Updated: Mar 3
In this blog we explore memory palaces, their usefulness and how to make them. Memory palaces are one of the most powerful memory techniques, are fun to use and are surprisingly easy to make.
What is a Memory Palace?
A Memory Palace is a place you know or can imagine, and is used to store information. It can be a house, or a street, or any place that you can travel through. They are sometimes called Method of Loci (Latin for Locations), a Memory Journey or Mind Palace. Whatever the name, you use visualizations within your spatial memory to quickly and accurately store and recall information. You walk through the palace in your mind and ‘place’ an image into one location after another. Those images stay in that place and remind you of the information when you next imagine a walk through that palace.
Normally you use somewhere you know well such as your home, work or school but anywhere will do. Even imaginary locations work for some people.
What are they for?
When information is big or complex In my blog How to remember a list of words Memory Palaces are described as particularly useful once the size of your information is too large for one big story, and for more complicated learning challenges. They allow you to file away large amounts of data, such as lists, numbers, text and speeches, and even exotic material like mathematical logic.
When information is in order They also rock when the order of the information you are learning is important, eg for a speech or a list of countries in Africa in order of GDP.
Both short or long term Memory Palaces work for the short term (exam tomorrow) or long term (learn Spanish). If it is a Spanish exam tomorrow, then you’ve got it made.
Looking at what they are good for, you will see that they are brilliant for exams.
Why do they work?
The reason they work so effectively is simple. Memory Palaces make use of our already well developed spatial and visual memory.
Memory Palaces simply attach new information onto something we already know (like the layout of our house or the path we would take to get to our bathroom). The new data that we want to learn is easily remembered when scaffolded on to this previously learned spatial map. This relies on our visual memory for images and pathways, a skill developed since the dawn of humanity, and not just since we developed language a mere 100,000 years ago.
They are not a new idea
Memory Palaces are not a new concept and have been used since ancient times. Ancient Greek and Roman orators used this memory technique to give speeches without the aid of notes. Memory Palaces were written about by the Roman Senator Cicero over 2000 years ago.
Do they really work?
Yes. As an informal guide I tested myself remembering using three different techniques. I had someone else create three lists of 50 random words in a foreign language, all with their meaning beside them in English.
The results speak for themselves.
Note : For the rote learning I actively tried not to use the memory techniques I have acquired.
Exams They are great for cramming! You can store long lists or texts and ‘dump’ them out in a test.
Long Term Storage Memory Palaces are also a great conduit to long term storage. With a bit of review of the Memory Palace the details can be kept near 100% indefinitely. For example, for me to commit the data to long term I review the contents of the Memory Palaces on day 2 and 4 and then on month 1, 2, 8 and 15 - this may differ for each person. I find that after a certain amount of revision over time the information in a Memory Palace moves into long term memory and I don’t need to walk through it consciously to recall the details.
For long term storage I create a new palace for each new information group. It is not as daunting as it sounds to create a new palace – we all encounter so many locations in our lives. They can even be imaginary. When I first started I could only think of 40 locations. Now I have an Excel spreadsheet with thousands of places I have visited, including places I stayed in for only one night – the location does not need to be really clear, just as a hook for you to build on.
Sleepy bo bos A further bizarre benefit? I have never in the past been good at getting to sleep, often laying awake thinking until all hours. These days I have discovered a wonderful side use of Memory Palaces – an aid to falling asleep. I can revise lists of information or text I have memorised and soon fall asleep, with the bonus of revising the detail at the same time!
Quick access Memory Palaces aid quick retrieval of information. By keeping information for separate topics in separate palaces, when you want to quickly retrieve information you know where in your head to look. No more blindly feeling about in the dark trying to randomly remember something.
They grow You can go back to your mind’s computer file at a later date and add more points or add detail to existing points. You can also link palaces to make larger storage sequences. This can be done while revising.
General memory improvements Another exciting result I have found is an increased retention when learning new information in general, even without applying memory techniques or using memory palaces.
Rinse and reuse And a final benefit is that you can make lists on the fly. I have certain palaces that I reuse for temporary information that I want to quickly learn, like a shopping list or a list of tasks from the boss. I repeatedly use these memory palaces for short term details and find I can re-use them once each day. The old details don't stick because I haven't reviewed and confirmed them in that palace apart from the initial session.
I can even re-use the long term palaces I have once that information has moved to my long term memory. This movement happens after several revisions over time, and then the information can be recalled without thinking about the palace. So then this palace is again available for use with new data.
How to make a Memory Palace
Alright already, you are convinced. I hear you say that Memory Palaces are the knees of bees, will make your life complete and you gotta have them. But how?
1. Choose a palace
Choose a location you know. This could be your home, work, supermarket or a hotel you stayed at last week. So suddenly your home is a palace! Just as long as you can visualise the palace well enough you can use it, but the more connected you are the better. Where possible make the palace relevant to the detail. For example, I start outside a bakery to remember the number Pi because that is where they bake pies : )
2. Choose locations inside the palace
Walk through the palace and choose locations as you go. This is where each image will be stored. Remember (or imagine) a lot of detail to make it as vivid as possible. Also, change the heights and angles of your locations - don’t always place the location just at ground or eye level.
