Memory Palace Part I

Memories – the moving pictures in our heads. They’re the after-images of experience, and an essential part of how we form our identities. Memories are automatically created by our brains through all of our senses – the smell of freshly baked bread, the bright green of grass in the spring, the pealing laughter of a child.

We can also capture memories deliberately. Every time we are introduced to someone new, or attempt to memorize a phone number, the brain consolidates that memory into its vast database.   It isn’t always easy to memorize the information we wish to keep. Let’s say there were some particular poems by poets I greatly admire, and I wanted to ensure their accurate retrieval as much as I could. I would then perhaps decide to construct a memory palace, a building in the brain designed to aid in recall.

In this method of memorization, called either the memory palace or method of loci, the person memorizes the layout of a place, such as a building, a park, or a street. They establish a familiar route through the building in their mind, so that the memory palace becomes a construct within the brain. When the person wishes to remember a set of items, they take a stroll through the memory palace and commit an item to each locus on the route. In this way, the memories are activated.

So let’s make this idea more concrete. Let’s say that The Filson is the building layout in which I decide to construct my memory palace of poetry. The first room I would encounter upon my walk through The Filson is the large hall. It is a high-ceilinged room with a white fireplace, heavy wood desk, and an elaborate gilt mirror. The entire hall, walls and ceiling, is constructed out of carved wood. I decide to place here a poem by Emily Dickinson, Poem 632:

The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --
For -- put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease -- and You -- beside --

The Brain is deeper than the sea --
For -- hold them -- Blue to Blue --
The one the other will absorb --
As Sponges -- Buckets -- do --

The Brain is just the weight of God --
For -- Heft them -- Pound for Pound --
And they will differ -- if they do --
As Syllable from Sound --

In the memorization method of the memory palace, the more vivid the images, the better. So, I would picture within this large hall a model of a brain floating in the air, contemplating itself in the whorls of the mirror. A sponge and bucket sit next to the imposing desk. Ocean waves lap against the carpet lying on the wood floor. I suppose that means the bucket would come in handy. And let’s add a megaphone, in order to remember that last line.

Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers’-knot, not in a ring,
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain-
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain;
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
“Look what I have!- And these are all for you.”

To memorize this poem, I would then place a key and a sapphire ring upon the fireplace mantel. A silver, ruby-encrusted box sits like a secret on one of the bookshelves. I would also place my two young nieces giggling away by the front window and juggling McIntosh apples.

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

So, the sun porch has many windows, along with several cushioned benches, in order to sit and bask during the warm months. Here I would place a woman in black and white maidservant clothing, moving the photographs about that sit propped against the windows. She hesitates in her placement, shifting the pictures to and fro. A yellow flower petal lies on the tile floor, along with a tape measure. Disembodied hands carefully dust the furniture.

So now we’ve started a memory palace in The Filson – what wonders will we discover in the future?

Filson Historical

Leave Comment