The method of Loci or ‘memory palace’ technique is a highly effective model for encoding and retrieving memories. The technique is fairly easy, although one generally gets better at using the system the more they use it. As a bonus - the memory palace technique could also be useful for treating the symptoms of depression.
In essence, the technique involves mentally walking a well-known route and placing images along the way. Mnemonists or people who compete in competitions each year, push the technique even further, whether it’s recalling thousands of cards or digits of pi.
My own memory palace details which can be found on my YouTube channel employs a number system invented by the mnemonist Dominic O’Brien.
An early report of the efficacy of the memory palace technique can be traced to an ancient Greek named Simonides. It is said that Simonides attended a rich banquet of many important figures and friends. According to the tale, Simonides received a message and was forced to temporarily leave the festivities. Rather tragically, the building collapsed while Simonides was absent, and the nature of the collapse meant that the people still inside, fell victim to terrible injuries. The gruesome scene meant that nobody survived and all the bodies were mangled and torn apart meaning no one could be recognised. It fell upon Simonides, already known for having a remarkable memory to reveal the identities of all those who had attended.
According to Quintilian “Simonides, by the aid of his memory, is said to have pointed out the bodies to their friends in the exact order in which they had sat.” In fact what is now well-known is that the brain has an excellent ability to retain spatial information. Almost everyone can recall the details of their childhood home, or the routes taken to school that they took. The memory palace utilises this very same ability.
But the subject of this article is to see whether there exists evidence to support the alleviation of depression or depression-like symptoms. Anecdotally and speaking from personal experience, I would suggest that the technique can be a great distraction, however, there exists in the scientific literature some cursory evidence that the method of Loci can indeed be used to aid in the treatment of depression.
Before we take a brief look through this evidence, it’s necessary to consider the role of CBT in controlling depression. CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy can trace its roots all the way back to the philosophy of stoicism. The stoics were a group of philosophers who held broadly that while the events of life could not be wholly controlled by the individual, how they responded to those very same events could be managed. Indeed Marcus Aurelius who wrote the mediations advises,
‘Subtract your own notions of what you imagine to be painful, and then your self stands invulnerable’.
CBT though having some roots in stoicism advances the cause by suggesting that some of the roots of our deepest anxieties arise from faulty thinking. In essence, the anxious brain anticipates the worst-case scenario in every event and thus becomes paralysed by this acute anxiety.
In essence “CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.” (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/)
So how does the memory palace tie into CBT?
(Kircanski et al, 2012) reports on the cognitive difficulties associated with depression which included problems with positive memory retrieval — in essence, the depression latches on to negative memories which affirm the depression rather than positive memories which contradict the circular narrative. The authors note from previous work that:
“Of the three components of information processing reviewed, the strongest empirical support has been found for depression-related biases in memory processes. For example, one of the most robust and consistent findings involves depressed participants’ preferential recall of negative relative to positive information.”
CBT works by challenging the assumptions and cognitive biases the patient might possess which can worsen the depression.
And this is where the memory palace neatly comes into place. A report (Dalgleish et al, 2013) demonstrated using the Method of Loci technique with depressed individuals. The study demonstrated superior levels of memory access when a surprise call was carried out after a week. According to the authors of the study:
“The MoL appeared comparably effective and feasible for participants experiencing a current episode of depression as well as for those in clinical remission, with good training compliance and low dropouts.”
Essentially, the memory palace enables the depressed individual to more easily retain and recall memories that are positive. The method of Loci is systematic in nature, meaning that once a route has been specified and the individual begins their meander through that route, it never changes.
As an example of the persistence of memory that the technique encourages, I was watching a quiz with my mother and wife and the question came of the 15th wedding anniversary and what is given on the date or what it symbolises. At first, I couldn’t recall, but after a brief wander through the imagery, I came across the required number and the image of Richard O’Brien who presented the Crystal Maze. I then remembered that the 15th wedding anniversary is a crystal one.
This is after about five or six months of not having visited nor dwelling on the wedding anniversaries.
Thus it is easily appreciable how efficacious the technique can be. The idea and practicality of it to use depression would be trivial to implement. After a week of training the authors of the study already mentioned managed to achieve good results.
This is not to state that the MoL technique should be used in place of any CBT-basedpharmacological or CBT based approach, but rather in tandem.
If I may be so bold as to add yet further anecdotal evidence, I have often benefited from the memory palace technique both as an aid to sleep and a way to distract from depressive thoughts.
If I have trouble sleeping, I might take a wander through Roseberry Square in Redcar a small coastal town in the north of England. There I have placed the details of the Tudor King Henry VIII. I can see at the entrance, images that inform me of the date of his birth or coronation. Or I might take a wander through the periodic palace where I have placed the periodic table elements. It doesn’t take long for this focus to turn me sleepy when I lie in bed.
As a person on the autistic spectrum, the MoL has also taken my mind away from the distressing situation of a busy shop or mall. In a queue with too many voices and too many sights, I might gaze inward and walk the route of the MOHS hardness scale. Passing eagerly from first talc all the way inexorably to diamond. Encountering along the way, images such as a dancing skeleton (representing calcite) or the setting of the television show Countdown (representing corundum — as in Countdown conundrum). Such is the efficacy of the technique that it has helped not only pass the time but provides comfort in the din of a packed supermarket.
I hope if nothing else to have made the reader curious to try the technique. There really is nothing to be lost from employing the memory palace, and a whole slew of benefits to be gained.
My YouTube channel can be found in the list of references below.
*Note this post is a copy of an article I wrote for Medium.
The website of the mnemonist Dominic O’Brien (https://peakperformancetraining.org/)