I used to have an atrocious memory.
If I didn’t take a list when going shopping, I would forget to buy things I needed. If you told me your name, you could expect to tell me again the next several times we met. If it weren’t for automated reminders no one I know would ever get a birthday card. Even phone numbers weren’t safe in my cerebral sieve.
Thankfully I was able to fix all that with a technique that’s easy to learn, incredibly effective, and can be used in the blink of an eye to not only memorize any sequence of facts but to memorize them in proper order – the Memory Palace.
The Memory Palace, also called the Method of Loci isn’t a new technique. It has a track record going back to at least the 6th century B.C. and has been used by eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien to memorize 54 decks of cards in order (2,808 cards if you’re trying to do the math) after seeing each card only once. Now I don’t expect you’ll be needing to pull off any feats like that anytime soon, unless you’re trying to show off or win a few drinks from friends, but it comes in handy for a million other things too – shopping lists, language learning, studying for exams and anything else where you need to memorize a sequence of facts quickly and permanently.
So What Is a Memory Palace?
The Memory Palace technique works by drawing on the power of associative memories and the fact that people are very good at remembering places they know very well. A Memory Palace is any place that you know extremely well, your home for instance, that you can vividly imagine and attach items to in your imagination in order to be remembered.
Essentially, you visualize you walking through your Memory Palace and ‘see’ all the things you need to remember in sequence added to the memory. The strong emotional ties to your Memory Palace help hold the data in your head.
How Do I Use the Memory Palace Technique?
1. Pick Your Palace
Technically your palace can be anywhere that you can visualize. That being said, there are a few tips that will make it a little easier to use. First off, the more vividly you can visualize the location, the stronger the association will be. It’s fine to use an imaginary place, but only if you can really visualize it.
Secondly, the bigger the location, the more you can memorize. That doesn’t mean you have to pick some enormous place to start out with, in fact it’s probably better you start out small, but as you get better at it you can start graduating to larger and larger locations. You’ll be mapping out a path through your Memory Palace soon and the more stops you can have in it the more hooks you’ll have to hang data on.
Using myself as an example, I’ve chosen our house. It’s small enough to remember easily, but large enough to accommodate lots of stops. Best of all, I see it everyday so I can visualize it perfectly with almost no effort.
2. Pick a Path
Step two is to choose a familiar path through your already familiar location. If you’re using a real location, and you should be if it’s your first time doing this, pick a path you regularly take in real life.
If you chose your school, then use the path you take from class to class everyday. If you use your work, use the path you take from the front door to your desk, or wherever you have to go each day. Much like the location itself, the more familiar the path the more effective the technique. To start with this path doesn’t have to have a lot of stops, but as you work up to memorizing longer lists you’ll need to extend the path as necessary.
Having chosen our home as my location, I’m going to make my path through it similar to the one I take coming home. I come in through the garage, walk through the living room and then the kitchen on my way to the stairs. Before I go upstairs I take my shoes off and toss them in the closet, then go up to our home office. I could have chosen something more complicated, but that’s one that I’ve probably actually walked hundreds of times by now and it’s easy to remember.
3. Take a Practice Walk
This step isn’t as important the more you use the technique, but starting out it’s crucial. You need to visualize yourself walking through your Memory Palace along the route you just defined. This visualization needs to be as vivid and sensory as possible.
Don’t just think through it as quick as you can, stop in each area of the path and try to think about every little thing you see, what you smell, what you hear, you can even reach out in your mind and touch things. As you’re going through you need to also pick out as many little identifying items or landmarks on your path. You’ll need those as anchors for installing memory hooks in the next step.
I have my location and my path, so now I run through a practice visualization. Our old garage door grumbles and shudders as it goes up. Caroline’s Camaro is in there, shiny after just being washed. I run my hand over it and feel how smooth and cool it is. I smell the unmistakable scent of fresh cut grass as I walk by the mower, stained green from recent use. I open the door and step up into our house. It’s cool and dark in the hallway from the garage. I move the barrier that keeps the dog from getting back there and head into the living room. I can smell food cooking in the kitchen. As I walk by the pool table I feel the felt and the tiny little tear on the end by the door.
I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. I would go on like that until I got to the office. Remember to make it vivid.
4. Install Your Memory Hooks
The next step in preparing your palace is to place your memory hooks. I’ve written about memory hooks before if you aren’t familiar with them. The idea is to take your list of items you have to remember and hook each item into a place along your path through the Memory Palace.
Each hook should not only be as vivid as everything else you’ve imagined, but it should also be weird or ridiculous. Things that are strange are a lot easier to remember than things that aren’t. Don’t just picture whatever you have to remember lying there, make it interesting.
So let’s say for our example I had a shopping list to memorize. We’ll say that list is bacon, avocados, chicken, eggs, spinach, bell peppers, carrots, and onions.
I open our garage like normal but it doesn’t complain like normal. All the moving parts have been oiled up with bacon grease, and there’s bacon wound around the springs. Even the chain has been replaced by a knotted rope of bacon. I touch the car like before and pass the mower. This time, I don’t smell grass, I smell guacamole. I swipe a finger over all the green coating the mower and taste it. Avocados! When I open the door to the house the cool, dark hallways has become the back of the dairy section at the supermarket and a giant chicken is stocking cartons of eggs…
Ok, you get the point. I would go through that whole list making some kind of weird incident for each item making it as sensory of a visualization as possible.
5. Use It
Once you’ve made all your associations and memory hooks, you’re ready to use your Memory Palace to recall that info whenever you need it. Once you get to the store, walk back through your path in your head and experience all those crazy things again, (the bacon door, avocados on the mower, etc.) and you’ve got your list.
The best part is because of how quick our brains work you can construct and imagine a pretty long sequence of events in a fraction of the time it would take for a person to physically do all of that. That means that you can access your list quickly.
Additional Tips & Tricks
That’s the basic way of using the Memory Palace, but there are lots of little ways to play around with the technique. If you need to remember multiple long lists simultaneously, you can set up several different locations or even multiple paths through the same location.
You can also embed other memory techniques within your Memory Palace. So if you needed to remember the colors of the rainbow in a list with other things you could see the grave of ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) in your path with a rainbow etched into it.
Similar techniques can be used to encode lots of information into one hook. If I needed to remember to get three packs of bacon and two pounds of avocados in my previous example, I could add a giant ‘three’ written in bacon on the garage door and had two avocado smeared lawnmowers stacked on top of a giant scale. You can fit a surprising amount of information into each hook as long as your imagination and visualization skills are strong enough.>
Have you got any other creative tips or tricks for using Memory Palaces? Have you tried this technique out and had success or problems with it? Share it with us in the comments!
Photo Credit: Claudio Mufarrege