Be efficient with your locations, as a common problem is spreading them out too far. You can cram them close together. Try to put as many locations as you dare in a room, thinking of any nooks or crannies you could use to place an image.
3. Place an image at each location
The last step is to walk through the palace and place an image at each location. The image must remind you of the detail you are remembering, of course.
Often the first image that springs to mind is best, even if crazy. In fact especially if it is crazy. Interact the image with the location as well if possible to strengthen recall .
Here's an example image I use:
I remember the Spanish word for Monday, ‘Lunes’, by thinking of a madwoman (lunatic) running around on the moon while jumping over sand dunes (as ‘dunes’ ends with ‘es’ to remind me of the spelling at the end of the word). To remember this image means Monday in English I just notice to myself that moon day reminds me of the word Monday.
Make the image strong. It works best if you involve more senses, so add movement, sound, smell, and texture. You are unlikely to forget the image if the woman leaps high in the light moon gravity (which is of course only 16.6% of the Earth’s gravity), yells gibberish and smells like moon-cheese. Its also very effective to add other side stories that occur to you while you are making it. In my case, I also think "I understand why she was running around crazy because it’s Monday!”
An example Memory Palace
Let use your house as the palace. I don’t know its layout so I will generalise as we go.
Really try to see the images and stories in your own house as you read the text.
My example is a simple list that my daughter Shirley urgently needed to learn for a junior high school test. It is the ancient Egyptian social structure, ranked from highest to lowest. The list is:
We used the following Memory Palace, locations and images. Remember, crazy is good.
Starting in front of your door place the first item – Pharaoh. For this word my mind right away conjures up an image of a Pharaoh in a gold-plated mask on my front door step. I then add a lot of detail to cement it, and to confirm why it is first. Maybe there is a crazy person knocking at my door in this mask? Or, why is the leader of Egypt knocking loudly on my door? And, oh no my doorstep is so dusty and he is so shiny and gold. The knock on the door is so loud because all the gold is so heavy.
Walk into the house and look up in the corner above the door to place the second item – Viziers. Again you need a relevant image - I suggested to my daughter a viser (like on the front of a cap) but she had never heard of this word before. She's not a Star Wars fan or we could have gone with Darth Vader's visor. But all is not lost. The sound of the word reminded her of a Vase, so now we have something to work with. We placed vases (plural) in the corner of the room. But as it is Viziers we put a big Egyptian looking eye in the middle of each vase one to remind us of the two i's. We had these vases with their one eye each looking at each other blinking with concern then looking down at the Pharaoh in the doorway.
Now move to the couch and place the third word - Nobles. My daughter was lucky – her school teacher is Miss Noble, so that was a done deal. For the image, we pictured several clones of her teacher looking noble and lounging about looking with disdain towards the doorknocker at the door. You choose the image that first springs to your mind or makes the most sense to you.
Onto the fourth word – Priests. Here, one of the nobles leans over to pick up a coffee from the coffee table to take a sip and finds a priest swimming around in the cup! And then he does a double take to see he was wrong, there are three Priests swimming in his coffee. This was to remind my daughter to write ‘Priests’ with the plural in the test.
And for the fifth word – Soldiers. The Noble is so shocked and angry by the priests having a bath in his coffee that he calls out in a booming voice ‘SOLDIERS’, and two soldiers jump down from the cabinet, capture the Priests and march them off.
I hear a scratching sound coming from under a chair and look to see several Scribes frantically scribing what they have just witnessed into stone tablets. They are getting dust all over my floor and as they write there is a terrible scraping sound.
I now go into my bathroom to freshen up from the dust and see several Merchants selling their wares in a temporary market they have set up in my shower. At least they are not dusty like the last group, but they are splashing water all over the place. To remind us that the word is Merchant and not some other words like ‘sales people’ I would add some little trick to remind me of the word. I see the word ants at the end of the word Merchant, so I imagine ants running all over their goods. I also have my Mum as one of the merchants to give me a hint the word begins with m.
Things don’t improve when I go to sit on my toilet to see some men creating arts and crafts…. great I think, now I have Craftsmen too. And in the toilet! Call the pest removers.
I look up to my window sill to see Peasants lounging around on the sill, looking with some humour at my ablutions. ‘Peasants!’ I yell at them, like I think I am a Pharaoh on my royal throne.
I drag my sorry self towards the door to get out of the bathroom, to see a line of Slaves in chains going through first. I feel bad for their sorry condition.
Done! We now will be able to recall all of the Egyptian social structure list, and in order.
Go back yourself through your Memory Palace and look at each location, to see if the images let you list the items in order.
You are standing near your front door, there is a loud knocking….who is there?