Visiting My Mind Palace

tower of babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Great Tower of Babel, 1563

My memory isn’t as strong as it once had been. For example, when I started this post, I had to search the site to make sure I had not already written about this topic. I have written a lot about memory and it is something I am fascinated by more and more as I grow older. No surprise there. I think all of us become more interested as we grow older and as we watch those around us who are even older. Memory starts to fail.

The Mind (AKA Memory) Palace has been used since ancient Rome as a way to enhance memory. It is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises, such as Cicero’s De Oratore. People use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. It is based on the fact that most of us are very good at remembering places we know.

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Memory Palace is a metaphor for any place you know really well and that you’re able to easily visualize.

If it sounds less than serious, you can call this method of loci (Latin for “places”) is a method of memory enhancement that uses visualizations with the use of spatial memory, familiar information about one’s environment, to quickly and efficiently recall information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique.

There is even a poetic connection, such as with William Wordsworth’s The Recluse.

“The idea of the mind as a palace or church, whose individual rooms can be explored with training, is familiar from the memory treatises of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The “memory palace” as a mnemonic device was widely used before the advent of printing to organize and remember vast amounts of information. By memorizing the spatial layout of a building and assigning images or ideas to its various rooms, one could “walk” through the imaginary building and retrieve the ideas relegated to the separate parts.”

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

What do you need to do to try the mind palace approach?

Choose a place to use that you know very well and are able to mentally walk around that place remembering everything in detail. Most people use their home, but it could be where you work or even your childhood home. You need to mentally walk around this place and see the specific order of things.

You will need to be able to focus on particular features you remember very well. If I imagine my home, I can start at the front door, entering the porch there is a storage bench on the left. Entering the house itself, there is a mirror on the left, then a window seat, then a large bookcase, and so on.

Visual learners are undoubtedly better at this technique as you need to really imprint the location and specifics. From what I have read, some people find it effective to walk through the place mentally and say the specifics aloud. You could also draw the location. Always use the same perspective for looking at the features.

When you know this place and every feature, you have your mind palace. Now what?

First, build the visual associations between the features and the information you want to memorize. You could use it to memorize a list in a particular order. More challenging would be to use the palace to remember the parts of a presentation.

I tried this for a presentation I was going to do without notes or PowerPoint slides. I created “memory pegs.”  On each peg I would hang an item I associated with it.  The association should be strong, perhaps even a bit ridiculous, but memorable.

This step is similar to other mnemonic systems which often rely on memorized spatial relationships. Similar techniques are known as the “Journey Method” (for lists of related items) or the “Roman Room” (for storing unrelated information).

Maybe you should start with a shopping list, rather than a presentation.

Walk your Mind Palace from the beginning to the end of the route. It is said that you can strengthen your memories by walking backward. I have not found that to be true, but then again I have trouble saying the alphabet backward too, and I know that really well in the normal order.

Using this technique can improve your memory in general, and it can improve your visualization skills.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” ― Edgar Allan Poe

I think Ed could have used a lesson about the Memory Palace.

What Is A Book?

What is a book? I’m pretty sure you know what a book is – but I’m not sure how long the prevailing definition will hold. I’m not even thinking here of reading books on a screen or audiobooks. I am thinking about the format of the book, no matter what medium delivers it.

The book that set me down this path is called The Unfortunates. It was written in 1969. It is an experimental “book in a box” by English author B. S. Johnson, but it was only published in 2008.

It has 27 chapters but they are unbound, with only a first and last chapter specified, and you can read the other 25 in any order.

Quick plot summary: The story tells us about a sportswriter who travels to a town to report on a soccer match only to discover he’s been to the town several times before to visit an old school friend who has since died of cancer. Some of the separate sections of the book are recollections of the dead friend; others are memories of the past or describe the day of the soccer match.

B.S. Johnson in a 1968 publicity photo for The Unfortunates
B.S. Johnson in a 1968 publicity photo for The Unfortunates

The flashbacks are “random” in that the reader chooses what section to read next.  If that sounds annoying, think of how random memories pop up into our present consciousness.

In the book box, there is a stack of loose-leaf printed pages. Some are bound in groups, some are single sides, and some are double-sided pages.

