The idea is that in order to remember things about a person you’ve met, or a topic of study, or anything at all, you fill an imagined room, or a series of rooms, with objects – each related to a specific aspect of the thing you want to remember. This way, instead of memorizing anything, you can simply close your eyes and imagine walking around the room, or series of rooms, looking at objects and recalling everything you wanted to recall about your subject.
If I met somebody new today, for example, I would create a room in my head for this person and fill it with things that remind me of what I learned about this person. I might hang the letters “STANLEY” on the wall to remind me that his name is Stanley, for instance. Or, I might put a couch in the corner to remind me that when I met Stanley, he was sitting down.
The memory palace technique is versatile, too! It doesn't only apply to new people I may have just met, but also to old friends who I want to remember some more information about. For example: I might put a bicycle in the memory palace I constructed about my friend because she told me that, the other day, she went for a bike ride.
Or, a third helpful example: in my memory palace about quantum mechanics, I might put a textbook about quantum mechanics on the shelf by the window that holds all the information I would ever need to know about quantum mechanics. Then, I’d just need to imagine reading all the words on all the imagined pages in this imagined textbook in order to recall all the information I’d ever need to know about quantum mechanics – easy!
I think why this model of memory falls apart for me is that eventually, it just becomes another list of things to remember. When I try to close my eyes and picture these rooms filled with things, I don’t know if I am actually spatially visualizing the rooms and the objects in them, or if I’m just memorizing a list of the rooms, and then memorizing a list of the objects in each room. I don’t know if I’m recalling the rooms themselves or just a list that describes each room. It’s just another thing I have to remember in order to remember the thing I actually want to remember.
I don’t think memory is as easy as picturing yourself in an imagined space. When I try to picture things from memory, I usually just see the dark space behind my eyelids. It’s hard for me to picture something unless I can get it down somewhere in drawing or writing, in which case, that defeats the point of memory, doesn’t it? Does memory necessarily mean being able to retain something without creating any reminder of it? Or is to create some reminder of it in some way an act of remembering, too?
I don’t know if I’ve ever been someone with a good memory, although my mom will quickly refute my claim, saying, Remember when you were nine years old and you memorized the first 105 digits of pi, for fun?
The reason I had gotten up to 105 digits was because 105 is divisible by seven, and I found it easier to remember the numbers in batches of seven, because that way, I wasn’t reciting 105 individual numbers, but just fifteen individual seven-digit phone numbers. For fun.
If I were to apply the memory palace technique to that process, perhaps I would imagine a room of fifteen different people – I would make up different personalities for each of them, place them like Sims on and around all the furniture, think of a reason for them to all be in the living room of my memory palace at the same time – and then assign each of them a phone number. The professor who wrote the quantum physics book, her number would be 141-5926. My friend who went for a bike ride? Saved in my phone as 535-8979. Stanley, who likes sitting on couches? 323-8462. And so on. If only I had added area codes to each of these fifteen phone numbers when I was a kid, I would have gotten my memorized digits of pi up to 150!
Maybe my memory stopped being good when I no longer had to memorize phone numbers.
Or maybe my memory stopped being good because I learned to use memory to focus on remembering specific things I had intentionally trained myself to remember (the first fifteen phone numbers of the Sims who lived in the town of Pi, for example), and so everything that wasn’t within that narrow beam of intentional focus, everything that I hadn’t told myself you need to focus on remembering this with, got lost. Perhaps the unintentional effect of making memory an intentional act was that anything that wasn’t intended to be remembered wasn’t retained at all.
The reason this project is called “A small list of knowable things” is because I want to try to remember more of what I had let slip through, previously unnoticed. The phrase “A small list of knowable things” comes from an early draft of an essay in my book Goodbye, again called Farm game. It was a phrase I deleted at some point in the editing process, striking it from how I wanted that essay to be remembered, but was a phrase that I remembered in spite of that act*. That essay was about the comforts (or the false comforts, perhaps) of escaping, for a short time, from an uncertain, incalculable existence by entering into a closed environment where it is promised that the number of things to do and to know are finite.
Perhaps that is the promise of memory, too, and why the memory palace is so seductive as an idea – that through memory, you get to fill a space with everything you choose to fill it with, and once it is full, it will exist, and it will be finite, and knowable, and you can visit it whenever you want.
I don’t know if this project will be a finite one or an ongoing practice, but I’d like to imagine that, for me, the comfort of it (or the false comfort of it, perhaps), is in the act of making this list at all – it will be an attempt at making something tangible and knowable and rememberable out of what feels like an infinite list of things I don’t know, or that I couldn’t remember. I’d like to remember more things, to know a little more, and maybe this practice of getting it down will help.
Every week, I will add to this small list of knowable things by illustrating an object and writing a little bit about it, slowly filling this list with stories, memories, reflections – every week, a new drawing and a new essay.
And at the bottom of this piece, in the footer image, I am starting off with a blank space, and every week, the subject I write about will be added as a little thumbnail to this blank space, creating a small room of knowable things, too. So, I’d like to welcome you to this new, empty room of mine. I’m going to try to move in slowly, filling it with things I would like to remember, things I wish I could take with me wherever I go**.
Thank you for coming, and thank you for placing yourself somewhere in the space, on or around the imaginary furniture. I hope that you stay for a while, and I hope that you enjoy being here for as long as you do.
* Before I deleted the phrase from that essay, A small list of knowable things was a potential title for the book, too, before I settled on Goodbye, again. And I like that the title for this weekly practice comes from some previous draft of the book because I see this practice as a continuation, of sorts, of the practice of writing Goodbye, again. I suppose I missed writing that book so much that I didn’t want it to be fully done, and so here we are.
** An alternate title for this weekly project, before I decided on calling it A small list of knowable things, was Everything I wish I could take with me. Maybe that title will show up somewhere in the future, and in that case, we’ll know where it came from. Or, perhaps you can imagine the full name of this project as A small list of knowable things, or: Everything I wish I could take with me – a title that itself would require an entire memory palace to remember.
From "quietly provocative" international best selling author and TV writer Jonny Sun, a weekly illustration and reflection on a personal object close to his heart.