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How to Build a Memory Palace: Improve Your Memory and Increase Your Recall

Updated on April 4, 2013

Remember Anything and Everything With a Memory Palace

Lettuce and grilled chicken rained from the sky. I awoke this morning to the sound of croutons striking the windows of my Memory Palace. Yet another January salad shower and my Rubik cube did nothing to stop it. That makes me angry, it makes me cross! I looked at the clock and once again i'd awoken exactly 49 minutes BEFORE my alarm would sound. The pompous guy that sold me the Rubik cube promised it would help. But I guess it was a con. A Rubik con!

Hello there reader. If you're like me then you your memory isn't great. Though it's probably not all that bad either. In this article I'd like to take you through a technique I use sometimes (to great effect) to help me retain those details I actually could do with.

Recently I was in the city of Milan for the first time ever. As I moved from the central station and gradually got my bearings I built a picture in my mind >> I enter a bathroom to see coffee percolating as a lazy Argentinian, leaning up against the sink, supervises.To his left 6 small and seemingly angry Tunisians are launching an over sized gondola into my bathtub whilst singing the song "Park Life". I notice then that myself, the Argentinian and the Tunisians are all men. This is a no girl zone and none other than Leonardo Da Vinchi is standing at the end of the tub acting as bouncer <<

Hmmm...if only there were a way to use this technique to remember everything i want to. Well actually...there is. It's called a Memory Palace and it's a place to store everything away that you may need to remember later. In this article I'll quickly tell you about creating visual imagery and a "loci" and of course putting it together in a Palace (or 2...or 10) of your own.

Photo Credit: Copyright Free WikiCommons

Memory Poll

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Memory Goat
Memory Goat

Creating Visual Mnemonics

A Workout For Your Imagination

Before we get around to building a memory palace I want to tell you a little bit that I've learned about memory and imagery. It turns out that you remember things better if they are outstanding, unusual, a bit weird...well this makes sense right? Most of the information you come across in your day to day is just normal, repetitive and boring. Same thing all the time. So why waste brain power remembering all those unnecessary things?

But of course the system isn't perfect. I'll give you an example. I was out for a bite to eat with some friends. Someone ordered a small tapa with a cheese called Cabrales. Now, all of the rest of the things that happened that night I could more than happily let my brain decide on- remember this detail clearly, this part is fuzzy...and some things I don't recall at all - but I enjoyed that cheese and I wanted to remember it. I'd never had it before, and probably wouldn't see it on a menu in the very near future. So i needed to actively choose to store it away.

How? Did i repeat it to myself 20 times? No, and neither did I take out a phone and record it in a notepad I'd never look at again. I took 4 seconds to create a visual mnemonic and then i carried on chatting and engaging in those everyday, repetitive and not too memorable things. Sure enough I can't remember a lot of what was said or done that night now. Here's the image I used for the cheese though.

There is the crankiest goat you've seen, sitting on an armchair and reading a book. What the...

Well I speak a little Spanish. So this was a cabra/goat and he lee/read. So in 4 seconds I had a very unusual and weird image of goat reading = cabra lee = cabrales cheese. The next day I didn't rack my brain for that many specific memories. But I did think "ah, what was that cheese?!" and immediately recalled a strange image of a goat sitting down and thumbing his way through a hefty tome. Cabrales! Instant recall :)

This is the foundation block of your future memory palace. If it's boring it's unlikely to be remembered. If it's totally out there, you'll probably hold onto it. And the more you interact with the imagery the more "real" your brain treats it. So if i'd doubly wanted to make sure then that goat could have smelled strongly of cheese, offered me the same tapa I enjoyed, or maybe even have been reading "great cheese" magazine ;P I needed to hold onto this memory past the first night and so quick and easy did it. For longer term memories I make them "real".

Ah and if you're wondering about the intro. Raining croutons, a Rubik cube deception and an early start to the day. That gives me Caesar salad, a Rubicon and someone Cross at 49 Before. So if I wanted to remember some important dates in Roman history then this quick paragraph is telling me- Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 BC. This is part of a much much longer series of images of important Roman history dates placed strategically along a path. More about the path a little later.

Memory Palace for Beginners - The Book That Started it For Me

If i could recommend just one work as the perfect initiation into memory palace building then this book would be it. Probably one of the shortest yet most enjoyable reads of my life.

The Memory Palace - Learn Anything and Everything (Starting With Shakespeare and Dickens) (Faking Smart Book 1)
The Memory Palace - Learn Anything and Everything (Starting With Shakespeare and Dickens) (Faking Smart Book 1)

This is the book that started it for me. I took 30 minutes to read his strange story and at the end I could remember every single one of Shakespeare's plays in order...and backwards!

