Alternative Study Methods: Memory Palace
You need to remember something without using Google, your textbook, or ink pen scrawled across the back of your left hand. You’ve tried mnemonics, you’ve chanted the information to yourself (a method my art history professor swears by) and you’ve made flash cards, but it’s still not sticking as well as you’d like. It’s time to take your memorization to the next level: the memory palace.
What it is
The memory palace is the grandfather of all memory technique. Its first recorded use was by Simonides, an ancient Greek poet who escaped from a collapsing banquet hall and was able to recall everyone who had been inside. He did this by visualizing the layout of the room and looking at everyone’s faces as he walked through in his mind. It has since been used by real (memory champion Dominic O’Brien) and fictional (BBC’s Sherlock, Hannibal Lecter) people alike.
The key to an effective memory palace is association. It is essential that you can associate the thing(s) you need to remember with your palace, your palace with its features, and the palace’s features with the details and progression of what you want to recall.
In reality, you are memorizing and recalling 2-5 times more information than if you were just remembering the original material. The function of this extra information is that it forms connections and context in order to help you recall the core material completel. Imagine a moment in your life that you’ll never forget: you don’t just remember the simple fact of what happened.
You remember the place, the smell, what you were wearing, what you did later that day–there are a hundred tiny triggers that take you back to that very vivid memory. The memory palace technique taps into the way we naturally remember things to make even your homework memorable.
Selecting your palace
The first step in actually memorizing something is picking a memory palace. Your memory palace can be a place you know well (your house, school, town) or a made-up place. It’s best if your palace has something to do with what you’re trying to remember. You might use the twelve rooms of your grandparents’ house to associate the twelve months of the year with your family members’ birthdays, or your chemistry lab to remember the electronegativity series.
Whatever place you choose, it is important that you can visualize it vividly and that there are multiple “rooms” with several features within each room to which you can attach the things you want to remember.
Decorating your palace
The second step is associating your material with the places in your palace. This involves breaking down your material into large chunks (to go with the rooms of your palace) and smaller chunks (to go with the features in the rooms).
For example, say you are trying to remember the conjugations of five irregular Spanish verbs. You might use the five classes you’re taking as your rooms. So you would create an association between “ver” (to see) and your painting class (because it’s very visual). Next, you pick six things in the painting studio and associate them with the six present-tense endings of the verb ver: the weird kid Leo who sits by the door (irregular conjugation veo), the Pez dispenser he painted a picture of last week (ves), the painting on the wall that says “BE YOURSELF” in bright letters (ve yourself), the gigantic jug of black paint on the table (vemos, because emos wear black), the notecard with the word “veis” taped to it on your desk (veis, because you couldn’t think of a memorable association), and your ten fingers covered in paint after class (ven). Then you would do the same thing with your other classrooms and irregular verbs.
Sometimes you need to memorize something that either doesn’t have a lot of items (like a phone number) or a list that is one level (like the presidents). In that case, you can have one item to a room or just use the rooms in your palace as the association instead of using the items within each room.
Walking around your palace
As you move about your palace, a few things are of key importance. First, always use the same image of whatever you are associating. In the example above, the guy named Leo should have the same haircut, t-shirt and backpack every time you picture him. Second, everything should be in the same location and order every time. Leo should always be sitting at his easel by the door, and you should always look at him first when walking through your mental palace. This keeps you from skipping over or mixing up the information you’re recalling and makes the association from room to feature to information easier.
The associations you create can be as absurd, personal or seemingly irrelevant as you’d like. So long as they are meaningful to you, you should be able to remember them.
The memory palace seems like a lot of work, but it’s actually more intuitive to use than many other study and memorization techniques. It taps into visual, auditory and kinesthetic ways of recalling information, increasing the likelihood that you will remember the information you need in both the short- and long-term.