Method of loci: the Ancient Connection Between Location & Memory

What’s your best friend’s phone number? Who is the Prime Minister of New Zealand? Chances are you don’t have those things memorized because they’re stored somewhere else like your mobile device, or Wikipedia. We outsource the majority of our remembering to technology nowadays, but it’s really nothing new. We’ve been getting help with remembering information since written language was first invented over 5,000 years ago. 

What we seem to have forgotten with every advance in technology, from writing, to the printing press, to virtual assistants (“hey Siri, what are the first five digits of pi?”), is that our brains are still capable of storing vast amounts of information. Today’s memory champions use mnemonic devices like the method of loci to commit feats of memory like recalling the order of hundreds of playing cards or the exact sequence of thousands of digits.

Prior to the advent of writing our minds were our only record-keeping tool, which led our brains to evolve an incredible capacity for memory. Even though it can be hard to remember what you had for lunch three days ago, don’t be fooled, neuroscientists estimate that your brain is able to store approximately 2.5 petabytes of information—that’s 2.5 million gigabytes. (To put that in perspective, a 2.5 petabyte hard drive could store one billion songs or 300 million hours of television.)

The brain’s incredible capacity to store information evolved over millennia, during a period when humans shared only spoken language. Anthropologists speculate this epoch lasted anywhere between 50,000 and 150,000 years, before the first written character was etched in clay in approximately 3,500 BCE.

Over the tens of thousands of years spent transmitting knowledge solely through oral tradition, we developed ingenious methods to access the power of our memory to store and recall vast amounts of information. Using mnemonic devices, repetition, rhyming and other patterns of speech, ancient peoples passed on their culture, history and facts about the world around them from generation to generation through memorization.

One of the most common mnemonic devices used, now known as the method of loci, uses the visualization of physical spaces to store memories inside of cognitive maps in a way that makes retrieval quick and easy. To use this method, a person can imagine walking through a familiar location, like their childhood home or their route to work, placing what they want to memorize in different spots, or ‘loci,’ along a path through the space. Later, they simply return to the location in their mind and walk the path back to each loci—Latin for ‘places’—to pick up the information they want to recall.

First peoples on every continent have used physical locations as loci to help them transmit their history. From Uluru and Stonehenge to the stars in the sky, early humans attached important stories to significant spaces in their environment in order to pass on information and bring it forward through time.

Fast forward to today, and advancements in technology are now proving through scientific discovery what humans seem to have intuited all along—place and memory are inextricably linked in the brain.

In 2014, John O’Keefe, May-Britt and Edvard Moser were awarded the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking discovery of the “GPS of the brain.” Their cumulative work identified the different types of brain cells that activate as we find our way around in the world to build our cognitive maps of the places we go. 

Nobel Prize winning discovery of the GPS of the brain provides a scientific explanation for how the method of loci works. John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser.
The groundbreaking discovery of the GPS of the brain

These specific brain cells, known as “grid cells” and “place cells,” are dedicated to remembering where you’ve been. As you walk grid cells fire, recording the terrain of your mental map. As your vision is interrupted by landmarks (a tree, a building, a sign) place cells fire, creating the pinpoints on your mental map that will help you remember your path. Voila! This is your brain’s GPS

Our natural GPS system is located partly in the hippocampus which, in addition to managing navigation, plays a central role in storing information to long-term memory. It’s only very recently that we’ve been able to observe and study the connection between these two functions, even though we’ve been exploiting their interrelation for millennia. 

Understanding the physiological connection between places and memory makes a lot of common experiences make sense. Have you ever lost a thought and walked back to the spot you were standing when you had the thought in order to recall what it was? Or, have you ever closed your eyes and retraced your steps to remember where you parked your car? That’s your spatial memory at work. 

Knowing about this connection in our brains also opens up a new world of possibility when it comes to location-specific knowledge. Just like hands-on learning helps your body remember how to do something, connecting information to the place where it’s most useful helps us remember it more clearly and recall it quickly under any circumstance. This becomes particularly important when the information you’re learning is, for example, the location of a fire extinguisher or first aid kit. 

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