Roman Rooms

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Apologies for going somewhat off-topic. I do occasional posts about  memory palaces, not the flashy type beloved of fiction, but doing it properly. They are not posts about speed memorising digits for memory competitions (although they may help) they are posts about holding a massive amount of information in your head and making sure it is useful. They are  aimed at the people who’ve already had an introduction to the field, who’ve found memory techniques useful and want to take them a little further. 

Building on my last memory post, which talked about how we could improve mnemonic training by using lessons learned from computer science, today I’m going to talk about the popular ‘roman room’ technique and show first how it’s equivalent to the one of the older (and now somewhat out of date) structure of a ‘record’ in algorithmic terms.

This is a fairly structured post, and I’m going to the effort using such things as subheadings! Yes, I bet you thought you would never see the day.

The Problem

Let us assume that you are having a meeting with a UK Cabinet Minister.  For the sake of the argument, it is Patrick McLoughlin (chosen using the random number generator at and counting down

You would like to be prepared for the meeting, so in addition to being on top of your notes have a look at his Wikipedia page. You’d like to be able to recall his original constituency, when he entered parliament, the cabinet position, and the name of his spouse.

Using a ‘normal’ method and where it goes wrong

So how are we going to remember those four facts?
We could imagine his lower half as an old steam locomotive (he’s minister for transport), while being ridden by a jockey who keeps smacking him with his whip (because his seat is the ‘Derby’ shire dales).

This is a good example of how imagery (although vital) can be taken too far.  I think that’s a little too easy to misplace stuff, to find yourself only remembering the strangest bit of the image. It’s also breaking a cardinal rule that a link should only go to one place.

How about chaining the links together? Just four items in a row? That’s a lot more resilient and much better in this case, but you have to be careful about the order or you might get confused (in this case, you might be forgiven for remembering that he was Chief Whip with his constituency being in Crewe).

So we might want a more sophisticated structure here. In fact, we’re going to use a Roman Room.

The Roman Room

I’m going to give a brief overview of the roman room process and then I’m going to explain it again in terms of computer science. Then I’m going to show how it generalizes to become much more extensive than normally used by memory people. I should say at this point that the Roman Room version that I learned from an old book some years ago is mildly different from that generally accepted today – Wikipedia, for example, considers it utterly synonymous with the method of loci, which is a touch disappointing.

Setting up a Roman Room

Let’s make some assumptions. First of all I’m going to assume that you have a living room in your house. I’m also going to assume that room has a couch, door, window, and light fitting.

We are going form some quick links between those objects and the categories of  things we are going remember.  So that we think of the coach as being a constituency (because it’s the MP’s seat) the light fitting as being a year (because ‘let there be light’ came first), the TV being the cabinet role (because only cabinet members ever get on telly) and the spouse as linked to the door (because you would *adore* them).

This appears to be unnecessary extra work, but stick with me (to save space my links are very vague – feel free to replace with your own).

Mapping our Roman Room to our Politician

Now we do our real links…

Sitting on the coach in your front room with Chip and Dale, those lovable rescue rangers. If you would like to seal the memory in with the classic theme tune, then be my guest.

What’s unusual about them today is that they are arguing about which one of them is Chip and which one is Dale, and the only way you can tell them apart is because one of them is wearing an Everton football strip, and one is wearing a Liverpool football strip. Which gives us, Derbyshire Dales as the constituency.

Let’s move on to year of entry. Patrick entered parliament in 1986, which makes life easy for us because “86’d” is, of course, an American slang term for throwing something out. I’m happy to pitch the light fitting in the room moving like a snake on a long cable, grabbing random items from around the room and hurling them out in any direction it can. It’s a powerful image and doesn’t need much more work.

Cabinet position: imagine watching footage of an oncoming train, the train gets closer and closer, and suddenly the TV flies apart as a real (but small) train flies into the room.

Patrick’s wife is called Lynn, which makes life very easy for me because my friend Lynn once got trapped in a bathroom for 12 hours because the handle fell of.

That has made life easier. You can retrieve the information pretty quickly and can keep the categories separate in your head. (It would be easy to describe the light fitting as ‘Whip-ing around’ but you aren’t going to think his post is Whip, because you know that light fittings are the entry year).

That’s the Roman Room method as traditionally described.

Generalizing your Roman Room

Your front room isn’t the only one you’ve been in. Your mum and dad have one – also with a door, window, TV and light. So do all of your friends…

This lets us generalize.   We think of Vince Cable in your best friend’ living room, sitting on their sofa which has turned into a giant rugby ball (his constituency is Twickenham) and suddenly what we have is a template that lets us keep going until we run out of rooms or the UK government.

Here comes the [Computer] Science bit – concentrate…

So we’re now looking at a record, in fact I like to think of Roman Room as a template, in fact let’s compare with what Wikipedia says about a Computer Science Record:

In computer sciencerecords (also called tuplesstructs, or compound data)[1][page needed] are among the simplest data structures. A record is a value that contains other values, typically in fixed number and sequence and typically indexed by names. The elements of records are usually called fields or members.

Records are distinguished from arrays by the fact that their number of fields is typically fixed, each field has a name, and that each field may have a different type.

…and in future we can talk about how we can use exactly this technique to also manage to accurately replicate complex structures like trees in our memory structures.

So now should you be able to see why I make a distinction between Roman Room and the method of Loci. The method of loci takes a particular location, or sequence, or journey, and maps it to a set of things. Roman Room is a template that can be applied in many places and lets you link in a more general way.


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