Memory palaces and embodied cognition

I have rather enjoyed the version of the memory palace portrayed in the current BBC series Sherlock. The idea of memory palaces goes way back — at least to Simonides of Ceos.

Specific memories are associated with an imagined physical architecture. In the mind of the mnemonist, each fact is placed in a particular location. One then simply needs to tour the imaginary building in one’s mind to retrieve each memory from its allotted place.

There is an argument to be made that the sort of future reality I have been describing in these posts — in which you can walk around freely, using your own physical body to visit imaginary places — would be the ideal interface in which to store a memory palace. Your own muscle memory, proprioception, body sense and geographic intuition could be integrated into the process of storing and retrieving memories.

Given what we now know about place cells and grid cells and how they operate, this seems like a very fruitful avenue of research to explore. These cells, buried deep in the hippocampus, turn out to be incredibly important.

In 2014 John O’Keefe and Edvard and May-Britt Moser won the Nobel prize for the discovery of such neurons, and for thereby showing that our ability to navigate the physical space around us is a fundamental part of how our memory works.

So perhaps the secret to future computer interfaces lies deep in our hippocampus, which is, by the way, a wonderful word. If translated literally, it means “horse fish”.

3 thoughts on “Memory palaces and embodied cognition”

  1. Ken this is really interesting that you mention this. I’ve been a practitioner of “method of loci” since an ADHD diagnosis as a young child and I was teaching a student here how to build a palace of her own. She couldn’t decide on a location that felt right to built her memories within and start the organizational process, so I told her she should build a space virtually in 3D software since that is her strength. Then that can be explored as a memory palace. She started over the summer and it’s been an interesting blend of architecture/art and a whammy of science.

    In May I mentioned to my husband how much I’d love to create a tutorial on building a memory palace in VR. I think it would be incredibly natural and straightforward. I can’t recall if I mentioned any of this to you over the summer, but since the principles of method of loci are really just repetition and visualization, both easy to reinforce in an immersive environment. If you want to explore this as a project I am game, and I still want to see an immersive TARDIS by the way!

  2. Hannibal (the Bryan Fuller TV series) also deals with memory palaces in an interesting way. As Hannibal claims, if/when he’s arrested, he’ll “live” in his memory palace. The way they depict his memory palace (and eventually those of other characters) is really interesting–people simultaneously exist there and in their “actual” locations, and the effect is that their conversations occur on two temporal planes (and usually with two or three separate meanings). It might have some interesting ideas to incorporate into your memory palace VR thing. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *