Memory – Encoding – The Loci System

Friday, March 7th, 2008 at 5:46 pm.
by pre.

Human brains do not remember things in the same way that a computer, or a video camera, or a gramophone record remembers things. You do not stream data directly into some permanent storage for later recall. When you remember something your brain in fact increases the associations between items already encoded in your memory. When you later try to recall the memory, it’s the strength of these associations which feed back the stored items to your conciousness and allow you to reconstruct and re-imagine the thing you tried to remember.

This is great, and works very well for recalling things like the gist of stories, how to operate your television or how to get to your friend’s house. It works much worse for more abstract things though, things like author’s names, what you had for lunch yesterday, what time that show you want to watch is being broadcast, or the actual address and postcode of your friend’s house.

The Loci system is designed to take difficult abstract things and give you a way to associate them with a given well memorised list of things, so that you can run though the well remembered list and recall all those more abstract things you have associated with each.

One things the brain does remember reasonably well is where things are and what things are in a given place. You may not believe it when you’re hunting high and low for your car keys, but nevertheless it’s true. Think right now of where your phone is, or where those unfortunate trousers you’ve never actually worn have been for the last few months. Think of the list of things that are in your kitchen drawer. You will remember most of those things, because they are of an associative nature. You think of the phone, and things like it’s location automatically come to mind, we have evolved to do this kind of thing well.

The Loci System demands that you use a well known route, a list of places, and associate the abstract things you wish to remember with one of those places. To do this you use your imagination and visualisation abilities to see something that represents that abstract thing at the location, actually in the location. In your mind you see that location as if the thing were there. Then to recall the abstract thing you just have to remember how you last saw that location, what things are stored in it.

To learn this system we will use a list of ten loci (places). A suitable list of places may be your route home from work or the route to your friends house. Your list of locations will likely include each corner you must turn, each landmark you must pass, even each door you must open if needed, so long as you have ten different, distinct locations to use in that route. Call this route your “Loci Map”

If you were playing the generation game and were asked to remember a list of objects as they pass on a conveyor belt you might try repeating the things to yourself, or concentrating hard on the things as they pass. These systems will likely not work well though. If you were to use The Loci System you would vividly imagine each of the objects as they pass in one of your list of places in your loci map. The kitchen-set at the bus-stop, for instance. The Cuddly Toy buying a holiday at the corner shop.

Now recalling the list of items is just a question of imagining yourself walking home from work, remembering all the strange things you saw last time you took the route, as the conveyor belt rolled on. People find this a much simpler task.

You can use the Loci System to remember all kinds of things; to-do lists, the events of a party, shopping lists, etc. Just strongly imagine seeing the thing you want to remember in one of the places in your route.

People who have used the Loci System extensively recommend having an extensive list of routes, and spending time wondering through them refreshing the contents of each location as often as you can. When waiting for a bus perhaps, or while there’s a commercial break on the television. The more often you refresh the things in your list, the more likely they will be to stay there and, as a bonus, if that’s a todo list you’re more likely to do the things on it.

The only trouble is remembering to use the system when you have things to remember.

This Month’s Guided Meditation File

We present an mp3 designed to help you practice using the Loci System, and furthermore load your brain with suggestions to make it actually use the system more in daily life. You’ll need to have a route in mind when you listen to the file, with at least ten locations on that route.

The monologue will take you through each of those locations, giving you a short time to imagine seeing the things you have stored in that location, slowly going through each spot and then more rapidly going backwards through the route.

Because much of the consolidation of our memories goes on in our dreams, the monologue then goes on to suggest that you’ll dream aboute those locations, the contents of the locations, and the act of wondering through the route refreshing your loci-stored memory. It also suggests that even after you wake you’ll remember to use the system more, in your daily life. Assuming you have slowed your brain down to the more suggestible wavelengths these suggestions should be invaluable, and really will help to improve your memory within your life.

Since you will likely have nothing stored in each of your loci as you start the training, we will use the audio file to also help to learn the essential components of another memorisation technique known as The Peg System. Briefly, this is a system for turning numbers into words so that they can more easily be remembered. We’ll talk more about this next week. For now just concentrate on the other purpose, the fact that having these objects there allows us to name them, so Noah being at location 2 means you can talk about “Noah’s location” and use this as a key to find all the things there. If you want to store some key, you can store it “With the goo” rather than “at the 9th place in the loci map”. Having these names helps build a short-cut to that location in your mind.