Method of loci

The human genius for places has been an accepted feature of human memory for a very long time. The method of loci (or the “memory palace” if you’re a Sherlock fan) dates back to the fifth century BCE and is shared across many cultures.

[The] proud tradition began, at least according to legend, in the fifth century B.C. with the poet Simonides of Ceos standing in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse in Thessaly. As the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: He remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he had made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it had nevertheless left a durable impression on his memory. From that simple observation, Simonides reputedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory… Just about anything that could be imagined, he reckoned, could be imprinted upon one’s memory, and kept in good order, simply by engaging one’s spatial memory in the act of remembering. (Moonwalking with Einstein, pp. 93–94)

Australian Aboriginal memory palaces use the land itself to embody and recall truly dazzling amounts of knowledge and sustain it over huge spans of time. In the US, there are memory championships where competitors memorize the sequence of a pack of playing cards in 21.5 seconds. All of this is based on the simple fact that people tend to remember where things are. Because none of us were issued new brains along with a WiFi password, this is equally true of digital experiences as it is of physical experiences, if information architects choose to play by the rules.

The method of loci does not use the egocentric reference system, even if you use that perspective in your imagination. Information in this reference system decays rapidly and doesn’t form long-term memories.


Burgess, Neil. “Spatial Memory: How Egocentric and Allocentric Combine.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 10, no. 12, Dec. 2006, pp. 551–57.

Avraamides, Marios N., and Jonathan W. Kelly. “Multiple Systems of Spatial Memory and Action.” Cogn Process, 2008

There is a difference between true egocentric reference systems, which exist in the moment and decay rapidly (p. 97) and imagined egocentric perspectives (like the memory palace, the idea of your grandparents’ telephone). The latter are actually reconstructed snapshots based on allocentric spatial memories (p. 101) These imagined reference frames can still be very strong, even if they’re false.