Method of Loci

Using the Loci Method Mnemonic

The place method (or journey method, or method of loci, as it is traditionally known) is one the oldest mnemonic strategies. This was used by the ancient Greeks. Yates (1966) described how Simonides of Thessaly was able to recall the names of many people crushed at a banquet by remembering where each guest was sitting or, in other words, remembering by location or place.

This is how it works

First of all, you choose a place you know extremely well. You might use a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it. The crucial thing is that you can easily call to mind various ‘landmarks’ (different fixed objects in a room, for example, or different buildings on a route). These landmarks are your anchors. You must train yourself to go around your landmarks in a particular order. With a route of course, that is easy.

To remember a list, you simply imagine each item in turn at these landmarks. For example, a loaf of bread on the couch; a giant apple on the coffee table; the sink full of carrots; a giant banana in the bath, etc.

As with all mnemonics, you have to try to appreciate that it really does work! The critical thing is to make sure you know your set of landmarks very well. That is, that you can close your eyes and clearly mentally visualize the places you are walking through.

Having done that, you must clearly, vividly, visualize the items you want to remember in those places. How well this strategy works for you does depend on your ability to make mental images.

But if you think you’re not very good at this, remember that most people are better than they think, and it is a skill that improves with practice.

Like most mnemonic strategies, you can apply this strategy at different levels of expertise. At a basic level, it is quite easily learned, as long as you have a familiar place that you know in sufficient detail.

So the first determinant of whether this is an easy strategy for you is how well you know suitable places. The second determinant is how good your visualization abilities are — this really is a visual strategy, not one that has a verbal counterpart or significant component.

In one example, a performer visualized an interaction between each of a list of grocery items, and each of a list of physical locations (loci) situated along a familiar route of travel. Spaghetti (list items) was visualized draped over the front gate (locus) leading to the individual’s house, while apples (list item) were envisaged rolling down the inclined sidewalk (locus).

The method of loci may also be used to assist the recall of a speech. In fact, the loci method was first developed by Roman orators to remember the content and sequence of speeches. In this application, the content of a speech was reduced to a series of visual images in which each image representing an important word or idea in the speech was visualized interacting with each of the corresponding loci.

For learning arbitrary lists of unrelated items, the method of loci can prove very effective. Mentally associate each of the to-be-learned items with a well-known physical location in a well-known landscape. When it is time to retrieve, imagine again the physical location and mentally walk through it. Look for the to-be-learned item in each location.

    Adapted from the book: Mnemonics for Study (2nd ed.), authored by Fiona McPherso