Supercharge your learning with this ancient memory technique
Matteo Ricci was the first Western foreigner to be invited into the Forbidden City of ancient China. He was a Jesuit priest who, after finishing his law studies in Rome, traveled to Goa and then Ming China as a missionary, scholar, diplomat, and tutor.
Ricci was the first missionary to seriously attempt to learn Chinese and made significant progress, eventually publishing a book in Chinese describing the memory palace technique that circulated in elite social circles of the Ming dynasty. He accomplished a lot and made significant diplomatic and cultural inroads with a government notoriously suspicious of foreigners. By the end of close to 30 years of his service in China, he was given the honor of an audience with the Emperor. Much of his success can be attributed to a keen intellect and insatiable curiosity, as well as a curious memory technique that was standard training in Rome at the time: the memory palace.
In his career, Ricci has made extensive use of this technique, teaching it to many students preparing for the rigorous imperial examinations that allowed those who passed to enter the civil service. His use of the memory palace technique was so significant to his life and success in China that one of the definitive books about Ricci is titled “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci”.
Experience your memory in 3D
While the memory powers someone can build with this technique can seem magical (Ricci is said to be able to memorize books and recite them forwards and backward), the process itself is fairly straightforward.
This technique relies on tying together of visual, auditory, and other sensory information, including proprioception, or the sense of the position of your body in space. By using vivid sensory images and putting them in a three-dimensional landscape (you can make a memory palace out of the memory of your childhood home, for example) you can create a structured memory that sticks with you longer than simply hearing or reading information.
Using a familiar place you know well as the structure can greatly speed up the process, but you can also construct an entirely new memory palace by simply walking through a place (like your house or neighborhood) and noticing small details and features around you.
The key here is to sticking to a single route and working on committing an experience driven by senses and position within your mind. Once you have established your walk, this memory will serve as a structure that will self-correct if you forget something. You will literally have an empty space that is immediately noticeable in a way that a forgotten item on a list is not.
Create vivid images
The second key to this technique is creating vivid and relevant representation of what you are trying to remember (the objects you would be placing in your memory palace). By engaging the senses, imagining fine detail, and involving multiple aspects of what you are trying to remember, you are actually using some serious brain power that helps memory.
By creating solid objects as representations for your memories, you are also forcing your brain to engage actively with what you are memorizing, instead of just passively consuming it. Whether it’s content for school or work, or you’re participating in a memory competition (yep, those exist), populating your memory palace with solid objects that you can imagine interacting with and relating to on a visceral sensory level will enhance your recall.
And, as you’re busy packing the content to be memorized in the imagined object, try to involve your emotions, as well. Creating scary, exciting, and even disgusting images and relating them to all your senses will help create scenes that will signal to your brain “pay attention, this is important”. The instinctive jolt your brain receives when imagining something that could pose danger, like a snake, is actually no different (to some parts of your brain) than actually seeing a snake. By activating emotions and tying them to your image, you are leveraging a reaction that creates what psychologists call “flashbulb memories”, highly detailed, and vivid memory images.
While this technique is useful and powerful, it will take some practice to get used to it. Some memory masters talk about taking a walk through their memory palaces as they go to sleep, others even sketch them out to create a more vivid imaginary experience. While the way you approach your particular palace will depend on your personality and needs, but the one common theme in those that practice this approach is the idea that you need to take mental strolls through your memory palaces with regularity, especially as you are learning the technique.
Once you’ve become comfortable remembering grocery lists, vocabulary, or key concepts, you will start populating your palace automatically. The toughest part is getting started (and continuing long enough to build a habit). So, the sooner you start, the sooner you can benefit from this time-tested memory technique!