The Method of Loci as a Depression Treatment

I came across an interesting study about researchers who tried using a memory technique called the method of loci to help subjects counter depression.

Depressed people tend to recall negative memories more than positive ones, so the researchers asked people to place positive memories into memory palaces. On a surprise test a week later, the newly-trained mnemonists were able to recall the positive memories, while the other group had more trouble with the recall.

Here’s the abstract:

Depression impairs the ability to retrieve positive, self-affirming autobiographical memories. To counteract this difficulty, we trained individuals with depression, either in episode or remission, to construct an accessible mental repository for a preselected set of positive, self-affirming memories using an ancient mnemonic technique—the method-of-loci (MoL). Participants in a comparison condition underwent a similar training protocol where they chunked the memories into meaningful sets and rehearsed them (rehearsal). Both protocols enhanced memory recollection to near ceiling levels after 1 week of training. However, on a surprise follow-up recall test a further week later, recollection was maintained only in the MoL condition, relative to a significant decrease in memories recalled in the rehearsal group. There were no significant performance differences between those currently in episode and those in remission. The results support use of the MoL as a tool to facilitate access to self-affirming memories in those with depression.

Click here to read the entire study. (Look for the “full text PDF” link.) There is also an interview with the lead researcher here.

The Technique

Memory journey

A memory journey

I’m assuming that readers are familiar with the method of loci already. (If not, try this tutorial.) Here are the details of the technique that they used:

Once participants reported that they had formed associations with which they were happy, they were given a blank recall sheet and asked to use the loci to access the 15 memories without access to their notes (Time 1 recall). Following the recall test, participants filled in any memories and/or loci they had not been able to remember after consulting with their notes. The home-based tasks were comprised of three 8- to 10-min exercises over the following week. Participants began each exercise by using their notes to remind themselves of their loci and memories and then, without notes, mentally navigating their chosen loci, bringing each memory fully and richly to mind as they did so, and writing down the memory tags. If they could not remember certain locations and/or memories, then they could use their notes to remind themselves of the one(s) they had forgotten at the end of the exercise.

Practical Experiments

Even if you have never had a problem with depression, it might be an interesting experiment to try. It only needs 15 locations.

One addition that I would like to try is to link the memory journey with specific music that I would only listen to when visualizing the journey, similar to the experiment I described here. That piece of music could then be set as an alarm sound on a smartphone which would trigger a reminder (and state of mind) to review the memory palace full of positive memories.

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    2 comments

    • what a really good article, thanks

    • Over the years I have memorized some favorite poems (14 lines or less). I have 6 in English, 1 in German, 1 in Esperanto. Now 79, I practice them (silently) while resting between exercises at the gym–half-hour workout 2-3x/week with 8 different machines. There is an association with keeping fit. When I wake up at night (twice on average) and don’t fall asleep easily, I recite one or two of them silently–a pleasing combination of relaxation and practice. When memory fails me its usually temporary and I’m more curious than upset. I sometimes “remember” incorrectly and check the text to get back on track. “On track” reminds me that it’s also relaxing on a long subway ride or other situations when passing time alone with pleasure is the purpose.

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