There’s a big alif (أ) at the AUB Main Gate, along with a lion (أسد) eating a pineapple (أناناس).

At the top of the steps there’s a door (باب) and from here I can see the sea (بحر).

At least, that's how it is in my mind.

About a year ago, I was agonizing over how to memorize even the most basic words in Arabic. Everything was going in one ear and out the other. I knew I needed a storage place in my head to put all these words or they’d really be lost forever. That’s when I remembered the concept of “the memory palace.” I’d visualize a palace in my head, to put all the words in.

The idea of the memory palace was born from a tragedy in Ancient Greece.

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Sometime around 514 BCE, the poet Saimonides was at a banquet. After giving a performance, he went outside. Suddenly, the banquet hall collapsed, crushing everyone inside of it. The bodies were mangled beyond recognition. Saimonides remembered where everyone had been sitting – and was able to identify the bodies, in order to give them a proper burial.

From this grim task, came a useful deduction. Saimonides concluded that people wishing to train their memories must “select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things.” And thus was born the “method of loci” or the memory palace.

Memory palaces work because our spacial memories are generally better than other types of memory. If you really want to commit something to memory, it’s a good idea to imagine a place and to visualize whatever it is you need to remember, and then locate it within the place in your head.

Since the days of Saimonides and Cicero people have used the method of loci for all sorts of purposes. In the 1500s, Matteo Ricci famously introduced the memory palace to Chinese elite, who used the techniques to study for their bureaucratic exams.

As I did more research on using memory palaces for language learning, I came across the writings of one memory trainer who swears that memory palaces has helped him to perform despite his bipolar disorder.

Anthony Metivier has written many books on the subject of memory palaces – or his own “Magnetic Memory Method,” which he believes could revolutionize language learning across the globe. In his blog and in newsletters on memory training, he writes openly about his own “bad memory” and battles with mental illness – and how memory techniques saved him.

Reviews of Metivier’s work are mixed, but take what’s useful and leave the rest behind. In creating a little memory palace in my head, I was eventually able to memorize the order of the Arabic alphabet – something that had seemed impossible before. I modified Metivier’s version and placed the alif, the first letter of the alphabet at the entrance of the university where I study, along with images of a bunch of words beginning with that letter. (Metivier recommends creating a separate ‘palace’ for each word you want to memorize, which was too much work for me).

In reading about memory training techniques I’ve found huge comfort in the idea that a good memory isn’t necessarily just something you’re born with -- rather, you can improve it with regular exercise.

Now if only I could get around to exercising….

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