The method of loci, also known as the memory palace, is an ancient mnemonic tool used to remember everything from speeches to lists of random digits. Legend has it that the method’s origins are in the story of a Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos. After fortuitously leaving a dinner party before the palace walls came crashing down on the unsuspecting guests, Simonides was able to identified all the mangled faces among the palace ruin by recreating an imagine of the party’s seating arrangement in his mind. Recognizing the power of mental imagines for memory Simonides developed a method for remembering poetry he called the memory palace. The method has been used to pass oral traditions down through generations every since and has more recently seen a resurgence in the psychological literature and among cult mnemonic groups pushing for further practice of memory techniques in our schools (see Josua Foer’s Moon Walking with Einstein).
The technique is simple. Take whatever you are trying to remember, and break it up into images associated with different components of the memory. Say you want to remember the names of some famous psychologists, B.F. Skinner, William James, and Otto Rank. Take these names and create a scene by turning them into visual images and actions. The key is to make your images memorable by implicating your characters and forms in novel scenes that are personal, visceral, outrageous, crude, silly, and erotic. Say B.F. Skinner is an image of your boy friend skinning a pigeon, William James is Will Smith standing atop a naked Jenna Jameson doing push-ups and yelling “habit is character!” and, since I’m a Seinfeld fan, Otto Rank is George Costanza in Jerry Seinfeld’s smelly car saying,“this is beyond B.O. it’s B.B.O.” Now sit with these scenes for a moment and soak them in. Then go for a walk (in your mind’s eye) through a familiar place, like your childhood home. As you move, in your mind’s eye, into the foyer of our childhood home place Will Smith and Jenna by the coat hanger, walk into the dining room and put your boy friend on the table surrounded by pigeon feathers and approach the downstairs bathroom where there lingers a strong yet familiar scent of body odor with Jerry and George in a car that barely fits between the sink and the toilet. Experience and fully feel these scenes at the location you have place them. Sometime down the road (could be weeks later) when you want to remember the list, simply take another walk through your childhood home and you will be shocked at how readily the scenes and dead psychologists will come to mind. Try it with grocery or to do lists, long or short lists, you’ll be amazed at what you can remember!
What does all this have to do with those internet infographics you see everywhere these days? Well, whether its a conscious decision or just intuition, the designers of these graphics are using the method of loci to capture your attention, and attention’s first born, memory. The best infographics tell a story or convey a message with the key points anchored by images placed across a memorable visual landscape. Take this graphic by the institute of medicine on obesity.
This graphic takes boring or complex information and simplifies into images that, well, simply stick in our minds. While the images may not perfectly represent the information presented, they lead the audience to the right idea and provide an anchor that is easily recalled down the road. Images are also faster than words which contribute their virality (i.e. we glance at an infographic and within seconds we have an idea of the message, “like” it and then click “share”). Infographics are also good at encapsulating more information per bit of brain storage capacity. When trying to remember a key point on some topic, e.g. obesity, my mind will first conjure up an image associated with that topic, e.g. fast food hamburgers and fries. If that image was provided by an infogrpahic my mind will then jump to the message or piece of information that image was designed to represent, e.g. on a given day 30-40% of children will eat fast food. By itself 30-40% is not all that memorable but when we build it into a scene of visual images that already hold meaning and emotion it readily comes to mind.
The power of this method is incredible and its application in information graphics is gaining traction. A South Bronx high school history teacher uses it with his students to help them memorize their entire history textbook!. While the method is powerful it is also specific to the individual and how their mind connects ideas and images, thus graphic artists need to know the mind of their audience in order to best capture the images that will translate to ideas most readily.