MEMORY PALACES

Sebastian Faulks writes in his novel Charlotte Gray:  “When you reach the age 40 there is no cell in your body that you had when you were 18.”  You are the same person, and yet a new person, and yet an older person.  And thus there are limited slots to be filled by new data in your short-term memory; there’s always the need for things like a smart phone scheduler and directory and Post-its. Only the most significant or the most-repeated bits of data find a place in long-term memory as you grow.   Memory and learning require will, and we are the architects of that process.

In the last couple of months I read a couple of books that mention the term “memory palace” –  Daniel J. Boorstin‘s history book The Discoverers (a personal favorite), and Salman Rushdie‘s The Enchantress of Florence.  What an evocative, romantic term, I thought.  Also called “method of loci”, a memory palace is a mnemonic technique that involves assigning data to virtual place-holders in an imaginary structure in one’s head.  It’s a mental map, a prompt.  Associating a memory with an item located in a specific area in that map makes it easier to return to it and retrieve it, among the plethora of other related memories.

I believe high school students in the US who join geographic contests create memory palaces based on National Geographic maps they’ve studied.  Even people who quote the Bible, chapter and verse, have a version.  Teachers, students taking exams, craftsmen, professionals and performing artists need them too.  I remember singer Christian Bautista being so nervous at Manny Pacquiao’s boxing match that he forgot the entire second stanza of our national anthem and just repeated the first!  Would you need a teleprompter just to sing the national anthem?  We’re human, surely we only need help when our senses are so bombarded and we are overwhelmed by information.

In Rushdie’s fable the protagonist “Il Machia” (the erstwhile Niccolo Machiavelli) regularly visits a courtesan’s salon in Florence to see an exotic noble-born beauty, recently freed from the Turks.  He is curious about her identity, and why she knows a story from his childhood, and stories from the genealogies of the Mughal emperor Akbar.  He coaxes the stories out of her, because he wants to solve a mystery to his potential benefit.  She plucks them out of her prodigious memory like Scheherezade in The Thousand and One Nights.  I suppose if you were a prisoner of war you’d rely on some type of mental discipline to keep going until you’ve achieved your purpose.

Lately I’ve been dreaming again of the house I grew up in, in UP Campus.  I can remember the floor plan, even every significant tree that grew on the property, and I would remember details from when I was a kid.  When I dream of “home”, it’s always of that house, not where I currently live.  The stories and the personal details from 1970-1989 remain in my long-term memory.  Beyond that period, I’m pretty selective.  So yes, I’ve used the floor plan and furniture location of the UP house for my personal memory palace. It becomes helpful when I write.

Memory palace?  Priceless.  For everything else, there’s Google… and possibly Facebook.

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