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DaVinci’s House

The human brain is not generally very good at retrieval of isolated information. Single words, such as the name of someone you just met can easily slip away.

Thomas Nelson House in Virginia

Photo: cliff1066 (flickr)

Leonardo da Vinci used the concept of a house to better remember things by associating common household rooms and objects with things in his daily routine

The human brain is not generally very good at retrieval of isolated information.

For example, single words, such as the name of someone you just met, can easily slip away. However, if you can attach the word to some other cue that is easy to recall, the task becomes much easier.

To see how this works, consider the technique used by Leonardo DaVinci. Born in 1452, DaVinci was by all accounts one of the most brilliant men in history, excelling in mathematics, painting, architecture, music, and engineering.

When it came to memory, DaVinci used a strategy recommended by the ancient Greeks. He kept a complex mental image of a house in his mind. In this imaginary house there were several rooms, and in each room there were several objects. When he wanted to remember a piece of information, he would “place it” inside the house in one of the rooms. Some things would go, say, upstairs on the table, while other things would be placed downstairs next to the flower pot.

This approach worked because DaVinci knew his mental house quite well, and could “move around” in it easily. Rather than losing that name he just heard, the name could be temporarily contextualized by putting it in an imaginary location where it would remain until he needed it again.

Would such a “house in the mind” work for the rest of us? Probably, however the approach one uses is less important than the idea of integrating new memories with what one already knows. Although it takes some added effort at first, the pay off in long-term retention is great.

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