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Memory Palace

By Daniel Hubbard | December 8, 2013

Every once in a while I hear someone make a comment about how they can only name people along a few generations of their ancestry even if they have researched a dozen generations. I find that there is something mesmerizing or perhaps meditative about turning a family tree over in one’s mind, running through the generations as if they were frames in a film or visualizing the lines of a pedigree as they shoot back in time.

There is an ancient memory technique that goes by the formal name “the method of loci,” memory by locations. The common name for the collection of locations is “memory palace.” I think that is the perfect term. Even without knowing what is meant, the term “memory palace” evokes something. It creates an image and doing that is very appropriate. The whole idea of a memory palace is that memory is enhanced by attaching it to a place that you know well and in your imagination filling that place with striking imagery. It is based on the observation that we remember our way around places very well. Who can’t close their eyes and take a walk around their childhood home as if they were there?

Strange Symbols

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo by El Pantera

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo by El Pantera

In the days before teleprompters, orators would remember speeches that could go on for hours by imagining a building, then imagining a path that they could walk through that building and then filling separate locations, doorways, hallways and rooms, with memorable images that somehow reminded them of what they wished to say. A roman orator who wished to remember to discuss public works, first talking about improvements to the water supply and then mentioning harbor repairs might include a broken aqueduct which repeatedly disgorges a ship that crashes into a pier in his memory palace. The stranger the imagery the easier it is to remember things. As our ancient orator mentally walked from location to location, each bizarre sight would remind him of the next topic in his speech.

I have my own little ancestral memory palace. It is filled with bizarre representations of surnames and strange symbols for occupations. If only I had a great-grandma Polly who had some questionable character traits, I could place a parrot riding a wildly bucking black sheep in one room of my memory palace.

Some rooms might be like little museums, filled with reminders about a certain ancestor. If you have no trouble remembering that an ancestor was a pioneer and later worked on a canal, you might simply place a log cabin and a canal boat in his room. If you have a harder time remembering his involvement with canals, place him on top of a surfboard sized canal boat and have him catch a wave.


The locations are a tougher problem when constructing a genealogical memory palace than the contents. The standard memory palace is a familiar building through which the memorizer can plot a single unique path and place the reminders that need to be encountered one after the other as they walk through. What building branches over and over so that every hallway leads to two more? I’m certainly not familiar with one. A genealogist’s memory palace, not just the objects in it, needs to be constructed in the mind because no such physical building could exist. My own genealogical memory palace is filled with branching corridors, the splits marked odd bits of imagination that represent new surnames and the rooms off to the side are each filled with reminders of a single ancestor.

Of course this isn’t necessary. I carry my genealogy in my pocket and can pull up any ancestor with a few taps. There is, though, something sublime about having those corridors of memory in my mind where I can get the feeling of traveling through time. It is, I think, a form of meditation.

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Topics: Creativity, Genealogy, Memory | No Comments »

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