Mnemonic Mind Games

“Everything you can imagine is real.”   Pablo Picasso

Do you play abstract mind games to help you memorize spatial arrangements in your habitual spaces?   This article is intended for intuitive, creative people seeking ways to design and make things – craftspeople, designers, builders, technicians, architects, and engineers – by focusing on, and borrowing from, both natural patterns and human-made patterns to make our built environment.

Cubic or checkered

Using my own visual mnemonics, I can accurately remember the room layout of our house when I was under three years old. My mnemonic devices for living spaces are automatic and instinctual; they tend to be geometrical – cubic and diagonal.

Without prompting, my mind plays a geometry “game” to divide space and surfaces around me. This happens everywhere. My geometry game orientates my body in regard to shapes of objects in a room or building and divides space into complex trapezoidal or triangular units. Unconsciously, it creates patterns of lines and surfaces projecting from objects in either two or three dimensions. The game is constant and uncontrolled; it is my way to see and experience spaces, surfaces, and shapes within them. Conscious or not of a room’s geometrical patterns in my mind, they are always present. Only in high school did it become obsessive, ever present, and insidious.  Self-conscious of the game, I tried to ignore it or shut it out. But rooms and buildings contain many rectilinear shapes within them, which are great fodder for the game. The game never leaves me alone.  

What is the game? My mind involuntarily draws imaginary lines from corners and surfaces of all rectangular or cubic objects in a room and projects these lines straight through space. Lines and resulting surfaces have no color, nor are they visible, yet they have a set position in space visible within my mind, dividing a room into zones. Lines are projected parallel to edges and along diagonals drawn from corners of objects. All lines project through space like invisible laser beams. As an illustration of the imaginary geometry of lines projecting from multiple objects in a room, consider that each cubic shape can have as many as seven imaginary lines radiating from each of its eight corners (Figure 1 left). My mind arbitrarily chooses which lines to consider. 

Figure 1
Credits: Brian Glover/ Brian Glover

My mind imagines projecting straight lines, and accompanying triangles and surfaces, extending everywhere within a space, dividing it into geometrical units, or spaces.  Using these lines and surfaces, my mind surveys shapes, sizes, and relative positions of rooms and objects through the mnemonic e game. Figure 1 right shows projecting lines from my desk at work. Notice the yellow shaded area where my chair sits; there are not many projecting lines and planes in this area, which I consider a “safe” zone. By sitting where there are few projecting lines, I am safe.

In another simple example, Figure 2 (below) shows a room viewed from above, with a couch (red) and TV (blue).  A side lamp table (green) and a bookcase (lavender) are other major objects in the room.  Lines projecting from the room’s four objects are shown in corresponding colors.  The safe zone, a place where few projecting lines occur, is shaded yellow. Red diagonal lines and lines on edges within the couch footprint do not count against the safe zone, so the couch is optimally positioned to allow a good, safe place to sit. If the room’s diagonal lines are ignored and not counted in the game, the safe zone is extended into the dull yellow area. As long as I remain in this safe zone, my anxiety is reduced.

The object of the “game” is to always be within a safe zone, which is rarely possible. The game, therefore, never ends due to frustration of finding a safe zone. The most unsafe zone on the couch for watching TV is clouded; it has blue and green projecting lines through it. So, I AVOID this area.

Figure 2
Credits: Brian Glover

The safe zone for watching TV can be greatly increased, as shown below, by some interior re-decorating and slight re-arrangements.  In this example, it would be better A) turning the bookcase diagonally across the corner, and B) replacing the square lamp table with a round one, which projects no lines.  By rearranging, the couch is almost totally within a safe zone for TV (Figure 3) 

Unbeknownst to others around me, I may get up and turn a piece of furniture so my safe zone size increases. If I cannot move my body, the next best option is to reposition furniture.

Figure 3
Credits: Brian Glover

Too many objects in a room, and therefore too many translated lines and surfaces, results in fewer safe zones. This causes anxiety and unsafe feelings akin to claustrophobia. 

A round room with round furniture and round windows and doors may extinguish the game (Figure 4). But I find it difficult to become oriented to surroundings when there are too many rounded forms. Lack of spatial orientation also creates anxiety. Attending a concert performance in a large, 100-year-old theater recently, I experienced a strong sense of vertigo and anxiety as we climbed high up to our balcony seats. The theater had no square corners or other familiar frames of reference coordinate systems one might expect inside a building.  All features – ceiling, balcony, stage, seating, and proscenium – were rounded, sloped, or stepped.  The curving, sculpted walls, ceilings, and floors made it difficult to become oriented, and my eyes searched for something either vertical or horizontal which could orient my sense of the space. Not finding a reference coordinate system and its familiar stabilizing units of walls, ceilings, and floors, I held onto adjacent seats or walls to keep balanced while ascending stairs.

Figure 4
Credits: Brian Glover

The game is only a game. Yet I instantly, and unconsciously, memorize locations of these objects. It serves not only to orient myself in a space but serves as an unconscious mnemonic device for surveying relative spatial positions and sizes of rectangular or cubic objects geometrically. In my mind, my unconscious geometric survey looks similar to a United States Coast Survey, such as the one below in Figure 5, showing a portion of the U.S. Coast Survey Map of Long Island Sound done in 1817 through 1834.

Figure 5
Credits: United States Coast Survey, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection, Boston Public Library, ca 1830-1839

With age, I am less obsessed with the game. I can tell it to stop if I want, but I can also consciously tell it to begin.

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