Home > Memory > The Method of Loci and Learning Through Headphones: A Powerful and Overlooked Learning Method.

The Method of Loci and Learning Through Headphones: A Powerful and Overlooked Learning Method.


Let’s say you are given a standard short-term memory test. A list of words is presented to you; maybe 10 or 12 items, and you have to remember as many of them as you can at a later recall test. With the standard 5 to 9 item capacity of short-term memory, you can likely recall most of them. If you have time to use long-term memory, you can come up with a way to remember them all. There are plenty of useful mnemonics that can give you a hand, so let’s up the ante and make it 25 items. That’s a little bit tougher but, after a day with it, you can commit it to memory. People have to memorize things all the time, and we’ve found ways that are better than just repeated exposure. Memory is very dependent on cues and semantic connections, so creating those for certain bits of information is very helpful and not too hard. Let’s try one.

Toothpaste – Spider – Traffic – Mountain – Laser – Tuna – Calendar – Jacket – Pig – Cactus – Racquet – Leash

It’s not expected that you can remember all of these items based on short-term memory alone, so let’s use a quick mnemonic technique. Imagine a place that you are very familiar with, like your house, and picture the items on the list in various places in your house as you read them. You can do this very quickly if it’s a familiar place, and it helps to construct a specific path. For example, maybe you walk up to your house and there’s a tube of toothpaste sitting on the front doorstep. Maybe a spider crawls onto it as you’re looking at it, or maybe you see it as you reach for the door. You open the door and there’s someone else there who is trying to leave, causing traffic. There’s a painting of a mountain on the wall, or if you’re not too concerned about the constraints of reality you can just place an actual mountain in your living room. Later when you try to recall the words, you can just mentally walk through your house and find the objects there just where you put them. This is called the Method of Loci. Using this technique, you can create cues out of locations and remember this list after possibly just one presentation. When an idea is put in a location, it can interact with other elements that you don’t really have to think about; this is why a very familiar location is necessary.

This method seems like it would work best with physical objects, but other concepts can be included as well, such as the way Traffic could be incorporated into the house locus. Personally, I’ve used this method to visualize and memorize lines for a play, where the concepts and words appear physically or are demonstrated in a location, and I’ve done the same to remember laws and concepts in chemistry. This doesn’t mean you have to be in that location to remember the information. The locus I place my lines at doesn’t have to be the stage; this is different from encoding specificity. It is a powerful and controlled mnemonic technique; in ancient times, orators memorized very long speeches using this method, placing important concepts at landmarks along a path. The Method of Loci has been used with astounding effectiveness, even for concepts that are more abstract.

An important factor in the effectiveness of the Method of Loci is the way in which the information is presented. Information presented as written text causes interference with the process of imagining something visually. If, however, the information is presented orally, the oral information and the visual information do not interfere; this is called the “oral presentation effect.” Again, this is a concept I can attest to personally. For oral learning methods like podcasts and lectures and audio books, the Method of Loci is very effective and very easy to do. Reading something constrains you to looking at the words and likely staying in one spot, but audio learning can be done while on a walk. This sounds like the perfect opportunity for a useful mnemonic technique. There are many components of this method that are similar to encoding specificity, which is the phenomenon that information can be more easily remembered using the cues present at the initial encoding. It’s easier to take in the context around you if you are listening through your headphones and your eyes are free to look around. If you are in the same place but sitting still and reading a book, you aren’t taking in as much of the context. You might notice the smell, or some ambient noises, you might feel a cold breeze, but you become much more familiar by using your eyes. By reading, your most effective way of taking in the stimuli of your environment is occupied. Through audio learning, you get the same information but also take in a lot of contextual cues. Familiarity with the context is important for the Method of Loci, and so is an abundance of cues. Again, it doesn’t mean you only recall the information when you are at the location, but it means you can associate the information with that particular locus. It’s easier to imagine concepts visually if your eyes aren’t occupied with the series of lines that form written language.

Let me give you an example. I can use a specific point on the path outside of the Alfond Athletic Center at Colby College to remind me of a story I was listening to when I was at that locus. There was a woman named Olga in the 10th century who ruled over those who would become the Russians, and she was angry with a neighbouring tribe called the Drevlians because they had killed her husband Igor. She found several creative ways to kill large numbers of them in revenge, and when they finally begged for mercy she requested that they send three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. They complied, thinking it was a sign of peace, but instead she had her people tie burning cloth to the birds’ feet and let them fly home to burn the Drevlians to the ground. I imagine these birds flying over the street in this specific locus. It is partly encoding specificity because I formed the association when I was actually in the location, but it is also the Method of Loci because it was visual imagination that I can recall by imagining the location. By listening to the story instead of reading it, I had the freedom to take in the context and imagine the information around me. Although a bird is a physical object to be imagined, it gives me a cue to a broader concept and narrative. In this situation, I used my own loci to remember a narrative; the method is not equally effective for all kinds of passages.

In 2005, a study was published from the University of Padua in Italy that looked into the efficacy of the Method of Loci with respect to several variables (Moè & De Beni, 2005). Specifically, they wanted to test the boundaries of the oral presentation effect by changing the nature of the information to be remembered and comparing the differences between experimenter-supplied Loci pathways and subject-supplied Loci pathways.

