Posted by: wordsmithsuk | January 12, 2010

Tony Judt uses memory palace to compose his book


Saturday’s Guardian featured a fascinating piece by Ed Pilkington reporting an interview with the historian Tony Judt, who has been left quadriplegic by motor neurone disease. If you missed it, you can can catch up with the article and a video of the brilliant and inspiring Judt on the Guardian website.

In spite of his terrible illness, Judt has continued to work. He has written a series of essays reflecting on what it means to be a person ‘who is only a brain’. These essays will be published by the New York Review of Books over the next few months.  He is also working on a book aimed at encouraging young people to overcome global conflicts and other problems by working collectively. Although Judt’s body is now ‘a bunch of dead muscles’, his brain is thinking, anlaysing and remembering better than ever.

How does Judt manage to write these things when his body has deteriorated to the extent that he is not able to hold a pen or put a finger on the keyboard? He uses the ancient system of Memory Palace. The principle of this system is to remember information by locating images around a mental layout that you already know. Memory Palace was very popular with Greek and Roman orators. It’s where the expression ‘in the first place’ and ‘in the second place’ comes from. The system works because it makes use of the connection in the human mind between memory and place.

Judt’s palace is a  Swiss house. Each night he composes his essay or chapter and imagines placing a theme or a section in one of the rooms of the house. The next day he moves around the house in his minds eye, recalls each room and each piece of text in sequence and dictates the contents to his assistant.

I was fascinated to find how Judt makes use of this powerful memory technique as I have used it for years to remember points of a presentation, details of books, a sequence of stories or the names of things or people. The memory palace can be anything you know well – a building, a golf course, a street, a walk, a car journey or a whole town. Decide on a ‘route’ from one place to the next. If you are in a room you will be looking at the places one by one, always in the same order. If you are in a building or a town, you will be mentally walking or driving around those places. Then you imagine looking at the places in turn – and bring each one to life in your mind’s eye. What shapes and colours do you see? Is there any movement or noise? What smells or textures are you aware of? Once you have fixed them all, in order, in your memory you can put your route to use to remember many different types of information.

With practice, placing your items around your room or along your route is extremely fast. It just takes a few seconds to put everything in place and fix them in your memory. I am sure that Judt finds this process very easy to do. Using the brain in this way is also very satisfying and pleasant – some form of comfort maybe for someone who is trapped so tragically in the prison of his mind.

Postscript

Tony Judt died on 10 August 2010 aged 62 of Motor Neurone disease. One obituary notes that
in two books, Judd used lines from Camus as epigraphs: “If there were a party of those who aren’t sure they’re right, I’d belong to it,” and “Every wrong idea ends in bloodshed, but it’s always the blood of others.”

These lines could stand as the mottoes of his own sadly abbreviated but splendid life’s work.

You can read the full obit at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/08/tony-judt-obituary

Tell us about your memory palace – does it work for you? What are your tricks for remembering things?

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Responses

  1. Interesting idea! I too have motor neurone disease and have reached the quadriplegic stage so am always on the lookout for new ways of recording my thoughts and expressing myself. Fortunately, despite reduced lung function and an inability to project my voice very far, I am still able to talk clearly, albeit not for too long without a rest. At the moment I use speech recognition software to control my computer and it is with this wonderful invention that I have been able to create and maintain an entire blog site. However there are times when I’m not at my computer so some memory techniques that would enable me to ‘jot things down inside my head’ could be very useful.

    Mark

  2. Hi Mark

    Thank you so much for your message. I have looked at your blog and am impressed by the way in which you write about your life and the challenges you face. As well as informing us about the practicalities of everyday living, you are teaching us how to face up to even the most distressing and painful situations with creativity and good humour.
    My audio resource “memory and Learning for Success’ describes (among other things) the memory palace techniques which Tony Judt used. If you email me on jane@word-smiths.co.uk, I will send you the link.
    I look forward to visiting your blog again – and I will indeed sign your guestbook.


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