Please put a door between them

[Added November 2011]
The method of loci so well described by the book Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer is based on remembering hundreds of loci . There are rules on
how to create them in such a way that they can be easily remembered. These include
the fact that they should have all about the same size, be well illuminated , well separated, … These rules are obvious since they make more easy the
recollection. New research by Radvansky and others
make more clear what means “well separated” and how it works. I couldn’t get
the original paper but a previous paper on the same subject:
Walking through doorways causes forgetting:Situation models and experienced space describes very well the experimental protocol. The experiments are done using computers and virtual reality techniques: you are requested to walk a space
containing many desks with objects on them. You carry an empty box and you
should pick an object and put it in the box. Than you carry it to another
desk. This will go on for some time and different objects. From time to time
you are asked what you have in the box. It is as simple as this. You have
to remember only what is the last object that you picked. Here the interesting
result is the following : if you use the same space and the same desks layout
but put one or more walls and doors between them, the number of times you
forget the object’s name increases. In the last paper Radvansky has demonstrated
that there is real forgetting because the person doing the experiment will
return after passing a few doors in the place where he picked the object and
there is no recovery of memory:i.e. the fact of passing a doorway will produce
a permanent forgetting. Radvansky explains this “the act of passing through a doorway serves as a way the mind files away memories”.

From this research it is also apparent another striking feature of our brain: it works in the same way in real world, in virtual reality, reading
about a scene, looking at the scene in a movie and of course imagining
the scene as they do in the method of loci. This may seem surprising but it
isn’t if you just replace our brain with a computer trying to move in
real world. Of course the computer doesn’t interact with real objects but only
with a stream of 2D images and other data. Using these it must create a 3D
model of the unknown real world. It is exactly what the brain does but it
does it so effortlessly that we may think that we are interacting with real
objects. This instantaneous simulation of reality is also done by our brain
when it reads a text , sees a movie or imagines a walk in a memory palace.

Now coming back to the method of loci. The essence of the method is that you
store all the information you want to remember in the loci of the memory palace.
Then you get this information back walking from locus to locus. As you do this,
it is important also, that, after you extract the information from a locus
(something like picking an object from a desk), this information shouldn’t bother you any more (since you have already used it) and so, to forget it, you
just imagine that you pass a doorway and you arrive at the next locus ready
to pick a new object.

Instead in real life you may want exactly the opposite when you have forgotten what you needed from the refrigerator. Before passing the doorway
use for example some hand gesture to remember and reverse the door’s effect
on memory. Or just keep repeating the name of the thing you need…

What are doing those virgins in Ravenna’s memory palaces?

[Added November 2011]
The fast answer is : exactly what are doing the “virgins” during bunga-bunga parties in Berlusconi’s (real) palaces. For the long answer please read the
book Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer. I try to summarize (of course mistakes are mine). This book is
all about method of loci. This method has been invented around 3000 years ago and is based on two important principles that allow the fast and permanent remembering of almost everything.

The first principle is the use of “loci” (places in latin) and is
based on the fact that our brain is very good at remembering places. JF describes this very well: if you are left alone in a house never seen before
for a short time (for example an hour), that hour of exploration is enough
to memorise hundreds of details of the house forever.

Now, if you only could read a book about a complex subject or a deck of cards in the same way as you “read” the house , you have discovered a way to memorize instantly everything. This is what the second principle of the method addresses: “images agentes” vivid images of “something” happening in the places
that you already know very well (i.e. the loci).

Now, what are the things happening around you that you best remember: mostly things where other people is involved and having emotional content.
For example, if we are in a situation which is dangerous for us , we store instantly everything happening around us and we automatically replay the scene
day and night (in our dreams) for many days until that scene becomes a permanent
part of our brain. This is what means “vivid images”: imagine a scene happening in one of the loci in which someone that you know well is doing something nasty, fearsome or simply funny or bizarre. Then this scene will stick effortlessly to your brain and , if it encodes a concept in a book or a card in a deck, this information would also be stored forever. Before you rush using the
method , be warned : you need a year of training to set up enough memory palaces (i.e. empty houses) and then to create effortlessly new images…

Now coming back to the virgins… Sexual images are of course among the more memorable so Peter of Ravenna, a 15th-century writer on the topic advised “If you wish to remember quickly, dispose the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory places”.

