The Architecture of Memory

Memorization may seem like a brain-based skill, but it has as much to do with our bodies and our buildings

Image from the BBC series, Sherlock

Most of us think of memory as a chamber of the mind, and assume that our capacity to remember is only as good as our brain. But according to some architectural theorists, our memories are products of our body’s experience of physical space. Or, to consolidate the theorem: Our memories are only as good as our buildings.

In the BBC television series “Sherlock,” the famous detective’s capacious memory is portrayed through the concept of the “mind palace“—what is thought to be a sort of physical location in the brain where a person stores memories like objects in a room. Describing this in the book A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…”

The mind palace—also known as the memory palace or method of loci—is a mnemonic device thought to have originated in ancient Rome, wherein items that need to be memorized are pinned to some kind of visual cue and strung together into a situated narrative, a journey through a space. The science writer and author Joshua Foer covered this technique in depth in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, in which he trained for and ultimately won the U.S. Memory Championship. To memorize long lists of words, a deck of cards, a poem, or a set of faces, mental athletes, as they’re called, fuse a familiar place—say, the house they grew up in—with a self-created fictional environment populated by the objects in their list. In an excerpt from his book published in the New York Times, Foer describes his own palace construction:

I was storing the images in the memory palace I knew better than any other, one based on the house in Washington in which I grew up. Inside the front door, the Incredible Hulk rode a stationary bike while a pair of oversize, loopy earrings weighed down his earlobes (three of clubs, seven of diamonds, jack of spades). Next to the mirror at the bottom of the stairs, Terry Bradshaw balanced on a wheelchair (seven of hearts, nine of diamonds, eight of hearts), and just behind him, a midget jockey in a sombrero parachuted from an airplane with an umbrella (seven of spades, eight of diamonds, four of clubs). I saw Jerry Seinfeld sprawled out bleeding on the hood of a Lamborghini in the hallway (five of hearts, ace of diamonds, jack of hearts), and at the foot of my parents’ bedroom door, I saw myself moonwalking with Einstein (four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds).

According to Foer, in order for this technique to work, the features of the memory palace must be hyperreal, exaggerating the edges of normalcy in order to stand out in the mind. Whether the palace is a modernist bungalow or a faux-Italianate McMansion or a mobile home doesn’t matter, so long as it is memorable, which is to say, so long as it is a place.

The philosopher Edward S. Casey defines a “place”—as distinct from a “site”—as a physical location where memories can be contained and preserved. An empty lot, for example, would be considered a site—a generic, boundless locale which “possesses no points of attachment onto which to hang our memories, much less retrieve them.” By contrast, a place is “full of protuberant features and forceful vectors—and distinct externally from other places…We observe this when an indifferent building lot, easily confused with other empty lots, is transformed into a memorable place by the erection of a distinctive house upon it.”

From an architect’s perspective, the transformation of a site (or you could call it a space) into a place is a two-way process. Erecting a structure enables the space to contain memories, and the installation of memories turns that structure into a place. In his essay in the book Spatial Recall: Memory in Architecture and Landscape, UC Berkeley architecture professor Donlyn Lyndon explains, ”‘Place,’ as I understand it, refers to spaces that can be remembered, that we can imagine, hold in the mind, and consider.”

Lyndon argues that “Good places are structured so that they attract and hold memories; they are sticky—or perhaps you would rather say magnetic.” He suggests that buildings which try too hard to control the experience of the user ultimately fail to become true places. “Seeking to make each place a singular, memorable work of art often makes the insistence of its vocabulary resistant to the attachment of memories—to the full engagement of the people who use and live with the building.”

This is perhaps why, when building a mind palace, we are told to enhance and distort the standard features of our design. As we add character and color, our own emotions and reactions become the plaster between the walls of our palace and the hooks on which we hang the ace of hearts or the Prince of Wales or the breakfast cereal. Just as we usually think of memory as the property of the head, we often place emotion in the heart and reaction in the gut, and suddenly through this process, the whole physical body becomes integrated into memorization.

In another essay in Spatial Recall, Finnish architecture professor Juhani Pallasmaa asserts, “Human memory is embodied, skeletal and muscular in its essence, not merely cerebral,” later punctuating his point with a quote from Casey, the philosopher: “ody memory is…the natural center of any sensitive account of remembering.”

In other words, while the mind palace technique may seem charmingly counterintuitive to the average rememberer of grocery lists, it is probably the most innate method of recall we have, if we learn how to use it. Which is, of course, why Sherlock Holmes was able to mentally reconstruct crimes in order to solve mysteries, and why Joshua Foer had a relatively short road to becoming a national memory champion.


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