The “Method of Loci” or “Memory Palace” mnemonic strategy of placing to-be-remembered items mentally along a well-known route has been used since Ancient times. When the items need to be recalled, one simply imagines walking the chosen path. The technique takes advantage of the fact that we’re naturally better at remembering routes than we are at recalling arbitrary bits of information. It’s a handy device that’s gained a higher profile lately thanks to Joshua Foer’s best-selling book Moonwalking With Einstein, in which he uses the method on route to becoming a memory champion.
There’s little doubt the technique works but it’s been tricky to perform controlled tests on the psychology that underlies it. That’s because people are usually encouraged to use a personal route such as around their own homes, or a journey to school or work. The existing research also varies hugely in how much training people undertake in the technique, from many hours to days.
Eric Legge and his colleagues tested the viability of avoiding these issues by having people use unfamiliar virtual environments as their Memory Palaces (a Memory Palace is a nickname for the environment that’s used for mentally locating to-be-remembered items).
Prior to a word-learning challenge, 142 participants spent five minutes navigating a virtual environment on a computer – either an apartment, a school, or a warehouse. Two thirds of them were then given instructions in the Memory Palace mnemonic strategy. Some were told to use an environment, such as their home, with which they are very familiar. The others were told to use the virtual environment they’d just navigated. The remaining third of participants acted as controls and were given no specific memorising instructions or tuition. All the participants then got to work attempting to memorise 10 lists of 11 unrelated words.
When asked to recall the word lists, the main result is that both the Memory Palace groups outperformed the control participants, being between 10 and 16 per cent more accurate. Against expectations, the advantage was greater for the mnemonic groups when scoring was based simply on number of correctly recalled words, rather than on recall in the correct order.
Crucially, the participants who used the virtual environment to help them memorise performed just as well as the group who followed the more conventional approach of using a familiar environment (the specific form of the virtual environment didn’t make any difference). The same result held when the researchers focused only on those participants who were compliant with the instructions (defined as using their specified mnemonic for at least half the word lists). Participants using a virtual environment were more compliant on average than the participants using a familiar environment.
Taken altogether, these findings show that it’s feasible to use a virtual environment for the Memory Palace technique – in fact people seem to take to it more readily than the conventional approach. This could allow psychologists to conduct more research on the mnemonic under standardised conditions. There could also be practical applications – for people struggling with memory problems, or “professional mnemonists may use such software to create many diverse environments,” the researchers said, “allowing them to tailor the richness and theme of each space to the list of items they wish to remember.”
Legge, E., Madan, C., Ng, E., and Caplan, J. (2012). Building a memory palace in minutes: Equivalent memory performance using virtual versus conventional environments with the Method of Loci. Acta Psychologica, 141 (3), 380-390 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2012.09.002