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Memory Palaces

The locket in your right temporal lobe

Pull up a mental image of your elementary school — the one you liked the best if there was more than one. Can you remember approaching the front door? Walking inside? The location of a favorite classroom, the cafeteria, gym, art room? Good. You’re ready to build a memory palace.

The Greeks discovered around the 5th century bc that the human mind is particularly skilled at remembering spatial relationships. Just as the squirrel recalls where it has hidden each nut, so our brains are wired to recollect physical places that are meaningful to us. And those memories can serve as anchors for other things we want to recall.

Mentally smash a carton of eggs on that elementary-school front walk, and you won’t forget them at the grocery store. Spill imaginary milk in the gym, and you’ll remember to buy that, too.

For all the high-tech memory aids available today (the cell phone has nearly rendered vestigial the need to memorize phone numbers), it was the ancients who first identified the memory palace. The lyric poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with developing “the method of loci” after a near-death experience. According to legend, he left a banquet — lured outside by twin gods he had honored in a poem — just seconds before the ceiling collapsed, killing everyone inside. By creating a mental map of the banquet hall, he amazed himself by effortlessly remembering every diner around the giant table, leading their grieving families to their remains.

Once discovered, this memory trick became a standard of the orators of the day and has been “rediscovered” many times since, most recently by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein. The 2011 best-seller describes the year Foer spent becoming a national memory champion.

Foer constructed a memory palace out of his childhood home to break the U.S. record in speed cards: memorizing a deck of cards faster than anyone else. According to his research, the memories are better cemented if they are more memorable in the first place. A smashed carton of eggs on a front stoop is easier to recall than an intact one. Lewd images are even better, Foer’s memory coach advised him.

Better not design your memory palace with an open plan, though. “Medieval memory treatises explore what kind of buildings make the best memory palaces and conclude that buildings with irregular layouts and lots of nooks to dip into are the best,” Foer wrote in an e-mail.

But memory palaces aren’t just a parlor trick. Elizabeth Glisky, head of the psychology department at the University of Arizona, uses them to help boost skills in people with brain damage or age-related memory problems. People can form a new visual memory, even if they may struggle with other types of memory, her research suggests, particularly if the thing to be remembered is connected to an image of themselves — essentially using their own bodies as memory palaces. If patients imagine themselves walking into their doctor’s office, for instance, they will be more likely to remember an appointment there.

“Even people with memory problems often have very good knowledge of themselves” until the late stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, Glisky said. “They still seem to be able to update their self-knowledge even if they don’t know who they are.” The method of loci also helps patients with brain injuries — except those with damage to the right temporal lobe, the seat of visual memory storage, Glisky said.

The “palace” doesn’t even have to be a building. The morning commute to work or local jogging trail would do just as well. If a list has to be memorized in order, just anchor the first item to a landmark early in the trip, and the rest in sequence along the route.

Not everyone is equally gifted at creating these visual memories, but architects may be among the best. “They’re trained to think about space in deeper, more elaborate ways,” noted Foer. “Spaces have meaning for architects in a way they don’t for most people, and that makes them more memorable.” Still, no one has ever studied whether architects and others who are visually inclined are better at forming such memories.

Research has shown that men generally have a slight edge when it comes to visual memories, as women do with verbal ones (though there is more of a range within each gender than between men and women). John D. E. Gabrieli, a professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, said his research suggests that when men lay down new memories, the right side of their brain — the part that handles visual and spatial information — is highly activated. In women, the left, verbal side receives extra blood flow during memory tasks.

It’s still unclear whether a memory palace works because of the strength of people’s spatial memories or simply because of the effort it takes to create them, said Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Building a memory palace is a matter of “putting in the time and developing it like a skill,” he said. “Whether the investment in time will be justified with the payoff…” he shrugs.

That’s a question individuals, not scientists, will have to answer.