Recall, if you can, the home of a childhood friend. The house need not belong to your best childhood friend. In fact, it’s easier to explain the method of loci if the friendship was short lived, because the point is that you can probably still see the layout of that house in your mind’s eye: the location of the front door, the position of the sofa, the expanse of the backyard.
According to the method of loci, humans possess an innate ability to remember vast amounts of information, so long as that information is attached to visual and spatial details. To actively practice this, one might build a memory palace, where they’d place key bits of personal data in a room of their own imagining. The technique dates back to ancient Greece, but has new resonance right now, as people store more and more of their lives onto devices and in the cloud. As we transfer our entire cognitive load into folders and list-making apps that look and behave the same, are we really committing those notes to memory?
Making memory visual
The founders of Nototo, a new memory palace app, would argue no, we’re not.
When we remember things, it’s based on cues—something reminds you of something else.Austa Jiang, Nototo Co-founder
“A list is not visually unique, so when you navigate it, it doesn’t give you strong cues for remembering the information behind it.” In a recent Twitter thread, designer and technologist Andy Matuschak lamented something similar, pointing out that “unread digital books and papers live in some folder or app, invisible until I decide that ‘it’s reading time.’ But that confuses cause and effect.” Jiang and Chen Wang, both electrical engineering students at the University of British Columbia, built Nototo as an antidote to Evernote, Google Keep, One Note, and all the other apps that made their class notes feel like one neverending CVS receipt. Instead, Nototo organizes notes and tasks by visualizing them as islands on a map. The island graphics have a (rather charming) Web 1.0 look, and take on a video game quality as users add visual components like trees, buildings, horses, cacti, and so on.
Nototo was born shortly after Wang read Moonwalking with Einstein, by memory athlete (and winner of the USA Memory Championship in 2006) Joshua Foer. The book teaches memory-improving techniques—actual exercises, not just recommendations for ginkgo biloba extract memory aids—which Wang used to memorize the order of a deck of cards before considering more far-reaching applications. “Memorizing a deck of cards is kind of useless,” Wang says. “But memorizing your chemistry notes is incredibly useful.” He and Jiang tried a few visual iterations that didn’t work (“they looked like tables or spreadsheets, so everything looked the same,” Wang says) before arriving at a map-based visual scheme. Universally recognized and infinitely customizable, maps can expand and contract to allow for increasingly layered sets of notes. Imagine, as Wang does, that North America stands for all class notes. Zoom in on the United States, and that’s where all the chemistry notes live. Subtopics like atomic structures and electrochemistry each get filed under a different state.
That said, Nototo’s maps don’t mirror a real atlas. Users draw the borders on their islands and populate the terrain with wayfinding cues of their choosing, drawn from a long menu of those aforementioned tree and building components. If someone wants to bundle a group of notes together, they can stack those on one island. If a new thought category arises, the user has to map out where it belongs—does it slot into an existing island? Or is it time to build a new one?
That friction in the interaction model might be key to users actually remembering their notes. In a study published last year in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers found that visuospatial mnemonic learning works better when the learner has a say in the location of their visual cues. The study asked two groups of participants to traverse different digital environments. Objects like candy, pumpkins, and a rope would appear in the digi-scapes, and one of the groups had the ability to click on those objects, freezing them in place. “What we saw was really remarkable,” says Nicco Reggente, one of the study’s authors and a cognitive scientist at the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation. “Just the ability to place the item allowed for that group to recall almost 30 percent more material than the other group.”
That’s a lot of tasks remembered, or chemistry facts recalled. Most of Nototo’s early users are pre-law and pre-med students—the app made the rounds on Reddit and trended high on r/GetStudying—and Wang and Jiang say they’ve also heard from people with ADHD who say these kinds of digital memory palaces help them focus by letting them delineate visually between different task realms. But there’s obvious utility for designers, artists, and those who tend to think visually—which, incidentally, might be all of us. When asked if all people are visual learners, Reggente says he “cautiously supports that blanket statement. “Everybody is a visual and spatial learner, over and above being a rote learner,” he says.
Ancient as they may be, memory palaces—or at least, their efficacy—still fall under the nascent field of cognitive science. There’s plenty left to study and prove, as well as limits to push. It’s one thing to remember someone’s living room from a decade ago; it’s another entirely to ace medical school, or to delve into a new field of study mid-career. “My experiment was very basic,” Reggente says, “so to what degree can we leverage spatial environments for higher-order concepts? We could use visual and environmental cues so people can encode deeper meaning.”