Loci pathways generated by the participant are more familiar to them than a new one given to them by the experimenter, but the researchers of this study hypothesized that even if the level of familiarity was equal, the Loci pathway given by the experimenter would still not be as effective, since even if both are familiar, the loci decided on by the subject is easier to elaborate in. Experimenter supplied loci, even if it is a familiar location, is somewhat artificial.

The classical application of the Method of Loci, as explained in the paper, is a subject generated Loci pathway used to memorize an expository passage. This study used three different kinds of passages. An Expository passage is a passage that gives exposition for an event, describing the context and effects of an idea. The passage used in this study detailed theoretical advantages of human hibernation. The two other passages used were Descriptive and Narrative. Descriptive passages detail a physical object or a concept, focusing more on the visual image than on the context; the passage in this study described comets. Narrative Passages tell a story where events happen in a sequential order, as well as providing some description and exposition; the passage used for this study told the story of early China. Moè and De Beni hypothesized that the classical condition would prove to be the most effective.

Ninety High School students participated in the experiment, and were randomly assigned to one of three groups that dictated their rehearsal method (Experimenter-supplied Loci pathway, Subject-generated Loci pathway, Verbal Rehearsal) and each was then split into two subgroups. One subgroup would be presented the information as written text, and the other would have it presented orally. Each participant would be shown three passages, one of each type described above. The three passages were roughly the same length and had the same number of “idea-units.” The researchers also made sure the passages were either fully narrative, expository, or descriptive; there were no blurred lines on the nature of the passages.

The participants were all trained in the method they were to use (Method of Loci or Verbal Rehearsal) and learned how to identify idea-units in the passages. One week after the end of training, the participants were called back for the test phase. Those who were to use the Method of Loci were asked to recite the salient landmarks of the pathway to ensure they remembered it. Every participant remembered the full pathway. They were then presented with the passages either orally or as text on a computer screen. To ensure the presentation pace was the same, the written text was flashed on screen one to three words at a time, the exact same pace as the audio recording. After a short interpolation task (count backwards from a three digit number) they were asked to recall the passages, preferably in the order presented.

The table below shows the results in terms of percentage recalled.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 1.21.30 PM

The table may seem complex, but there are just a few important things to note. For one, for the groups that used Experimenter-supplied loci, the presentation modality had little effect. The oral presentation effect shows itself, and so does a verbal presentation effect with the participants who used verbal rehearsal; the groups that learned orally did better using their own loci, and the groups who read the passage did better using verbal rehearsal. Also, both of these effects were stronger for the expository passage.

So, the classical condition of the Method of Loci (a subject generated pathway for an expository passage) proved to be the most effective when the information is presented orally and does not interfere with vision. The oral presentation effect held true and so did the verbal presentation effect. The interesting thing is that both of these effects do not exist with an experimenter-supplied pathway. The locus needs to have a certain level of familiarity; the reason this method is so powerful is that clear and vivid images can be placed in contexts that can be recalled effortlessly. The expository passages described a context, a rich set of images that occupy the whole location. Descriptive passages show a stationary scene, even if it is rich in detail, and a narrative has an important and specific order that must be preserved. The Method of Loci allows you to walk through a mental location and remember things; you are in motion and can go wherever you want. Descriptive and Narrative passages dictate either the time or the space, but with Exposition you are free to walk around the space remembering things in more detail and possibly without a specific order.

A similar technique is something called a Memory Palace. This is a mental location, traditionally a palace, created specifically for the Method of Loci. You can place the objects to be remembered in this palace and have them interact with the environment, go to certain locations, or even leave and come back if needed. The Method of Loci does consist of a pathway in a specific order. Although it may not be as strong as exposition, the method is used to remember narratives in their particular order and timing; this is how it was used to remember long speeches and it’s how I remember lines and stories. A Memory Palace has no such constraint, the objects have no order; they are simply present. It has been used, for example, to count cards in games of poker and the like. The cards take on human form and stay inside the palace, going to specific rooms when they are expected in certain people’s hands, until they are out of play and leave the building entirely. They require a strong spatial awareness, but these mnemonic techniques can be incredibly powerful. It works similarly to elaborative learning; the items to be remembered are manipulated and played with and explored and connected to certain contexts and cues in a way that they can be easily retrieved.

Sadly, it takes some time and effort to put these extraordinary tools of the imagination to use, time that people aren’t willing to put in when they only need to remember something for a short time, even if they are aware of these methods. After coming up with the loci just once and not rehearsing it, I can still easily walk up to my imaginary house and see a spider crawling on a tube of toothpaste. I open the door and there’s my dad leaving the house, causing an awkward interaction at the door (traffic) and in the process I kick the toothpaste, sending the spider flying. Just over my dad’s shoulder, inside the house, I can see the base of a mountain.

To see an amazing feat of memory using mnemonic techniques, and to learn more on the subject, click here.



Moè, A., & De Beni, R. (2005). Stressing the efficacy of the Loci method: oral presentation and the subject-generation of the Loci pathway with expository passages. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(1), 95-106. doi:10.1002/acp.1051

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