Repeat to remember

[Added October 2008]
John Medina book :Brain rules explains what we know about the brain after the Neuroscience discoveries in these last years trying to distill this knowledge in a list of possible ways to improve our learning in school or our intellectual work.
Medina concentrates only on well proven facts and has the gift to present these
results in a way that emphasize all their importance to improve our learning and working experience. For example when considering memory, he explains what we know about the mechanism behind short term (working) memory and long term memory.
Then he distills the single rule : repeat to remember. He clearly explains the importance of this rule reporting the well known case of patient HM without hippocampus and without the possibility to form new long term memories. This case shows some astonishing facts about memory:

  1. Hippocampus is crucial to form long term memories
  2. HM had still long term memories but starting from around ten years before the operation that removed the hippocampus. These are stored elsewhere in the brain.
  3. The formation of these long term memories requires years and literally thousands of memory rehearsals with transmission of signals between the hippocampus and the part of the brain where the memory will stay permanently.
  4. In all these years each recalling of the memory can bring it back to its volatile state and you can either lose it or modify it.

So, the only thing that really matters with creation of permanent memories is repeating at regular intervals for years.

The way of the actor

[Added January 2006]
How do actors memorize all these lines?Trying to answer this question,
Helga and Tony Noice have found a surprising way to master cognitive
abilities that can be of great help to non-actors and to aged people.
The answer to their question is that actors don’t use rote memorization.
Instead they learn their lines by … acting. An actor would concentrate not
on the words, but on their meaning and divide the script lines in chunks
called “beats” or “intentions”.During each beat the actor has the same
motivations of the character. So the actor will rehearse his lines by going
from a “beat” to the next and trying to use any clue (physical, emotional)
to remember the lines involved.

What is interesting is that this strategy can be used by non-actors :for
example students, to improve learning. An example on how a student can
use this strategy, is by imagining to explain what is learning to other
people. (This is a technique that I use frequently myself: the best way to learn something , is to teach a course about what you are learning!)

Yet more surprising is the fact that engaging aged people in a four-weeks
course on acting, improved word-recall and problem solving abilities.

11 steps to a better memory!

[Added May 2005]
An interesting article from New Scientist on 11 steps for a better brain is in fact mostly focused on ways to control the effects of aging on memory .

  1. Smart drugs.
  2. Smart food.
  3. Music listening. Playing an instrument.
  4. Bionic brains (computer stuff connected directly to the brain: in the next future).
  5. Mental workouts to improve working memory.
  6. Mnemonic tricks
  7. A good night’s rest
  8. Physical exercise
  9. The way of the nuns: i.e. a good lifestyle,the support of a community.
  10. Train to improve the concentration.Avoid causes of distractions.
  11. Biofeedback.

Keeping memory in good health

[Added February 1999]
This document from the Exploratorium, gives some sound advice on how to keep
your memory in good health.

  1. Physical exercise like walking.

  2. Mental exercise like doing crosswords
  3. Sharing your experiences with other people
  4. Using organization in space to help memory:like putting the keys always
    in the same place or writing things in a appointment book.

  5. Using organization in time to help memory:like having a daily routine.

In which conditions you remember best

[Added December 1998]
I try to recall from time to time long lists of items learned with the
method of loci. I have got some experience on the best
conditions to remember things.

  • During walks in a peaceful, natural setting.
  • In bed after the night sleep, when you feel relaxed but no longer
    fall asleep.

  • Always in bed when you are not very tired by hearing a special relaxing
    sound produced by computer.I use the program Cool Edit of Syntrillium to produce the stereo
    waveform that I listen through stereo headphones. You can find the details in the manual.

Move your hands to remember!

[Added December 1998]
Why do we gesture when we speak? To this question Robert Krauss has,after a long research, the following surprising answer. The main purpose of hand gestures is not to communicate but to facilitate access to the mental lexicon.Krauss tells a story about this:
two friends walk together in a icy cold day. One of the two speaks and speaks moving the hands;the other remains silent with his hands kept in the pockets.
“Why are you so silent today?” asks him the always talking friend.”I forgot to take the gloves with me”, answers the silent one.

Using inner dialog to improve memory and learning

[Added September 1998]
It is obvious that ,if you speak about a subject you are learning with someone
, this will improve the learning and memory about the subject.
But, not always is another person available to help us. Fortunately
there is another kind of dialog that goes on almost all the time in our mind.
This is the inner dialog. When we are worried about something,for example,
we’ll go through the problem again and again speaking in our head with
a lot of imaginary persons. We can improve our learning and memory by
using consciously this inner dialog to rehearse. For example, we can
imagine speaking with the author of the material if this is on a book.
Or we can imagine giving a conference about
a subject. Or sending a mail.In my experience, I have found that when
I am preparing a seminar (I teach Web related technologies), I learn a lot of things just by rehearsing the seminar again and again.
This learning comes almost without effort because I am worried about
the seminar and so I will think again and again about it. In fact,the
problem is now quite the contrary, I would sometime like to forget about it
to relax.