Memory Palaces and the Walking/Learning Connection

In this excellent article, Joshua Foer describes how he got really good at competitive memory tests, such as remembering the order of a deck of cards. He competed in the national championships.

Foer writes a lot about using “memory palaces” to remember stuff. You take a familiar building or neighborhood and vividly imagine what you want to remember at different places within it. To retrieve the memories, you mentally visit each place.

This is an ancient and famous method. I knew about it but had not realized until I read the article that it sheds light on my discovery that treadmill walking makes learning Chinese pleasant. (A commenter named Tom also noticed the connection.) Foer gives the obvious evolutionary explanation for why the memory palace method works so well: long ago, we needed to remember where to find important stuff (water, food, special plants, useful materials). So we evolved a memory system well-suited for doing so.

Less obvious is another evolutionary idea: why stop there? It’s a system. When you design a car for a certain sort of driving, you don’t stop with the engine. You adjust the drive train, the tires, and so on. If evolution shaped our brains for a certain sort of data (things in places), surely it also shaped our brains to collect that data. Pointless to design a car no one drives.

Two more changes would help make use of the system:

1. Hedonic. Make it pleasant to fill the system with data. This is what I noticed — dry knowledge (such as the order of cards in a deck) became pleasant to learn. Long ago, the hedonic change I noticed would have pushed people to walk in new places rather than old ones.

2. Efficiency.  Make learning more efficient (= more learning per unit time). Several confounded comparisons point in this direction. For example, I found that 15 minutes studying flashcards while riding the subway was a lot less help than spending 15 minutes while walking on my treadmill. Of course there are many differences between the two situations. Likewise, using Anki is working much better now than in the past, when I used it sitting down. I will try to study this more carefully.

Years ago, evolutionary explanations such as these were mocked as “just so stories” by prominent scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Lewontin. It’s now clear they were wrong.

One Response to “Memory Palaces and the Walking/Learning Connection”

  1. Nick Says:

    Filling your life with memorable experiences gives you reference points to compare and contrast just like walking though a memory palace.

    If you do the same thing every day with little variation than you might get better at it to some degree but will have an un-memorable existence.

    In the animal kingdom however this seems to be stronger selected for.