The author? Bryan Stanley (B.S.) Johnson) was born in 1933 and died in 1973.  Depressed by his lack of commercial success and with family problems, he committed suicide. At the time he was basically unknown to the general reading public and was, at best, a cult favorite. A 2004 biography by Jonathan Coe, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, led to a revival of interest in Johnson’s work.

From a review of Coe’s bio in The Village Voice: “His technical ingenuity peaks with The Unfortunates (1969), a narrative in 27 pamphlets, all but the first and last of which can be read in any order. The book is fungible, but not just for fun; instead it’s Johnson at his most searing—a grief-stricken remembrance of his friend Tony Tillinghast, an academic who died of cancer at 29. Narrator Johnson travels to report on a football match (one of his regular gigs) and realizes the city is one he knows well, his late friend’s home. The interchangeable format reproduces the random nature of memory, as Johnson intended, and also affects other resonances. The dwindling stack of pamphlets mirrors the wasting body; the box they come in is a casket. But the book memorializes his friend’s short life by having it power a nearly infinite story—billions of novels for the price of one. Here is the beautiful collision of possibility and rigor.”

You might say the book’s format is just a gimmick, but reviewers say that the quality of the writing and the story are very effective.

I don’t hear the term “avant-garde” much these days. It seems ironically old-fashioned. In college, I had a course where we read Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, William S Burroughs and other avant-garde writers. Is The Unfortunates a book for that reading list? Probably not. It is really a book about memory, friendship, and loss. Then again, the descriptions of some of Johnson’s other novels, such as House Mother Normal, make me think he does belong on that reading list.

My Photographic Memory


You can take “photographic memory” two ways.

First, there is the photographic memory that people study and still question whether it exists. That is properly called “eidetic memory.” It is also referred to as “total recall” and it is the unusual ability to recall images, sounds, or objects in your memory with extreme accuracy.

It has been studied in children and adults and certainly exists to some degree, but many people who claim to have it, just have some irregular occurrences of that ability or just a plain old “good memory.” I had students of all ages who told me that they could study 20 minutes before a test and remember it all – and then would get a 70% grade.

True eidetikers will say that after having seen something – a list, a painting, a face – they can later still “see” the information when it is gone as if it were still there. I have read that some people with autism or Asperger syndrome seem to have this ability.

The chances are that if you or I think we have a good memory of something, we have associated it with certain details or used (consciously or not)  mnemonic devices to retain the information. Real eidetikers would remember very specific details.

For example, I might recall that we met at a party last Christmas at Bob’s house. I recognize your face, your name, and a story you told about taking a cruise to Alaska. Someone with total recall would remember what you wore, where you were standing, the color of your eyes, what you were drinking, the names of your children and wife, what you ate, the car that I saw you get into when you left, etc.

But there’s another type of photographic memory that I don’t think gets as much study.


When my two sons were 10 and 8, we had a conversation about a trip to Disneyworld that we took when they were 4 and 6. I was amazed at how little they remembered about the vacation. I remembered much more of the details of the trip. What really surprised me was that they were already losing their memories. Sure, I couldn’t remember much of anything from when I was 4 or 6, but I’m old! When they told me what they did remember from that vacation, I realized what they could recall were almost exclusively the things that we had photographs of in our albums and what I had captured on video.

They had photographic memories – memories of photographs.

I’m glad that I have filled albums and tapes and disks with memories of their childhood. I wish I had more from my own. I realize that many, luckily not all, of my childhood memories, do come from photos.

I suppose the memories are still “in there” and the photos just trigger some neuron to fire at the right time.  They say that if photographic memory does exist, it would be in the hippocampus. In the book, Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky says that he was unable to verify claims of eidetic memory, so he considered it an “unfounded myth.” I don’t agree – but it depends on your definition.

Photography and Memory

The almanac told me that on August 19, 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. He had not taken the first photograph. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce did that a few years before, but the quality of those earliest ones was quite poor. It took an 8-hour exposure to capture an image.

Daguerre worked with Niépce to improve the process. The newer method only needed a copper plate coated with silver iodide to be exposed to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes. It was then fumed with mercury vapor to bring out the image and then fixed with a salt solution to make it permanent. Daguerre called the finished product a “daguerreotype.”

