory, a more permanent warehouse (unless we lose the key). That which interests or jars us is likely to take a shortcut straight into long-term memory. Where were you and what were you doing when the jets hit the World Trade Center Towers? I was in my office at school where a teacher stuck her head in, “Edith, planes have hit the World Center Towers and planes are on route to the White House.” Watching people jumping out of windows, now scorched in my psyche, are mounted on a pillar, a landmark in my long-term memory. 

A more recent memory was a moment during Judge Kavanaugh’s hearings. Senator Patrick Leahy asked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for her strongest memory when Brett Kavanaugh attacked her in 1982 at a party. She said, “Indelible (unerasable) in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” My gut instinct ripped crust off a wound I’d buried exposing anguish I share with millions of my sisters. That’s how the memory system works — the more profound, the greater the velcro effect. 

Speaking of sticking, Tim must wonder why I never remember his phone number. For goodness sake, it hasn’t changed for longer than I care to admit. I remember my childhood phone number, 33615. Not remembering my spouse’s cellphone means that if I get lost without a phone, borrowing someone else’s will not help. The time had come for me to get serious about learning his 10-digit cellphone 248-432-3570 (not actual number). The number is in three chunks. The first three digits are the same as my phone number. Done! The second set begins with 4, which is half of what the first set ends with then goes down like a ladder—4-3-2—something I don’t want Tim to climb. Done! The third group begins with a three as in the third chunk followed by the next two prime numbers (5,7), and the O means nothing more to remember. I finally moved Tim’s phone number from short to long-term memory. This worked for numbers.  

According to rememberingeverything.org, the method of Loci was used by Greeks (2000 years ago) to memorize speeches. Without an abundance of cheap paper, this plan must have been an appreciated tool for public speakers. People speaking from the pulpit without notes always strike me as more genuine, as if it’s coming from the heart instead of the calculated mind. Looking at your notes gives the impression you’re not sure what you are talking about. Giving a speech from memory expresses competence and command of the subject.  

The Greeks, and later the Romans, applied the method of Loci to mentally place key points of their speech in locations along a familiar route through their city (or palace). In their mind’s eye, they connected the vital aspects of their talk somehow and someway with a particular location. As they spoke, they mentally walked through the city stopping where they’d velcro-ed central points, talk on them before moving to the next destination. 

OK, that’s good and well for Alexander the Great to articulate his wisdom, There is nothing impossible to him who will try. But what for and why should I create a memory journey?  It is to remember not only my to-do-list for any given day and boost brain activity, but to engrave habits that feed the life I wish to live.

When I created my first memory journey, I used our place in Colorado. I imagined myself entering the flat through the entrance door, my starting position, and sitting on a stool to take off my shoes. Walking the circumference of the living area, I determined 10 locations to place a mental hook.  

  1. Stool by entrance door next to the laundry room
  2. A humidifier that’s cleaned on Sundays
  3. Tim’s brown chair
  4. White lamp
  5. Coffee table with hardbound photo books
  6. Blue rocker
  7. Balcony door
  8. Sparkly lamp on a bookshelf
  9. Fireplace
  10. Coat closet

Once I remember the stops on my journey, I determine my tasks and intents for the day. To hang the memory on the mental hook the location and the memorized item must interact or connect in some way. The more vivid the scene you create, the better it sticks. It’s why the Method of Loci is called a visual filing system. 

  1. Throw in a load of towels
  2. Sweep the flat
  3. Contact Ashlee for Tim about her schedule
  4. Clean the bathroom
  5. Finish reading Warren’s book, This is Our Fight
  6. Work on my article, The Method of Loci
  7. Finish walking 10,000 steps
  8. Purchase buttons for granddaughter’s knitted sweater
  9. Open windows before going to bed
  10. Keep political news off for the day

For the first item on my memory list, I think of the photo in my laundry room next to the entrance door of a little girl hanging up laundry on a clothes line. I see her reaching into my basket pulling out all the towels, stepping up on a stool and dropping them one-by-one into the washer.

My second location is a standing humidifier that needs to be cleaned every week. I imagine my fancy pantsy Dylon humidifier and air cleaner going berserk spewing dirt all over the floors. 

For the third hook, I imagine Tim asking for the umpteenth time, “Have you contacted Ashlee?” This hook needs little support. Tim reminding me to do anything results in a visceral reaction that’s not pleasant. This can’t wait another day. 

I mentally walked the journey stopping at each place recalling the visual memory I’d draped on the hook. As the day waned, I re-walked my mental journey to make sure every hook was bare and ready for another day. The Method of Loci created a structure and mental putty. There is great satisfaction when you have accomplished what you set out to do.  Even though I rarely have to take care of something right now, the joy that comes from resoluteness or self-discipline to get things done pleases me. It gives my life purpose, which after all is the purpose of life.

6 thoughts on “The Method of Loci

  1. Steffie, it’s my goal. Be myself. Pretend I’m sitting at a quaint little coffee shop chatting with a friend. Bingo. This Sunday post struck you that way and thank you for letting me know. I love connecting with friends and new friends (blog followers), couple of humans relating and reflecting on our journey.

  2. I agree that at this point in our lives, we need to accomplish tasks and have a purpose.

    1. Bill Gates said that now he’s 60, his three goals for each day are: 1. Your family wants to be around you. 2. Learn something new. 3. Deepen existing relationships with friends or make new friends.

  3. I always love reading your blogs. They are a great combination of the practical, the humorous and your personal thoughts on so many things! I an imagine a conversation with you…

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About edithandersen49

Girls compete with one another. Women empower and uplift one another.