Some of you might have watched "Beyond Belief" (on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)) last night and wondered how I taught the host, Wes Moore, how to memorize ALL the Best Picture winners from the Oscars since the very first one, which was in 1928. That's 83 movies! With most of them having long-ish titles. Not only that, I had to teach him all the years for each of those movies so that he knew all of them and their associated years. Not an easy task! Here's how I did it. I first took him to a place in Miami called Vizcaya. This was going to be our memory palace. Vizcaya is the former estate of James Deering and it was built in the early 1900s with all imported furniture and decorations from Italy. It's a magnificent location that is absolutely perfect for a memory palace. A huge house with a massive, ornate garden with all sorts of nooks and crannies perfect for storing images.
So how do you go about teaching the Memory Palace technique to someone who knows nothing about memory techniques? Easy, you physically walk them through the memory palace (Vizcaya) and create images for each of the movie titles, storing them at different anchor points along that walk.
That's great and all, but what about the years? Easy. I divided the garden into 9 different decades to cover the 20's, 30's, etc. all the way up to the 00's. That way, if he wanted to access the movie from 1946, for example, he would travel in his mind to the 40's area of the palace and then count 6 locations in to retrieve the 6th movie of that decade (really it's the 7th since 1940 would be the 1st). To make things easier and quicker to recall, every half way point of the decade (1935, 1945, etc.) we added the number 5 somewhere in the image of that year's movie. That way, when I asked him "who won in 1946?" all he would have to do is jump to the 40's area, then straight to that mid-point at 1945, then walk one more anchor point to get to 1946.
So I first did a quick walkthrough of the gardens with Wes and showed him where each decade would be. Here are the 60s, here are the 70s, etc. It was all in an order that made sensel; an order that a person visiting the gardens would naturally walk (counter-clockwise, basically).
Once he got the hang of the "journey" and got a basic layout of the grounds, we started with the creation of images for the movie titles. First the 20's. An easy one with only 2 movies since it was only 1928 and 1929. We used two loci at the very entrance of the estate: an entrance sign and a small fountain. The first movie was "Wings", so I had him picture a set of wings attached to the entrance sign which allowed the sign to take off and fly away. Next, the fountain. The movie was "The Broadway Melody". I asked him to come up with an image. He said the water kinda sounded like a melody and that it reminded him of a fountain in central park, NYC, the city home to BROADWAY! Perfect. The 20s were done.
Next were the 30s. We used the main roundabout at the entrance for this and chose 10 distinct anchor points around this area (in a counter-clockwise direction). The first, an interesting lion's face carved into a limestone wall. Our movie? "All's Quiet On The Western Front" - 1930. The lion face had an open mouth, so I had Wes envision himself placing his finger on the lion's mouth saying "shhhhh, be quiet...quiet on the western front". That was enough. Wes got it. The next anchor point was an overhanging tree right next to the lion face. 1931's movie was "Cimarron". Wes thought it sounded like "simmer on" so he imagined a pot simmering on top of the leaves. Done. NEXT!
We finished the 30's, did a quick review, then moved on to the 40's, then the 50's, 60's, all the way to 2010 which was "The King's Speech". Wes kept saying throughout the process how awesome the technique was and how easy it was to memorize things. Here were some note-worthy images that we conjured up along the way:
1941 - "How Green Was My Valley" - This was on a statue of a woman with a draping cloth over her. I told Wes to imagine lifting up the cloth and inspecting her "valley" which happened to be dyed green. Inappropriate? Yes. Memorable? Hell yes!
1963 - "Tom Jones" - This was on the steps to a small building near the back of the garden. Wes envisioned Tom Jones singing his hit "It's not unusual...." on the steps all Tom-Jones-like. Tom Jones is known for having women's panties thrown at him while performing, so I added that lovely fact to the image.
1969 - "The Midnight Cowboy" - This was on a bench near the back of the garden. Wes thought of the Naked Cowboy from Time Square in NYC. He imagined him performing on the bench but only coming out at midnight. Tada! Midnight Cowboy!
1975 - "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" - In the fountain garden, on a marble block planted in the ground. This was one of Jack Nicholson's first films. It was also 1975, so I told him to incorporate a 5 in there somehow. All he could think of was Jack from "The Shining" saying "Herrrrre's Johnny!". So he pictured 5 Jacks popping out of the marble block screaming "Here's Johnny!", like a jack-in-a-box. Creepy, but it worked.
1991 - "Silence Of The Lambs" - In the secret garden, on the right side, a set of plant pots in the wall. Wes noted that they looked a bit like heads that had been half opened. It reminded him of the scene from Hannibal where he's eating the guy's brain and his head is half-cut open. Nice! Blood was everywhere.
1998 - "Shakespeare In Love" - In the secret garden, in a little cove on the left. We pictured Shakespeare hooking up with a chick he loved. Basically, he was trying to hide from the public so he could get his freak on. What a perv.
2001 - "A Beautiful Mind" - Out on the veranda, in between two pillars. Wes envisioned a massive, gooey, slimy, pulsating brain lodged in between the two pillars. It was also a beautiful view from this loci of the Miami bay, hence the "beautiful mind".
On a whole the process was tiring, but mostly because it was being filmed and we had to redo certain shots a ton of times. When I quizzed Wes at the end he knew all the movies solidly backwards and front. If there were any that he had trouble remembering it was only because we only went through the garden locations twice before (and he had never seen the place before!). Once I reminded him of the anchor point, he knew the image and then the movie. Pretty impressive!
Every time I teach someone this method, I realize just how powerful and awesome it is. Makes me want to go to all sorts of new museums and gardens and memorize a whole new set of things, like sports history, country/capitals, kings and queens, EVERYTHING. I'll let you know what I tackle next!