3 Steps to Master the Art of Visual and Spatial Memory

Updated: 3 days ago

Did you know you have been using your brain wrong this whole time?

In a previous article (How to remember everything), we revealed the secret to superior memory. But in truth, there is no secret, instead, exceptional memorization is achieved through deliberate and methodical training by using your mental imagery. The world's memory champions largely rely on ancient memory techniques that employ the visual and spatial regions of the brain, and all you need to learn is a vivid imagination. The technique is known as the method of loci, and it requires you to be in your mental workspace, which is roughly defined as your ' mind's eye' or 'using your imagination'.

The method of loci involves engaging your mental imagery to imagine a route through a familiar location and placing items you intend to remember at landmarks along that route. This technique is demonstrated by distributed changes in the functional connectivity across memory and visuospatial regions of the brain, with most activity in the DLPFC, MPFC, and the medial temporal lobe.

Visuospatial ability can be understood as an individual's ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects. It helps us to keep track of where things are in space. It is measured by our capacity to imagine objects in our minds or to fit together shapes by using smaller components. Visuospatial processing is assessed in most IQ tests, the most widely used is the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) which uses block design, visual puzzles, and picture completion to assess this processing ability. See below:

In cognitive science, spatial memory is understood as the recording of where information is located in our environment. This is how you remember how to navigate around your home town or remember your route. Spatial memories are sometimes referred to as cognitive maps which is a mental model that enables us to encode, store, recall, and decode spatial information. In other words... spatial memory is 'the where'. In contrast, visual memory is 'the what', which is responsible for processing shape and color.

The method of loci makes use of these processes to help us encode and retrieve vast amounts of information. The evidence for its efficacy for memory and its benefits to brain health is unequivocal.

One study from Nature Neuroscience demonstrated that the brain structure of world memory champions, who use the method of loci, were nothing out of the ordinary when compared to control subjects. Rather, these superior memorizers just used their brain in a different way, by engaging the spatial regions. More recently, research published in Neuron found that training naive subjects (people with typical memory) in the method of loci for six weeks, reshaped their brain anatomy to mirror the brains of the world memory champions.

A 2016 study showed learning the method of loci is shown to benefit patients with mild cognitive impairment due to dementia by enhancing their cognition and their functional connectivity pattern.

This method is also found to be valuable in therapy settings to treat depression.

When we fail to remember, it's often because the stimuli were not accessible to prompt retrieval and the original information was not retained properly. Some suggest that our brains are not wired to easily learn abstract information, instead we evolved to navigate the world to seek out food, shelter, mating partners, and avoid threat. The method of loci makes use of these evolutionary left-overs that help us to navigate the visual and spatial world.

Next, you will find 3 simple steps to learn the method of loci so you can start memorizing large amounts of information and showing off your new skills. Its possible you want to broaden your knowledge, enhance your cognition, or maybe you're interested in the memory benefits. Regardless, the method of loci possibly the best memory tool we can have in our mental toolbox, and it requires nothing but your imagination.

The Actions

Step 1: Build a memory palace

The beauty of this technique is its unlimited storage capacity, imagine it as a computer that unlimited byte. A memory palace is a route, location, or building that you store your to-be-remembered information and the possibility is endless. By moving through your memory palace in your 'mind's eye' and placing each item at landmarks along that route, you can access that information whenever or wherever you are.

To get started, chose a familiar place such as your family home or your current home. Then move through the building in your mental workspace, in other words, use your imagination to picture the layout of the building. Where are the rooms located, the garden, the stairs? Picture the furniture and decoration.

Once you have established a familiar memory palace, you are ready to start the encoding phase.

Quick aside... Did you know that you can create as many memory palaces as you want? You can use familiar routes or even conjure novel architecture in your imagination. For instance, one memory athlete described a house where every room is painted blue, therefore everything placed in that room is easy to identify. This is pretty advanced techniques, but it's interesting to see where you can go with these methods.

Step 2: Encode

Now its time to apply the method of loci. I would strongly recommend learning something you really want to remember because it is likely you have used your most familiar location for your first memory palace, so you probably want something enjoyable in there. How about the periodic table, the cranial nerves, or maybe you want to show off with your knowledge of the US presidents (a popular quiz question).

Once you have a list of information to-be-learned, you will need to turn each item into something more meaningful (check out the' How to remember everything' article for a deeper understanding of this). In a nutshell, break the word down into an interesting image or animation. The next step is to then place each newly created scenario at certain landmarks along a route throughout your memory palace. Here is an example using the cranial nerves, staring with the Olfactory nerve

  1. Olfactory nerve - Start by picturing your whole memory palace building as an old factory.

  2. Optic nerve - On the front door, picture a camera Optic zooming in on your face as your approach the door

  3. Oculomotor nerve - Open the front door and immediately inside is a large motor engine operating a large eyeball. Imagine the engine motoring and moving the eyelids.

  4. Trochlear nerve - Move into the first room, and imagine a large clear truck made of glass (Truck - Clear = Trochlear).

This is an example of how you can take information, such as words, that are normally abstract and tricky to remember and transform them into a more interesting item. To go on step further, you can create the imagery to give you more information about the item. Take the Oculomotor nerve, its main function is in eye movement and pupil constriction, so by creating the image of an engine controlling eye movement, we will remember the function.

You may be thinking this strategy requires a lot of time and energy, but in fact, this is far from true. By spending the time encoding with the method of loci, you will only have to practice a small number of times before this memory is concrete. That's a pretty short amount of time compared to your own default technique.

Quick aside...If your skeptical, then test it against a friend. Ask them to memorize the 12 cranial nerves however they want (hopefully they don't use the method of loci) and yo use your newly learned method.

Step 3: Retrieval

This step needs little explanation. Just close your eyes, and move back through your memory palace and recall each item. Test yourself a few times, and then every few days just move along the route to practice.

If there are any items that you are struggling to remember, you will find that you can just move past them and go back later. If one particular item is bugging you, It might be good to go back and change the image to something more interesting. Remember, the more fantastical the image, the more memorable... so naked, naughty, funny, and scary.

You are now equipped with the tools for exceptional memory, all you have to do is practice.

Take your new memory and go and show off to your friends and family. Remember, the secret to memory is a vivid imagination!

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