Many years after my final exams at Oxford, I can still remember the essays I wrote. And my memory is not naturally good. In fact, naturally, it sucks. But I still remember the essays I wrote on everything from mythology in Shakespeare’s romances to satiric court poetry of the restoration era… How?
Because I structured my essays according to an ancient mnemonic device know as the memory palace.
The Memory Palace (or “Method of Loci”)
This technique was known in the ancient world as the method of loci and many great Roman and Greek orators applied this method to memorise long rhetorical speeches.
Today, many memory champions attribute much of their success to this technique. When you see feats of memory involving memorising long lists or lengthy blocks of information (or the famous card deck memorisation trick), they are usually made possible by this technique.
The memory palace takes advantage of the fact that our spatial memories (our abilities to remember physical locations) is far superior to other forms of remembering, such as rote memorisation.
What you do is take a place that you know extremely well.
- It could be your walking route to school and all the little stops and spots along the way.
- It could be your house and all of the rooms contained within.
- It could be your school itself.
- It could be your office.
As long as you know the place well and you can visualise it, it’s suitable.
This becomes your memory palace.
This is where you’re going to hang the facts you need to remember for easy access.
For my finals at Oxford, I designated many different places for different essays.
For example, I knew exactly what I was going to write about when it came to Shakespeare and mythology, so I hung the facts I would need for that work in one room: my dorm room.
Quick aside on the subject of knowing what you are going to write before you enter the exam hall: Stephen Fry expounds upon this idea and the reasoning for implementing it in his superb autobiography:
It only takes a paragraph at the top to twist the question such that your essay answers it. Let’s say, in simple terms, that my essay proposes that Shakespeare’s comedies, even the ‘Festive’ ones, play with being tragedies while his tragedies play with being comedies. The point is that you can trot this essay out no matter what the question. ‘Shakespeare’s real voice is in his comedies’: Discuss. ‘King Lear’ is Shakespeare’s only likeable tragic hero’: Discuss. ‘Shakespeare outgrew his comedies.’ ‘Shakespeare put his talent into his comedies and his genius into his tragedies.’ ‘Tragedies are adolescent, comedies are adult.’ ‘Shakespeare cares about gender, but not about sex.’ Discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss. I did, of course, no such vulgar thing as discuss. All my ducks were in a row when I walked into the examination hall and I had no more than point their beaks at the question. (Stephen Fry)
Anyway, so I used my dorm room to remember facts about my Shakespeare and mythology essay.
I knew my dorm room well. I knew every nook and cranny. There was the bed, the bedside table, the drawers, the closet, the windowsill, the bookshelf, the desk, the entrance way, the adjacent bathroom, the sink, the toilet, and the shower.
What I did next was to take the essay I wanted to memorise and I allocated different points in the essay to different areas of the room.
So my essay began with a quote from Nietzsche.
I had quite a few different Nietzsche quotes so I needed something to jog my memory about which one I was going to use. The one I wanted to use was:
an overpowering feeling of unity, which leads back to the heart of nature.
So I went to a specific part of my room – the part I designated as the beginning – my bed.
I visualised Nietzsche sitting on the end of my bed.
I can still see him now.
He looks miserable.
And that moustache! Terrible fashion.
And he’s not just sitting on my bed, Nietzsche is trembling.
He is shaking with an “overpowering feeling”. I feel worried. Is he okay?
Then he falls back onto my bed and rubs the covers like a crazy hippy on an LSD trip.
He’s talking about feeling “unity” with everything, man!
And then he reaches under my bed covers and pulls out a beating heart covered in grass.
Get what we’re doing here?
That is a strong image and it managed to jog my memory so that I had the relevant quote to kick off my essay.
Then next part of my essay requires a quote from Sir James Frazer. He wrote a book called The Golden Bough and the quote that would act as a springboard for a whole paragraph about magic in Shakespeare was this:
even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is bound up with the life of nature, and how the same processes which freeze the stream and strip the earth of vegetation menace him with extinction.
It’s a long quote but luckily in the final exams you didn’t need to know whole chunks verbatim.
You just needed to remember the key words, put them in quote marks, and use them to develop your argument.
So for me the key words and phrases were “savage”, “freeze the stream”, and “menace him with extinction”.
If I could remember those, I could launch right into an argument about Prospero from The Tempest.
I remembered those quotes by first imagining Frazer.
Unlike Nietzsche, I didn’t have a huge idea in my mind about what Frazer looked like. But I did have a friend from high school who was called Frazer. So I imaged him wielding a golden bough (the title of the book) and I placed him in my room next to my bed on the bedside table.
So after I was done with Nietzsche, who was being all weird on the end of my bed, I could turn and look at Frazer.
But Frazer wasn’t just sitting there.
Firstly he looked completely “savage”. I’m talking ripped dirty rags for clothes and a disgusting smell of mud and shit.
He was poking something on the bedside table using his golden bough. It was a frozen puddle. But when you looked closer it was actually an entire stream in miniature form with fish frozen beneath the surface. He was poking this frozen stream and looking very upset.
Then, out of nowhere, a lighting bolt came down and almost missed him. It menaced him with extinction but luckily he survived.
So I’ve put Nietzsche on my bed and Frazer on my bedside table.
Those two quotes helped me write the opening paragraph for my essay.
And remember I said my next point would be about Prospero from The Tempest?
Well, I remembered him by putting him in my bedside drawer.
Nietzsche on my bed, Frazer on my bedside table, and then I would open the drawer and Prospero would pop out.
You get the picture.
I’d do this for the entire essay and then I would do this for other essays using other rooms (like my room at home or my tutor’s office).
It sounds like a lot of work. And I guess it is because it does take time. But it’s also a lot of fun.
I had so much fun memorising my essays because I made the images as crazy as possible. I made them either disgusting or sexual or anything that would stick in my mind.
And although it took time to memorise that stuff, when I got into the exam hall, I spent literally no time thinking about what I was going to write.
I just visualised my memory palace, took a little walk around in my mind, and I had every quote I needed at my finger tips.
It felt like magic.
You can use this exact same technique for whatever you need to remember.
If you have a long list you need to commit to memory, the memory palace is a perfect, fun, effective technique.