The Surprising Power of an Emotional ‘Memory Palace’

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Can a ‘memory palace’ help you recall happier times, even when life is hard?

“I’m going to my happy place!”

Saying this in moments of stress has become a rather tired joke. And the joke conceals the fact that having a so-called ‘happy place’, or even several happy places can help boost mood when times are hard.

However, the problem with thinking back to happy moments from the past is that it’s hard if you’re not in the habit.

Indeed people experiencing depression find it particularly difficult. Worse, when they do recall happier times, they tend to do it abstractly, focusing on the causes, meaning and consequences, and looking for clues as to how to regain it. Unfortunately it’s re-experiencing the pleasure that gives you the boost in the moment, not thinking about it abstractly.

The problem is frequently memory. To feel better by thinking back to past glories, you’ve got to pull up the right memories and in the requisite detail. This can be hard enough for the most equable of souls and nearly impossible when low mood strikes.

What is required is a really strong technique for instantly conjuring up the right moments from the past so that you feel right there, in the moment.

Method-of-loci

The ‘method-of-loci’ technique (literally method-of-places) for enhancing memory has been around for thousands of years. It was recommended by the Roman philosopher Cicero and in 2006 was used by Lu Chao to recall π to 67,890 places (he recited it for 24 hours and 4 minutes before he made a mistake).

But you don’t have to be a specialist memoriser or super-brain to find the technique useful; it has dramatic effects on recall for even the most humble of us.

The method-of-loci technique, which relies on spatial memory, is remarkably simple to explain, but does require some mental effort to set up. What you do is think of a place that you know really well, like a house you lived in as a child or your route to work. Then you place all the things you want to remember around the house as you mentally move around it. Each stop on the journey should have one object relating to a memory. The more bizarre and surreal or vivid you can make these images, the better they will be remembered.

If you carried out this process for a series of good memories, you’d have what is called a ‘memory palace’ of happy times that you could return to in moments of stress.

Building a memory palace

As ever here on PsyBlog, though, we want to know if it really works. Can creating a memory palace be effective even for depressed people: those who find it particularly difficult to remember happy times?

That’s what was tested in a new study by Dalgleish et al. (2013) who recruited 42 participants who were currently experiencing a major depressive disorder or who had suffered in the past and were now in remission.

Half the participants were taught the method-of-loci technique. Here’s an example of how one person encoded a memory to give you the flavour:

“…one participant in the main study had generated a memory of an important conversation over coffee in New York with her best friend. She associated the memory with the front of her childhood home (one of her selected loci) by imagining the fascia of the house transformed into an outlet of a popular U.S. coffee chain with her friend standing outside smiling and dressed as a barista.”

Everyone rehearsed 15 of these self-affirming memories and placed them around their memory palaces. They then practised going around their individual mental routes until they could easily retrieve the memories and the associated feelings in high levels of detail.

The rest of the participants also recalled 15 positive events but used a memory technique that you’ll be more familiar with from school. They simply rehearsed them over-and-over again until it seemed to have gone in.

Unsurprisingly both groups reported that remembering happy past memories made them feel better.

But the key for the researchers was to see whether people could still recall the memories one week later, in a surprise telephone call. The results showed that the participants who had rehearsed the memories repeatedly had forgotten, on average, two of them. In contrast, the average barely dropped for those who had used the method-of-loci.

This is an encouraging result and suggests that the method-of-loci is an effective way to easily recall a set of happier times, even in people who find it difficult to do so.

OK, enough theory, I’m off to create my emotional memory palace right now and spend a little time wandering the halls and enjoying myself.

Perhaps you might like to try it yourself?

Image credit: Manuela de Pretis

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 27 February 2013

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