Memorizing Everything – Techniques from the Ancient World

Memory Palace Technique

When shopping at the local grocery store, most people find out they are unable to stick to memory a few simple items that are on the shopping list. To avoid going back to the store in case you forget something, you usually have the shopping list at reach. Is this the natural limitation of your memory?

The answer is no. The human mind is capable of extraordinary things. Our memories can be trained in such a way in which one can memorize entire books. You just need to learn the right techniques to boost your memory.

You may ask: Then, how come we do so little with our brains?

It is because we are not required to use our brain so much, in terms of memorizing. Since we have our smart phones, our laptops and all the technology available, we don’t need to fill our heads with un-important stuff.

However, even if we can rely on the gadgets, not training your mind is like not training your muscles. In time, it gets weaker and weaker.

Now, let’s cut to the point.

In the dawn of time people could not rely on technology, like we do today. So what did they do? They discovered some techniques through which they could pass, through memory, important facts from generations to generations (such as books and different writings).

Here’s a passage from Moonwalking with Einstein of Joshua Foer:

The techniques of memory palace, also known as the journey method or the method of loci, were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the Middle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to the punishments awaiting the wicked in hell.

Such tricks were used by Athenian statesmen to memorize thousands of names and also by scholars from The Middle Ages to memorize entire books. Yet, all these people with such great memories were not different from you and from me.

To benefit from the real power of your memory, you need to know that the human mind likes images and stories. This is what the Palace of Memory is based on.

The Palace of Memory – Experiment

Let’s say someone in your family lists 8 items you need to buy from the supermarket and you do not have the time to write them down. You will use the Palace of Memory.

Here’s the list of items:

1. Paper Towels
2. Eggs
3. Cheese
4. Olive Oil
5. Batteries for the remote controller
6. Bread
7. Beer
8. Orange Juice

You need to think of a place in your life that you have a good view on, such as: your room, the kitchen in your house, the street you live on, etc. Let’s say you pick the kitchen.

We will take a photo from the Internet so you get a better understanding on how this technique works. I modified the picture to fit to our context.

Before you start:

– visualize the walk into the kitchen as a journey, with a place where you start (in this case, Point 1) and a place you finish (in this case, Point 8).

– spend less than 1 minute on this experiment.

Palace of Memory

1. Imagine that you first walk into the kitchen from the right side of the photo and see the paper towels on the chair. To better stick them to memory, imagine they are huge and try feeling their softness. This helps a lot in memorizing.

2. Now you move along and you imagine that the eggs from the list are on the floor. Try not to step on them. For a short moment, focus on not stepping on the eggs. Now they are stuck into your memory. Move on.

3. You can see a big chunk of cheese on the kitchen table. To better stick it to memory, imagine how it smells and how it feels. Engaging more sensory receptors (eyes, touch, ears, nose, taste) into the process of memorizing will help you a lot.

4. Now imagine there is a bottle of olive oil on the floor. Think of the fact that it is fragile and that if it is spilled on the floor, it will be difficult to clean it up. The bottle is now in your memory.

5. As you get closer to the oven, you get anxious because you have to remove the batteries of the remote controller from the oven. You know it is dangerous for them to be inside. The batteries are stuck to your memory.

6. The bread is in the sink. Have a clear mental picture of how the bread is filled with water and how it feels when touching it. I don’t know why you buy it in the first place….

7. At this point, you can see a six-pack of beers on the top of the shelf. Try imagining the taste of the beer. Move on.

8. The last point of our itinerary is the orange juice. You can imagine a large bottle of fresh and natural orange juice right where it is in the picture. You can think of its orange color and you can also imagine how it tastes. I wouldn’t buy orange juice, but you know! It’s your list…

This entire itinerary process where you put the items from the list in different spots from a place you know well should not take more than a few seconds to one minute. You will be amazed how well you can remember everything afterwards.

Note that you can add as many items as you want to the list: 30, 50, 100, you name it. It does not matter. You can easily stick all of them to memory as well as you have stuck the 8 items we just discussed.

Next time you go shopping, try relying on your memory rather than your gadgets. Use this technique and tell me how it worked for you.

Here’s a video to illustrate how normal people with proper training can have brilliant memories:

In a following article I will be talking about another interesting method that people can use to memorize entire packs of cards (decks of 52 poker cards). I have tested this method and I will tell you about my results.

But, until then, please tell me how many items from this example you could quickly stick to your memory. I’m pretty sure most of you could memorize 6 or more of them.


Foer, J. (2012). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Penguin Books.

Photos: here and here.

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