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    Building the Memory Mansion

    Written by

    Alex Dunbar

    Josh Foer’s adventure, chronicled in the New York Times Magazine, about his quest to compete with the high-rangers of the World Memory Championships demonstrates that anybody can master their memory; you don’t need an implant like Keanu Reeves had in that one movie… damn it I’m totally blanking. You know, the one where he’s, like a courier for super-sensitive data? It’s based on a William Gibson story? It will come to me in, like, ten minutes.

    By f.M.R.I.ing a few folks with “average” memories and comparing the scans to those of the eight memory champs, researchers determined that the real difference between you and I and a memory master is the degree to which we’ve exercised our spatial reasoning skills. The eight masters were no more naturally “gifted” than anyone else. Their only advantage were the five story mansions in their brains.

    What Foer’s piece mostly reveals is the efficacy of a technique first perfected in the 5th century BC by the poet Simonides of Ceos. When prompted to give his account of a “tragic banquet hall collapse” for which he was present, Simonides realized his memory of the event was perfectly detailed: he remembered where every guest sat and the orientation of every object in the room.

    These details about the rooms layout came to Simonides without him ever making a conscious effort. From this Simonides invented a technique for memory mastery later termed the Memory Mansion technique by St. Thomas. All the technique requires is for the memorizer to orient the items intended for memorization as objects in a physical space. By, for instance, placing the covers of every Kraut rock record around the dinner table in an imagined room, you’ll be able to recall every release by Ashra Tempel, Can, and Amon Düül II in no time.

    The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts to help him memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary. In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source. “When I left my country to visit as a pilgrim the cities of Italy, I can truly say I carried everything I owned with me,” he wrote.

    For intangibles, like numbers, a memory master will assign every digit an immediately recognizable image. For a series of digits, some memory masters will imagine the number-images in a narrative. As the story unfolds, so do the digits.