People who study memory are familiar with the concept of a Memory Palace, a memory scheme for storing information in remembered places. The Memory Palace story is beautifully described in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein (although it wasn’t clear to me if Einstein was walking on the moon or walking with Michael Jackson). For millennia, mnenonic super stars have memorized gargantuan lists by associating each list item with a location in a virtual home or palace. During learning, the mnemonicist imagines walking through the palace and placing each item in a particular location. At the time of recall, the memorizer imagines walking through the memory palace and, as if by magic, seeing each item where it had been placed. According to this notion, the ability to associate places to content is natural and fairly easy to master. So easy that Joshua Foer, who had no obvious memory potential, became a national memory champion by mastering the technique. I find the accounts impressive and extremely convincing, although I’ve failed miserably when trying to do this. Overall, the Memory Palace phenomenon suggests a strong natural link between location and memory. Some have taken this linkage to suggest that place serves as in indexing system for memory — a kind of lookup table. A point I’ll return to.
My personal experience points the other direction. Rather than a place-to-percept association, my experience suggests strong and effortless percept-to-place associations. I’ll recount two stories; you can supply your own. Last summer, while taking a long walk with my dogs, under utility lines behind my house, I listened to an album on my iphone, one I had never listened to before, and didn’t listen to again for awhile. About 6 months later I was in my car and listened to the same album. As each song played a vivid image of exactly where I had been along the walk popped into my head. The images were very clear, effortless, dramatic and beautiful. Second anecdote. I’ve been interested in the concept of information for years. This morning I was discussing my fascination with the concept, and another dog-walking memory popped into my head. A very clear evening walk, with another dog (deceased). It was along that walk, about 10 years ago, that I started to generate my notions of information. What was remarkable this morning was the clarity of where I was on the walk: the place, the weather (spring evening). My thought-walk covered about half a suburban block.
I ask reader to come up with their own stories. Among the clearest are music associations. The phenomenon of “I remember where I was when I heard that song …”. Or the smell place association, “I remember that smell from my middle-school cafeteria …”. If there is serious scientific data about this, I’d like to know.
My current notions are:
- the association between place and content (especially memory) is a two-way street
- the content->place association seems stronger than the place-> content association.
Place as a lookup table. The overall conclusion is that place and memory form strong two-way associations. Based on O’Keefe’s discovered that neurons in the rat hippocampus act like pointers on a map; O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel proposed that the rat hippocampus is its Cognitive Mapping System. The relation to other content and memory is speculative but strong. For example, the paper Understanding memory through Hippocampal Remapping. Briefly, the core mapping system of the hippocampus serves as the structure of a look-up table for episodic memory. There is a natural associative process between memories and location. We use this process for memory access. The process is similar to the hippocampal lookup table proposed by Penfield. Hence the relation between hippocampal damage and amnesia.
Update. PatienRB reminds me of something I wanted to add: how pleasant place-associated memories can be, at least for me. One set are the memories associated with music. For me, mostly the music of the 50s, 60s and 70s. During the ’50s I was in grade school; pop music, largely early rock, was around, especially on the car radio. Now, if I hear a Buddy Holly or Fats Domino song, I recall the car, and sometimes the route and an inkling of my 8-year-old self. Place comes first. The overall point being that evoking the memories of place elicits glimpses of the story of my life, and I have a serene sense of my continuous, autobiographical self.