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How to sharpen your memory

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American science journalist Joshua Foer was a perfectly normal guy with a perfectly normal memory, says Matthew Syed on Sideways. Then he entered the USA Memory Championship and won. The night afterwards, he drove to dinner with friends to celebrate. After saying goodnight, he took the subway home – the champion had forgotten he’d taken his car. It turns out memory champions don’t have extraordinary memories. They are just like us, but with special techniques up their sleeves.

Foer’s approach was simple: he used the method of loci. A self-taught process of organising your memories so they can be quickly retrieved, it originated in ancient Greece and was used by Sherlock Holmes to help solve his mysteries.

Every memory needs to be given a place (loci is the Latin for “places”) in a carefully constructed building in your mind. As the myth behind the method’s invention goes, in the 5th century BC, the poet Simonides of Ceos was performing at a banquet being held in a large hall when it suddenly collapsed. He was the only survivor – and was tasked with identifying the dead. Thanks to having spent years learning poems and ordering them in his mind, he was able to travel back in time, resurrect the room and recall where everyone had been sitting.

To use the method of loci you have to create a memory palace in your mind – one that is many-roomed and well ordered. In these rooms you drop your facts. When you need them, you wander through your palace, looking for the information you want to remember.

Listen to the episode here.

“A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Sherlock Holmes tells John Watson in A Study in Scarlet.