Daguerre’s photo of Boulevard du Temple, Paris

In Daguerre’s image of Boulevard du Temple in Paris from 1839, you don’t see any traffic or pedestrians because the long exposure (10-30 minutes) didn’t capture moving things. However, if you look closely, there is a man getting his shoes polished (bottom left corner) and the pair must have been there long enough to be captured on the photo plate. There might be third person to the right of the two men sitting on a bench and reading a paper. The three are praobly the first people ever captured in a photo.

It was a dangerous process and photographers became ill or died from mercury poisoning. And the daguerreotype was best suited for still objects. Still, people wanted their portraits even if it meant sitting in bright sunlight as perfectly still as possible for a half hour, and so early daguerreotype portraits have some stern-looking faces.

memory and now video Simply put, a photo is information about past light that we can perceive in present time. Similarly, memories are the affects of our past experiences on our present self. A picture can trigger a buried memory and recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words. But why exactly? Neuroscientists have known for many years that humans have an extraordinary ability to encode pictures Photographs can serve as memory storage and, when viewed, can activate memory recall. Imagery an effective way to enhance memory, reduce false memories, study finds. Summary: Using imagery is an effective way to improve memory and decrease certain types of false memories, according to researchers

An NPR story last year counterintuitively suggested that “To Remember The Moment, Try Taking Fewer Photos.” The process of “offloading” our memory using photos is aptly called the photo-taking impairment effect. That is when we use technology to remember something, you are outsourcing their memory. Unconsciously, if we knows that a camera is preserving a moment, you don’t pay the same kind of full attention to it that would create a strong memory.

The technology doesn’t need to be “high tech” for thisind of effect. Write down a phone number or list of things to get at a store and you are offloading memory. But research shows that a picture can trigger a buried memory or recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words.

So, then photos are bad for our mental health. According to some research, photography is a highly cognitive activity and participants in a study who engaged in digital photography showed benefits to their episodic memory and reasoning skills.

We know that memories are not exact digital copies of the events we witnessed. Digital photos are and video is an expanded version of that. Every time we recall a memory, we may accidentally alter it or diminish its accuracy.

In 2015, psychology researchers published a paper titled “The Brain in Your Pocket” that found that people are using computers as a cognitive crutch. We take photos, leave ousrselves notes, ask it to find answers on the Internet for us. I’ll admit that I really know very few phone numbers of my contacts because the phone does it for me. I ask Siri or Alexa if it will rain today, who directed Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) or what is the current price of a Bitcoin (about $21,000). One of those questions is about memory; two are about the future. All three shape cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, processing speed, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and multitasking.

Should we fear photography? An early professional daguerreotype photographer said concerning people’s reaction to their portraits that they were afraid at first to look at the photos. They were embarrassed by the clarity of detail in a way that looking in a mirror didn’t cause the same reaction.

The painters that became known as the Impressionists were at least partly reacting to photography. Why try to capture every detail realisticlly on canvas when a camera could do a far superior reproduction? They needed to do something the camera could not do. There are also things about memories that a camera can not record. Those things may be the most important elements of memories.

Memories, Photographs, and the Human Brain

Memory Wonderland

Illustration from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

One of Carl Jung‘s favorite quotes on synchronicity was from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. In a conversation between the White Queen and Alice:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.’

‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–‘

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘–but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

“What sort of things do YOU remember best?” Alice ventured to ask.

“Oh, things that happened the week after next,” the Queen replied in a careless tone.

So, the White Queen is being foolish, right? Maybe not.  She seems to be claiming that she has a kind of foresight. That may be close to what neuroscientists in this century started to believe – that memory is not really about the past. Memory works to help guide your future actions.

Eleanor Maguire at University College London, uses the White Queen as an illustration, “You need to project yourself forward to work out the best course of action.”

People with damage to their hippocampus can’t remember their past but also struggle with forward-thinking.

The White Queen may be prescient. Or maybe Lewis Carroll gets credit for prescience.

Does Alice remember Wonderland as a dream or did she forget it?

To a Lighthouse

Godrevy Lighthouse

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation,  and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”
– Virginia Woolf.