The next day I created a route i still use today and i memorised all of the works of Charles Dickens using the outstanding imagery provided by the author. In...20 minutes!

And the next day...I relaxed :-) But my eyes were open to the possibilities of memory.

Long and Winding Road
Long and Winding Road

Walking a Path to Perfect Memory

One Step at a Time

Ok, so mnemonics are very useful and building visual memory imagery can even be fun. But how can we push it even further. Well for that we'll have to take up the ancient art form of the "method of loci" Essentially (loci = path) the idea is if you place memories along a path, then later when you walk the path those memories will be in the correct order. This has been used for thousands of years, especially by oral storytellers and ancient lawyers.

What you need to do is choose a route you are very familiar with. That's the best thing to do but of course if you want to imagine a route that should work too. Just make sure you spend time getting to know the new route first. So, lets say you walk to work every day and it takes about 20 mins. OK, that sounds like a good route. You take a left at the newsagents, you cross bridges, you pass the bakery, you look up at a big billboard in the same place. Alrighty as long as you can visualise your route that's fine.

On this particular route lets say (for example) that there are 20 stops along the way. Maybe from your room to the kitchen there are 10 stops, areas of interest. These places will be where you store your memories. A stop can be anything- the road signs, the people (the more interactive the better, remember!) the turns and the buildings.

Perhaps your route is just one room- from the door to the table to the window to the sofa, look at the t.v. etc. Wherever you want :-) Each "stop" along the way could be an object or a feature which you know for a fact is there. It is habitually ingrained in your mind. Your route needs to be solid.

Try walking along the route in your minds eye. Draw a map, it helps. As you build ever more elaborate routes you don't want others fading on you. Eventually you could find yourself in a city where every bend and turn, nook and cranny, monument or roadsign is an alcove for your memories.

Your brain is amazing and using this technique you can begin to remember literally millions of details with perfect recall. Now, doesn't that sound exciting?

In the introduction I've explained an image I used as a map of Milan. While this of course is something personal to me, there are enough clues to enable you to retrace my path. So, go visit MIlan on google maps and start off in central station. Post the route and it's meaning here :-)

Taking Your Memory To The Next Level - The Skies the Limit!

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Even the title of this incredible read sums up the idea of an outstanding visual mnemonic.

Up above I recommended the book "The Memory Palace" by Lewis Smile. Yeah well, Mr. Smile recommends this book. So I immediately picked it up and I wasn't disappointed.

This book contains a few more techniques which brought the author from spectator to memory champion status.

As with all memory palace related works the imagery alone is enjoyment enough. The fact that you're actually learning and remembering while your brain gets a full workout, well that's just the cherry on the cake.

Unlike the "Memory Palace" this book doesn't give you any specific things to memorise, rather it talks about the techniques themselves, the people and culture of memory competitions.


Putting it Together

Building a Palace

-Choose what you want to remember eg. all the constellations, best picture winners, presidents of the USA. the shopping list!

-How many stops along your loci do you need? 10? 100? More? For something temporary you can use a familiar route that you will "write over" at a later stage. It's a good idea to have several of these routes on hand so that these temporary memories can fade a bit more in each route before you walk it again.

-Choose or create a route with that number of stops. Make sure it's a route you are very familiar with (whether it be real or imagined) Perhaps choose a route that makes a little sense. If you want to remember the constellations then perhaps your route should be in an observatory in your "Memory City" or if it's a shopping list then perhaps the route could be the shelves and corners of your fridge.

-Walk through your route and add a visually (sensory- smelly, loud...) outstanding and unusual mnemonic in each place which represents what you want to remember.

- Now, go through your route as normal and see each of your mnemonics. Do this again and make sure things are clear and that you interact where you planned to interact.

- For a true palace, why not construct multiple wings/buildings/gardens (again, real or imagined) for different subjects. Before long you'll become a quiz wiz!

- Fill your routes and your palace with as many other simple mnemonics as you can too. Like "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain" which your brain remembers better than Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. The colours of the rainbow.

Do you have any funny mnemonics you'd like to share? What would you like to remember?

Don't Forget to Leave a Comment

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    • flycatcherrr profile image


      5 years ago

      My few funny mnemonics are largely limited to ways to remember my various login passwords, but I do find this whole field quite fascinating. As years go by and a busy schedule makes it harder to 'set' a lot of short-term-storage memories (memos?), I can see I shall have to make more use of the kinds of techniques you're showing us here.


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