Learn to Remember Everything: The Memory Palace Technique

Mind Palace: Remember everything you want
Picture courtesy of Shanidar
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In this post I'll teach you how to have perfect recall of lists of items. Length is not much of an issue, it can be your shopping list if 10 items or it can be a list with 50, 100 or even 1000. And in a forthcoming post I'll show you how you how to apply this technique to learning new languages. Sounds good, doesn't it?

The technique we'll be learning is called the memory palace, and is also known as the method of loci (for the latin word locus meaning place) and also the mind palace. A very useful tool in everyone's toolbox!

The memory palace

The memory palace technique began in the 5th century B.C., when Simonides of Ceos, poet, was attending an unfortunate banquet in Thessalia. While he was away to talk with a courier who asked for him outside, the hall's ceiling crumbled, killing everyone. There was no way to recognise the corpses... Until Simonides realised that it was no problem to recall who was where, without having done any effort.

Think about it: It is not hard to remember who sits beside the host, where your friends sit, who is beside them and so on. This dawned upon Simonides, and he is credited as the "inventor" of the memory palace technique. Widely spread through antiquity, there was not a lot of written accounts on it: it appears in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herrenium and Cicero's De Oratore. It is not that strange that there were no written accounts, it is like writing a book about how to put your trousers on. Everybody knows how to do it.

The memory palace is well suited to how our brains have evolved. Back in our nomadic days we needed to know how to get somewhere (the lake, the plain) and remember what was there (fresh water, hunting). By taking advantage of this fact we can build an array of impressive memorisation techniques, to ordered or unordered lists.

Remembering lists may sound lame, who wants to memorise a list...? But lists are just an ordered array of knowledge! What you study for a history exam is a list of ordered dates accompanied by facts and causes (sub-lists). When you learn a new recipe, it is a list. A telephone number is a list of numbers. A poem is a list of phrases.

Your first memory palace: building and filling

Let's start by creating our first memory palace. It does not need to be a palace, in fact, it should not. Just think of your home, and as a sample I'll assume is really small: from the door you get to a small hall, connected to a living room which leads to a kitchen, a WC and a bedroom with a balcony. This is a sample, to memorise correctly you have to visualise your home or any other place you may know very well. You can of course use this mental image of an imaginary house, but memorising may be harder, be warned.

Now consider the following shopping list: lettuce, bacon, onion rings, SD card and oranges. We want to memorise it. I picked a short list to make the post shorter and make it fit in our small imaginary home: try your hand with a longer list if you don't believe we can do it with longer lists.

To remember the list, we have to place each item somewhere in our mind palace. This of course can mean one item per room or several items per room, each one in a special spot in the room. The simplest method is to put each item in its own room, when you are confident enough, create additional trapping space in each room. Thus, our small 5-room house could be easily a 5, 10 or 15 places memory palace.

To place an item, we have to visualise it in the room, and to make sure we remember it it has to be an extremely odd image. It has to leave a clear impression and to do so, it has to be surprising, bizarre or sexual, among other options. If the image is dull, remembering it is close to impossible.

Begin with the list. When we enter the front door, we are greeted by Kermit the frog, only that this special Kermit is made of lettuce, like a talking lettuce. Can you see it? Feel the freshness of Lettucit's leaves? In the living room a stampede of pigs followed by Kevin Bacon with a fork should be bizarre and clear enough! In the kitchen, Scarlett Johansson plays hoola-hop with an onion ring. You enter the bedroom, and to your surprise, the bed is a gigantic SD card: you can hide the bed by pressing it in to be read. Finally, you open the balcony to find that the sun is now a big, luminous orange. It starts to drip juice over the desert in front of your window!

You should put all these images in a place you know like the palm of your hand: your home, the house you grew up, your office. This is very important.

You may not believe it works at all, but you will be surprised. I wrote the first part of this post in the afternoon, and now more than 3 hours later I still can see clearly all the images. Of course this is a short list... But it would not matter: you could remember a list 5 times as long as easily as with this one.

Finding an array of memory palaces

To remember a lot of things you need to have a lot of places to put all these memories. You will need to find your own array of memory places. The first time I considered this problem, I thought about creating imaginary palaces, linked somehow by corridors. The problem? Artificial palaces get blurry very quickly, and you tend to forget them. It is far, far better to use real places, or at least places you can revisit in real life, like pictures from a book, levels in a computer game or buildings you can visit.

Then I started to think about houses and places I could use... And I found that there are plenty. I still remember school mates houses from 16 years ago, hotels I've been, buildings I have visited. I am sure you will find a huge array of places you can use. To begin with the technique, use very known places, like your house or office and as you get more confident with the technique, start using older places.

You can read more about this in Building Your Memory Palace Collection.

Final words

You have to get the knack of the method. Get some degree of experience in converting everyday objects (like lettuce) into long-lasting impressions (like Kermit the lettuce-head). This only comes with practice, like walking around your images of memory palaces. Practice, practice, practice!

By the way, can you recall the shopping list above?

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In case you want to read more:
I have written a another related post called Remembering Facts: Using Mental Associative Chains, and also expanded the method to find memory palaces in Building Your Memory Palace Collection. You can also read a translation of this post in Spanish here: Aprende a recordarlo todo: el m├ętodo del palacio de la memoria.

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Written by Ruben Berenguel