Monday Over Coffee: "Memory Palace"

Published February 5, 2024 by Greg Funderburk

Freelance journalist, Joshua Foer, had a poor memory. He would forget where he laid his keys. Where he had parked his car. His loved ones’ birthdays. He’d forget the names of people as soon as they were introduced. Curious about this, he attended the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship, planning to write an article about it. Once there, he encountered folks memorizing 1500 random digits, then repeating them in order as if recalling their own phone numbers. Others committed pages and pages of poetry to memory in an hour or quickly thumbed through a deck of cards then recited them back in perfect order to the competition’s judges. 

All of the contestants told Joshua they had only average memories before training for these contests and credited their prodigious feats to a 2500-year old mnemonic technique used by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and medieval scholars called the Memory Palace. Impressed, Josh not only tried it but committed to it so earnestly that in 2006, he came back and won the contest himself. He then wrote an entertaining book about his experience called, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, which became a bestseller, re-popularizing the memorization strategy itself.

While there’s more to the technique as one advances, in a rudimentary way it works like this: Consider you need to remember a grocery list of twelve items—bread, butter, milk, Cokes, beans, pasta, coffee, eggs, cereal, shampoo, popcorn, and finally, trash bags. Here’s what you would do. First, picture a setting familiar to you—your home, apartment, or office. Now, walk through it in your mind, placing an item in each room or area, but as you do, associate the room and the item, linking them in some compelling, memorable way—the more ridiculous, the better. 

Using the house I grew up in the 1970s, for instance, I imagine myself coming in through the garage, into the room where our washer and dryer were located, then into the kitchen, next into the foyer adjacent to the front door before entering a long hallway. Down the hallway there was my brother David’s room to the left, my sister Susan’s room to the right, then my room farther down, then my sister Laura’s room beyond that. Next was my mother’s sewing room before we got to my parent’s bedroom, and in the very back, my dad’s study. 

Now then, let’s put the first item in the garage—but in a way that’s associated with that particular space. Say, instead of a car in the garage, I imagine a giant loaf of bread there with wheels—a Breadmobile. Now inside the house, in the first room where the washer and dryer are, I imagine big sticks of butter churning, tumbling around inside the dryer. In the kitchen, there’s a dairy cow perusing what’s in the refrigerator. Then, in the foyer, at the front door, I see a man knocking on the door dressed absurdly as a can of Coca-Cola trying to get in. Turning down the hallway, my brother David is in his room wearing a hat—a beanie. Next, in Susan’s room, I imagine her swirling around inside a giant saucer, Alice-in-Wonderland style, filled with coffee. Now on to my own room. There, I imagine myself in trouble as I often was, entering it, walking on eggshells. Laura’s room follows to the left, where—sorry, Laura—she’s being chased by a serial killer. The sewing room is up ahead. Inside, Hollywood celebrity Warren Beatty, the star of the 1975 movie Shampoo, is working diligently at the sewing machine. When I reach my parents’ room at the end of the hall, their record player is blaring the 1972 record, “Popcorn” (by one-hit wonder, Hot Butter). Finally, moving into my dad’s study, sick of studying it, I throw away my grocery list in the trash.

So there it is: Garage, Breadmobile—bread. Wash Room, tumbling butter sticks in the dryer—butter. Cow in the kitchen at the fridge—milk. Foyer, Coca-Cola guy at the door—Cokes. David wearing a beanie in his room—beans. Susan in her room spinning in the saucer—coffee. My room. I’m in trouble—walking on eggshells—eggs. Next, I rescue Laura from the serial killer in her room—cereal. Sewing room, the star of Shampoo, Warren Beatty, sewing away—shampoo. Now in my parent’s room, I hear their record player—popcorn. Last, in my dad’s study, tired of studying my list, I trash it. Trash bags!

Our consciousness is a miracle. Our minds, splendid. Our imaginations, crazy wonderful. And our capacity to remember, astonishing. Thank God for such a magnificent palace—our memory itself.

God—I’m grateful for my memories and for the capacity to remember. Amen. 

—Greg Funderburk