Sunday, June 23, 2013

Iter in Aulam Memoriae - A Journey into the Memory Palace

Grading final exams has me once again face to face with the quandary of how to teach vocabulary. Some did quite well, others didn't know words that I spent considerable time trying to reinforce. As a successful self-taught language learner, I know the secret that there is no such thing as teaching someone else vocabulary, or anything for that matter. Ultimately, one simply must teach themselves, that is to say, take responsibility for spending the time necessary to commit these facts somehow to memory.

My most successful student displayed on her final exam traces of the method she must have used in part to achieve her impressive vocabulary acquisition. She had drawn little pictures next to some of her answers that matched images from the stories in which we learned these words. By visualizing words with some memorable add-ons, many learners find that they can retrieve the words more efficiently when they need it.

The most developed version of this memory technique is to place  the words you want to memorize in some grid or architecture in your brain, through which you then imagine yourself walking. This is known as the

Method of Loci (Places), or the Memory Palace. It's quite an ancient method, discussed by Classical Greek thinkers, utilized by Renaissance men like da Vinci, and still widely used.

Basically, in this method, you picture yourself in some familiar setting, perhaps your own house, or another place you know well. You imagine the things you want to remember as being in specific locations of that place, coupled with memorable images.

Here's an example I used as a youth learning Latin in high school. The word tandem means 'at last, finally'. We had a tandem bike, my twin and I. I imagined us riding past someone on that bike. They saw the front tire, they saw me, then they saw my twin, then finally they saw the rear tire. I pictured this as taking place on Willard Avenue, Madison WI. And I have never forgotten the word since.

I recently stumbled upon someone who is about as close as you can come to a true Renaissance man in the modern world. Anthony Metivier is professionally involved in a dizzying range of pursuits, from music to film script writing. But he's best known for his advocacy of the Memory Palace method. If you're interested in learning anything from Spanish to Medical Terminology, Dr. Metivier has a book that will instruct you on how to apply the Memory Palace method.

Here are his books.  If you are interested in learning any of these topics, these books are an excellent place to start: