How to Use the Method of Loci

James Bierly, Andrea McKay
  • Author
    James Bierly

    James earned his Bachelor's in History and Philosophy from Northwestern College, and holds a Master of Education degree in Secondary Social Studies from Roberts Wesleyan College. He worked as a Special Education Teacher for one year, and is currently a stay-at-home dad.

  • Instructor
    Andrea McKay

    Andrea teaches high school AP Psychology and Online Economics and has a Masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

Explore the method of loci. Learn about the origins of loci, the strategy and technique to using it, and how it can aid memory. Practice with engaging loci examples. Updated: 02/14/2022

What is the Method of Loci?

The method of loci is a mnemonic device, a trick to aid in memory storage and retrieval. Loci means locations in Latin. The method of loci uses imagined physical locations to aid memory. This works because human beings are very good at remembering places, but not so good at remembering words, numbers and lists. The technique co-opts our visual and spatial hardware to store and retrieve more abstract information.

A user of this technique will create an imaginary physical space in their mind, and then place objects throughout the space which symbolize the information which must be recalled. As the user walks through the space in their mind's eye, they encounter the information which must be recalled as if it were a memory of something physical.

"Memory Athletes" who display feats of memory as a sport often use this technique. These astounding individuals can recite pi to hundreds of thousands of places, or remember the exact order of cards in two playing decks. This method was also popular among the rhetoricians of ancient Greece and Rome, who used it to memorize their speeches. One of the greatest of those orators, the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BCE), recounted that the method originated with the poet Simonides, who discovered the technique in tragic circumstances. At a party, Simonides stepped outside, and while he was gone the roof caved in. Everyone was killed. Simonides was able to identify all the corpses because he could remember the physical location of where everyone was sitting, and this helped trigger his memory to recall their names. According to Cicero, Simonides then generalized this technique, which used memory of physical places to aid memory of semantic information. Recently in popular culture, the method of loci has been used by the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in the BBC show Sherlock. The method of Loci is sometimes called the memory palace, because it involves the creation of a massive building in the mind in which to store information.


Definition of the Method of Loci

Imagine you must give an important speech in front of your college communications class for your final exam. No matter how many times you rehearse the speech, you know you will not be able to memorize every part of it. You don't want to accidentally leave out any necessary details, but you want to impress your audience by not relying on note cards for help. What can you do?

Ancient Greek and Roman orators are often attributed for using the Method of Loci to memorize speeches. The Method of Loci is an effective mnemonic device, or a trick to aid in memory storage and retrieval. The effectiveness of the Method of Loci relies on visualizing mental images to associate with the material that needs to be remembered. The more vivid the visual, the more effective the method.

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Greek poet Simonides, said to have created the method of loci

Image of the Greek poet Simonides, said to have created the method of loci

Method of Loci Examples

This technique could be useful in daily life, such as memorizing a grocery list. Here's a simple example:

  • Pears
  • Bananas
  • Artichokes
  • Bacon
  • Cheddar Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Ice cream
  • Cereal
  • Almond milk
  • Bread
  • Cinnamon
  • Tofu
  • Orange Juice

One way to use the method of loci on this list would be to simply use the places suggested by the nature of the list. If someone knew the grocery store very well, the method of loci could be used simply by spending some time visualizing how the trip would go. The shopper would first group items which are located in the same parts of the store together, for example moving Tofu to be near the fruit and vegetables because the plant based proteins are found in the produce section. Then, the shopper would carefully imagine the course they were going to take in the store, a section at a time, perhaps imagining each item to be purchased as lighting up with a colored halo. Finally, actually walking through the store would trigger memories of what needed to be purchased at each physical location in the store. A similar natural technique would be to imagine precisely where all the groceries would go in the refrigerator and cabinets after the shopping trip, and then fill in the refrigerator and cabinets in one's mind while shopping, completing the mental picture while gathering physical goods.

A more classical technique would be to imagine a physical place, perhaps the shopper's living room. As the shopper looks around their own living room, they would mentally place the items to be purchased throughout the room. Perhaps the bananas become perched on the television, and the orange juice reclines upon the couch. Then, at the store, the shopper simply visualizes their living room, and mentally imagines themselves walking through it and seeing the items in order to recall the list.

A third way to remember information with the method of loci incorporates a bit of narrative. The user imagines a vibrant location with lots of unforgettable objects which serve as hints or triggers to recall the items in a list, creating a slightly absurd mental space with a narrative feel. A story unfolds in the mind as the user imagines moving through the space. This is particularly useful for more scholastic and abstract topics, such as memorizing a string of numbers. This is also an excellent technique for memorizing something like the periodic table or medication lists.

The first 15 digits of pi are 3.14159265358979.

If someone is trying to recall the digits of pi they might imagine a home, with a number 314 as the house number. On the door might be a wreath which belonged to the person's grandfather, who died at age 59. Upon imagining opening the door, there might be a two welcome mats (since the next number is two). Hanging next to the matt is a picture of a fishing boat, since this person looks forward to turning 65 and being able to retire to fish full time. There are also three pegs for hanging coats, and someone has dropped a five cent nickel on the ground under the pegs. The user imagines bending over to pick up the nickel, and notices crumbs from a snack the cat carried over and ate (ate = eight). Speaking of the cat, she is lying near the doorway, enjoying her nine lives. She purrs, sounding like she is in heaven (heaven rhymes with seven). The person engaging in this technique then imagines that they hear their son running to welcome them home. He is nine.

The problem with all these methods is that each location in the mental image is light on information. There's really only one piece of information at each spot. The way to remedy the problem is with the fourth way of using the method of loci, which is to use a technique that allows for information dense chunks to occupy each node of the memory palace. For numbers, one could use the counting method, whereby the number of letters in a word equals the number which the word is meant to stand for. So 'I like apple juice' is equal to the number 1455. To combine with the method of loci, one would place a glass of orange juice in their imaginary space and associate this phrase with the juice.

Visualization

To use the Method of Loci, you simply need to visualize a location through which you can take an imaginary walk. If you are memorizing a speech, it is helpful for the location to have a beginning, middle, and an end, perhaps similar to a route you have memorized on your way to work. You will 'store' parts of what you need to memorize throughout each space of the location you have chosen.

If you are using your work route as an example for a walk-through, you might mentally store the introduction of your speech in the mailbox near your front door, symbolizing the beginning of your speech. Continue throughout your imaginary walk, and in each new location, mentally store another element from your speech until you have completed your mental walk and reached the end of your speech.

The Method of Loci can help with memorizing lists, scripts, and important speeches. It is important to stress that mental imagery leads to the effectiveness of the Method of Loci. Creating a vivid mental picture helps the mnemonic become clear and solid in your mind. Rehearsing the association between the location and the material that needs to be memorized also adds to the mnemonic's effectiveness.

Memory Experts Use the Method of Loci

Memory experts sometimes refer to the Method of Loci as the 'Memory Palace.' Instead of taking a mental walk through a specific route, they visualize items to be memorized in different imaginary rooms in their palace. World record holders in memory competitions often indicate that an intellectually average person can learn and use these techniques. Individuals with ordinary memories are capable of winning world records just by learning and applying mnemonic devices such as the Method of Loci.

Are you ready to attempt the Method of Loci and become a memorization expert? Imagine you need to memorize a grocery list, and you decide to use the Method of Loci. Here is your list:

  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Milk
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Carrots
  • Limes
  • Taco shells

Use a mental image of walking through your home to help you memorize the list. Be sure to make the imagery vivid. In fact, the more bizarre the image, the more likely you are to remember the association. Take the time to fully see the image in your mind. Here's an example:

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Video Transcript

Definition of the Method of Loci

Imagine you must give an important speech in front of your college communications class for your final exam. No matter how many times you rehearse the speech, you know you will not be able to memorize every part of it. You don't want to accidentally leave out any necessary details, but you want to impress your audience by not relying on note cards for help. What can you do?

Ancient Greek and Roman orators are often attributed for using the Method of Loci to memorize speeches. The Method of Loci is an effective mnemonic device, or a trick to aid in memory storage and retrieval. The effectiveness of the Method of Loci relies on visualizing mental images to associate with the material that needs to be remembered. The more vivid the visual, the more effective the method.

Visualization

To use the Method of Loci, you simply need to visualize a location through which you can take an imaginary walk. If you are memorizing a speech, it is helpful for the location to have a beginning, middle, and an end, perhaps similar to a route you have memorized on your way to work. You will 'store' parts of what you need to memorize throughout each space of the location you have chosen.

If you are using your work route as an example for a walk-through, you might mentally store the introduction of your speech in the mailbox near your front door, symbolizing the beginning of your speech. Continue throughout your imaginary walk, and in each new location, mentally store another element from your speech until you have completed your mental walk and reached the end of your speech.

The Method of Loci can help with memorizing lists, scripts, and important speeches. It is important to stress that mental imagery leads to the effectiveness of the Method of Loci. Creating a vivid mental picture helps the mnemonic become clear and solid in your mind. Rehearsing the association between the location and the material that needs to be memorized also adds to the mnemonic's effectiveness.

Memory Experts Use the Method of Loci

Memory experts sometimes refer to the Method of Loci as the 'Memory Palace.' Instead of taking a mental walk through a specific route, they visualize items to be memorized in different imaginary rooms in their palace. World record holders in memory competitions often indicate that an intellectually average person can learn and use these techniques. Individuals with ordinary memories are capable of winning world records just by learning and applying mnemonic devices such as the Method of Loci.

Are you ready to attempt the Method of Loci and become a memorization expert? Imagine you need to memorize a grocery list, and you decide to use the Method of Loci. Here is your list:

  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Milk
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Carrots
  • Limes
  • Taco shells

Use a mental image of walking through your home to help you memorize the list. Be sure to make the imagery vivid. In fact, the more bizarre the image, the more likely you are to remember the association. Take the time to fully see the image in your mind. Here's an example:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the method of loci example?

An example of the method of loci would be memorizing a series of words and mentally associating each one with one part of the body. If a word was 'apple,' someone using this technique might envision an apple in their hand. Another word might be 'giraffe' and the user would imagine a giraffe sitting on their foot. Then, by simply going through each of their body parts in order the user would be able to retrieve all of the words.

Who made the method of loci?

Cicero attributed the method to Simonides the ancient Greek poet. A story was told about Simonides that he attended a banquet where the roof caved in, killing everyone. Simonides was able to remember the names of all the guests and identify the bodies because he had associated the names with their seats at the dinner party.

Is the method of loci A mnemonic?

The method of loci is a mnemonic device. A mnemonic device is a trick used to memorize information and recall stored information.

How do you use loci method?

To use the method of loci, imagine a place which can be envisioned in detail, such as a primary residence or childhood home. Then, mentally place objects throughout the location which remind you of the things to be remembered. By walking through the location in the mind's eye the items can then be recalled.

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