Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Memory Palace Attempt

A couple months ago I decided to try the memory technique known as the memory palace as described in Moonwalking With Einstein.   (I've still just dipped into A Year in Provence,  but that's a different issue).  I chose for my memory palace my childhood home.  The task: remember a list of groceries to get at the store.

Since I am at home with my eighteen month-old, I do the grocery shopping.  And usually, I write out a quick list before going, though more often than not I shop by going through the rows of groceries and picking out what we need.  The list comes in handy mostly to make sure I get any special items like small snack sized zip-lock bags for Boog's lunches or toothpaste or garlic if we're out.  Even though I don't consult it all that often, I always take the list, since I always seem to forget something if I don't. And even when I do have the list, if I don't go over it carefully before checking out it seems I always forget one thing or another, much to Dr. Sweetie's consternation.  Once when I went to a corner store for just three items, one of them slipped my mind.  I made the short drive back to our house, then retraced my steps back to the store wondering how I could not even remember a few items at a time.  The third thing--dryer sheets, or Sprite--had been sucked into some black hole of the brain, never to come to light again.

The worst part of being forgetful is that even when I have been conscientious and made a thorough list, I sometimes forget to take the list.  There it sits on the beige counter, whispering its contents to its tucked in corners while I stand in the baking aisle trying to recapture if I wrote down baking soda or baking powder, or pondering in the dairy section whether our sour cream in the fridge is still good or not.

So I figured since this was the first time using the memory palace technique to remember my groceries, I'd start small.  My list contained 6 items--a box of tissues, the dreaded sour cream, coffee (vital to existence and therefore easy to remember), chicken stock tomatoes, and basil for making sauce.  I followed Foer's advice and placed each item around my house.  The box of tissues sat squarely on the flagstone path leading up to my front door.  And for good effect I imagined the box wouldn't stop spewing tissues from the top.  The sour cream I placed in the alcove between the screen and front doors.  Here I also followed Foer's example and  imagined a model merrily bathing in the sour cream.  The coffee sat steaming in a giant mug in the hallway, the box of chicken stock played a tune on the piano in the living room, the basil grew from a pot further down the hall and was promptly devoured by a killer tomato with growling sharp teeth running out of the kitchen.

This was all etched quite vividly in my mind.  Then I got to the store.  Maybe I'm the only one who shops like this, but I tend to follow a set pattern when going through the grocery store.  This helps me to remember things as I check against my list and what I remember about what we have at home.  The store essentially becomes another memory palace, since after getting to know where the things I buy are I travel to them in roughly the same way each time.  It felt a bit frustrating and silly to be faced with the dilemma of following the pattern of my new memory palace list or going along the same shopping route I usually take, and I promptly forgot one of my items: the piano playing stock.

After trying the memory palace a couple more times it has worked when I make sure to create very vivid images.  But more often than not, I find it quicker to make a list and try to be diligent about both following it when I'm at the store and actually taking it with me.

Next challenge:  build a memory system that won't let me forget what items need to go on the list itself!

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