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The Origins of the Method of Loci

Edited transcript of Facebook Live – By Phil Chambers 7th June 2020

I want to tell you a story about the origins of the method of Loci. It’s also known as the Roman Room or the Memory Palace technique. 

It dates back to about 500 BC – over 2000 years ago, and it concerns a lyric poet by the name of, Simonides of Ceos – the Greek island of Ceos. (Apologies for my Greek pronunciation) His employment was to create lyric poems about the greats, nobles and the various important people in Greece. He’d been commissioned to give a recital of a poem in honour of Scopas, a nobleman of Thessaly at his banquet. He gave the presentation of his poem that he’d written. At the end of the poem Scopas was very displeased because not only had he honoured his host in the poem, he also gave praise to the twin half-brothers of Castor and Pollux, who are the immortal sons of Leda in Greek mythology. One of their fathers was Zeus who disguised himself as a swan to seduce Leda. They are the patron gods of sailors and travellers. Since Simonides had praised them, Scopas said, I’ll give you half your fee, and the gods can repay the other half! 

Shortly after having finished his recital, a messenger came in, gave him a message saying he had to leave the room. There were two men very insistent to see him outside. He left the banqueting hall, went outside only to see no one there. It became obvious the gods had sent this message. As soon as he stepped outside, the building collapsed and everyone there was crushed under the falling masonry and debris from the hall. He was the sole survivor. 

As he was the only person left surviving, his task was then to identify the bodies and direct the relatives to the respective remains of their loved ones. He discovered that he could remember where everyone was sitting, and therefore who they were by their positions around the table or around the room. That lead him to the realization that memory is associated with locations. The strongest memories are set in locations and hence the idea of making associations between locations and the things you need to memorize, in the method of loci. 

Although it’s two and a half thousand years old, it’s still used today. It’s the exact same technique that most memory athletes use when they’re memorizing be it packs of cards or numbers, wherever it may be. They’re still using imagination, association and very importantly, location. It was later developed – taken from the Greeks and then developed by the Romans. They used it equally well in their memory systems. 

Of course, way back in antiquity, it was too expensive to be able to use notes for speaking, because you had to hire a scribe. Only really important documents and trading transactions could be written on Papyrus or used on stone or clay, but not for the frivolity of making speeches. They used these memory techniques to memorize the speeches when they used to talk in the fora and give presentations. 

If you’re giving a presentation yourself, you can use memory techniques of locations around the room you’re speaking in to memorize the key points and not miss any of the important things you need to talk about. That’s something politicians do a lot. They often try speaking without notes to give a better connection with people they’re talking to. 

I hope that’s been of interest. I’ll talk about another story from the annals of memory history next week.

Thanks for listening and bye for now.

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