The New York Times magazine recently ran a piece on the world of competitive memorization. The article was particularly interesting to me in its discussion of the apparently popular technique of “memory palaces”. I have some memory palaces of my own, though they are a far cry from the intentionally laid-out worlds used by crack memorizers. My “palaces” take the form of seemingly inexplicable connections between specific locations from my childhood and apparently unrelated topics from my modern life. I thought this was typical, but a recent chat with my wife suggested that maybe it’s not. So I thought I’d write about it here.
Here’s the first weird thing: my memory palaces are supermarkets.
When I was young – from a baby to, I guess, 9 or 10 years of age – there were two grocery stores in town where my family did most of its shopping. One was Denny’s, and the other was a Red Owl. I haven’t been in either one for 20 years; both of them ceased being grocery stores over a decade ago. But, for some reason, whenever I think of the reality show The Biggest Loser, I am immediately transported to the front-end of the frozen food aisle at Denny’s.
A mental stroll through the aisles of Denny’s evokes a number of similar associations. Thinking about the game show Jeopardy, and in particular Ken Jennings, makes me think of the produce aisle, especially heads of iceberg lettuce. A few years ago, I went on a kick where I read a bunch of books on fundamentalist Mormonism, and ever since, there’s been a connection in my mind between FLDS (especially prairie dresses) and the bread aisle. Some of the associations aren’t so vivid – when I think about moving along the back of the store, from the meat section toward the frozen food aisle, I think vaguely but consistently about whaling.
I am not making this up.
I have even more associations with the Red Owl. The strongest has to do with the magazine section, which was my favorite part of the store (I was super into sticker albums). I cannot think about Space Ghost (a cartoon I never heard of until college) without feeling like I’m in that magazine section. The bakery counter is the 2009 Star Trek movie. The deli meats section is the philosophical literature on artificial intelligence. The toiletries aisle is my 11th grade American history textbook. The cereal/candy aisle is a few things: towards the back, it’s Brazil; as I move towards the front, it’s conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assasination, and then about UFOs. There are a few places in the store that evoke something that I can’t quite put my finger on, such as the seasonal section (something about struggling to write a program that would combine or reconcile two data sets) and the front end of the bakery (something to do with airplanes).
I don’t think there’s anything monumental or deeply meaningful about these associations. I do find it kinda cool, though, that (a) they’re so persistent, (b) they’re limited pretty much exclusively to these two supermarkets, and (c) there are so few of them. Brains 4eva!