I have always found lighthouses to be Romantic places. I’m not alone in that notion. The first lighthouse I visited as a child was at Sandy Hook in my home state of New Jersey. I did not climb to the top. It might not have been open for that back in the day or there might have been a height requirement. (I was a little guy.) The second lighthouse i visited was a bit further south. “Old Barney”  is the nickname of Barnegat Light at the tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

As a young man, I imagined that being a lighthouse keeper would be a good job of a writer. Isolation, few distractions, a wide view of the world. (In college, I actually tried to get a job as a fire tower lookout – but that’s a tale for later.)

“Inside my empty bottle, I was constructing a lighthouse
while all the others were making ships.”  – Charles Simic

When Virginia Woolf was 11, she took a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse. Virginia (born Adeline Virginia Stephen) and her family did summer vacations from London in Cornwall and their summer rental looked out at St. Ives Bay.

As an adult writer, she used those summer trips in her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. She changed the location to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Scotland.


I was assigned that novel in college and found it a challenging read. I liked the idea of a family going on their visits to the Isle of Skye (a great name for an island) and I suppose I tried to connect that with my own family’s childhood visits to the Jersey Shore. But it is a Modernist novel and I wasn’t quite ready for that at 19. In that college course, we also read Marcel Proust and James Joyce. I grew up on plot-driven, linear stories and I still prefer them in novels and in films. I guess I’m old school in my literary tastes. Those novels did not thrill me.

Modernist novels get into philosophical introspection, with little dialogue and (I’m not being insulting here) very little action. Her novel is full of thoughts and observations about both the recollection of childhood memories and adult relationships.

In 1940, Virginia wrote  “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall,” The family went there for thirteen summers but after Julia, Virginia’s mother, died, they never returned.

I had to look online for a reminder of the novel’s plot and structure. It is an especially hard plot to recall since there is so little plot. One “action” is the inaction of a postponed visit to the lighthouse.

“To the Lighthouse, considered by many to be Virginia Woolf’s finest novel, is a remarkably original work, showing the thoughts and actions of the members of a family and their guests on two separate occasions, ten years apart. The setting is Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s house on a Scottish island, where they traditionally take their summer holidays, overlooking a bay with a lighthouse. In 1998, the Modern Library named To the Lighthouse No. 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.”

Reading about the novel, one person noted from a 2020 perspective that it is a good example of “social distancing.” Critics love the book and toss out phrases like “the vagaries of consciousness,” “a titan of modernism,”

book covers

I have attempted some of the other novels of Virginia Woolf since college. I tried listening to an audiobook version of Mrs. Dalloway this past summer. I don’t advise the audio format for Woolf. I love audiobooks but I think Modernist literature as audio tends to just wash over me. I get swept away by the stream of consciousness swirling in my head.

When the professor discussed Woolfherself in class, I was fascinated by her – much more than I was interested in her novel. That is still true.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”  –  Anne Lamott

I read Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, when it came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. (I also enjoyed the film version of The Hours with its stellar cast including Meryl Streep , Julianne Moore , Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris)

The Hours is also a book that experiments with time, though not in the same way as Woolf. Like Woolf’s novel, it has three parts. Each section is the story of one day in a woman’s life. One is the story of Virgina Woolf (Kidman) as she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway. (Virginia’s working title for her book was The Hours.) A second plot is set in modern-day New York with Clarissa (Streep) at the side of her poet friend dying from AIDS and planning a party in his honor. Plot three is about Laura (Moore) who lives near Los Angeles in 1949 and is questioning her life rather normal suburban life.

Do the stories intertwine and finally come together? Yes. Do I love that kind of plot structure? Not really, but I must be in the minority because it is such a common structure in novels, films, and television today. But in Cunningham’s novel, the plot moves in a linear fashion with the three stories but takes time hops.  He follows Woolf’s 3 stories of 3 women who have all been somehow affected by Woolf’s novel.

It’s odd that this playing with time and consciousness annoys me because I am a big fan of time travel and consciousness and read and write about both things often. I also like the odd synchronicities in the background of stories and lives. For example, in The Hours, Clarissa on her way to a man’s apartment thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa in the movie adaptation. In the book, Clarissa later thinks it actually might have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw on the street and Redgrave played Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs. Dalloway.

Lighthouses have been used in literature and cinema as symbols for a long time. They are built to withstand powerful storms and pounding waves and might to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, and obviously act as a beacon and guide and therefore as hope.

Though Woolf would never use it this way, they often appear as Christian symbols. Ben Franklin also would dismiss that kind of association. He wrote, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”