We're bad at remembering
The brain isn't good at storing things but generating ideas. It also depends on what sort of things, but we tend to forget them anyway. If something is unique or interesting, it's simpler to remember, right?
Hermann Ebbinghaus ran memory experiments on himself. He tried to remember nonsense syllables like "ATF", "UBH". Then, tested how well he could retain the data he's learned. Thus, the forgetting curve appeared.
Some people recollect specific formats of information better. For example, as mentioned, unique or compelling. A well-rhymed poem or a song, which we can't get rid of sometimes. Maybe you also noticed it's simple to remember spatial information. You know where the nearest shop is and where to find the section with bread. Or, where the things are placed at home. You don't remember intentionally where your microwave is, do you? Yes, you see it many times and it stuck in your head well. But even the first time you brought it home - you didn't memorize the place.
You may try to list formats of information you memorize better. In this article, however, I'll talk about spatial representation and associations. These two are the building blocks of a memory palace.
It's a system to connect information, to memorize and retain it better. It's not exactly a particular place, because one may have multiple palaces. However, you may have an entry point to access the other places. Without a place, the method downgrades to devising associations. Which is not bad too.
Simply speaking, it's a private space in your head where you remember where did you "put" some information. If you have a big palace, you can stroll there looking for what you need or having nostalgia. The good thing is it's completely yours, no one can see it! Also, it's not required to be a palace or castle. It can be anything spatial. If you can conceive higher dimensions, you're welcome to create such a place too.
My story of usage
I knew about this technique since school while watching The Sherlock series. It showed how neat-looking those palaces are. In university, I ran against the need to pass the tests. I needed to remember completely impractical information, such as names, dates, and terminology. At the time, I didn't hesitate in my choice of the place to study. I didn't know what I want to do. So I was down to non-global choices: how to pass the exams.
The first approach is to cheat by using prepared answers on small papers. There were some exams where students couldn't use them due to high observability.
The second approach is rote learning. A few hundred questions and answers on average. Boring and not effective.
The third approach is learning to understand. It takes more time because I should have to study many related materials to fully understand a topic. And what's a sense of doing it if I don't need the information in my life? Impractical.
The fifth approach was to memorize the exam's answers but effectively. I love experiments, so I went with this one. I recalled the memory palace method, read more theory and started practicing. It took me a few days to memorize all the answers from one exam. I passed it and got a high grade. Not the highest because I did poor work during the semester, so how can I get it? Though, the exam answers were perfect. But not my knowledge(yet the tests' aim wasn't to estimate the knowledge).
I loved the experiment and decided to continue memorizing other than exams information. For example, historical dates, public transportation schedule, information about other people I met(hobbies, sayings, phone numbers), etc.
6 years later, I don't use this technique currently. As I know what I want to pursue, I'm more interested in learning rather than storing raw information. It doesn't mean the method is bad. One should use it either out of curiosity or for specific cases.
Is a memory palace for you?
This system has its limitations and use cases. It's good for memorizing data in a format, which fits you best, in a particular space. Thus, you can "retrieve" the information with ease, mimicking the usual walking in familiar places.
While the method is prominent to memorize almost anything, it doesn't help you understand the data. You won't learn by only memorizing. What you do is having raw information. When you retrieve it, you can then explore it better. So, one may store ideas to retrieve them later for further "investigation". However, you can use usual note-taking for it(as for other raw information too).
It also isn't gonna work for you if you don't want to spend time every day reviewing what you've put in the palace. The same rules of forgetting apply to memory palaces: you will be forgetting the associations you made. Though, some of them aren't so easy to forget due to their uniqueness or ridicule. What seems you remember forever, you're going to forget sooner or later.
Use cases? If you need to remember any information without its understanding, you can use the approach. When you can courageously use the memory palaces:
1. Preparing for exams. Teachers still require students to know useless information such as random facts, numbers for the tests. You can courageously use memory palaces.
2. Speech or presentation. While talking, walk through familiar places to retrieve necessary images to remember what are the next points you want to deliver to the audience. The method is especially good at storing data sequences.
3. Remembering phone numbers. And other raw information that's difficult to memorize usually: dates, time, codes.
And the cases when a memory palace isn't the best fit:
- You want to understand the information. I.e. learning.
- You don't have time to review the palace regularly. In the beginning, it'll be every day. We still are humans that forget any kind of information sooner or later.
- You have problems creating visual associations or navigating in space. At least, it's worth trying to see whether the method works for you. Note that most people don't have such problems, I'm talking more about such issues as aphantasia.
How to create a memory palace
One only needs to have a familiar place such as a home to store the associations. It can be even one room, or a road to a shop, work, etc. The most important point is a place should be familiar to you. Otherwise, it's easy to lose stored information due to lost/distorted space.
Let me show you a brief example, then we'll talk about creating palaces for more heavy use.
Close your eyes and visualize your way to the shop in the head. Now you have storage space. Let's "put" some information there. For example, we need to memorize a shopping list: bread, milk, batteries, cheese, coca-cola, sugar, 2 carrots, and jelly.
A regular way would be putting the items as they are in a sequence along your familiar way to a shop. Now you'll remember you have a shopping list, and maybe even the first few items. However, without linking such raw information, it's difficult.
A memory palace way is following. Put a bakery near the beginning of your path to the shop. As soon as you come out home, you see a bakery and a tall guy near it suggesting you free bread. The bread gets a yellow pack of milk out of its pocket and tells you to taste it(yes, it can be absurd, even better). You enjoy milk and feel how its taste becomes so bitter that you drop it. The package broke up into small batteries, which spark. You move away from the bakery and see an enormous piece of cheese. It seems like a building! There is an entrance door. When you open it, you see the small coca-cola-looking creatures that sell sugar on a sugar fair. 2 coca-cola-like creatures swim in 2 sugar pools, where they dissolve. The pools' sugar transforms into carrots! The carrots become bigger and bigger until the moment they're bigger than the cheese building. Bam! An explosion. All the things became a jelly mass.
Was it difficult to remember? I presume not. Why? It was absurd(see Why the peculiar stands out in memory), funny, and linked. The associations you've used mean real-world things you wanted to memorize. Plus, all of them were connected with a story. A sequence of visuals is simple to remember.
You could utilize usual real-world objects without any absurdity. The problem is you get the same representation for an object. If you want to use a "carrot" in multiple stories, you'll get into a situation of mixing things up. Also, it's not memorable. You may see carrots every day, but not a talking bread with big pockets.
Make ludicrous, absurd associations with the objects you want to remember.
The second issue you may encounter is it's simple to have these absurd associations separately, but you forget them in a story. Because of a poor connection. We got a swimming coca-cola, but what's next? You should devise a story about where it swims, what happens next, how do you see that. It's even more important to have a good linkage between images than an absurd association for an image.
Summary of what do you need to create the first palace:
- A place to store objects. A road, street, room, other familiar places.
- An association with real-world information you want to remember. It may be absurd, but the connection is more important.
- A connection between associations. These should be unique and funny, to better memorize a story.
I'll refer to associations with the connections as a story.
Palace of stories
The palace in "memory palace" stands for many places. A place where you have access to other places and information. So you can have many locations where to put the stories. You may think you need a big location, like a real palace or castle. Thinking about your house, rooms there and all the roads you know, it may seem that it's not a lot of stories you can place there.
What you should have is an entrance location where you store all kinds of data: stories or other locations. Otherwise, it's easy to forget where did you store something. Try to walk through the same path. Entrance point(e.g. your entrance door in a house), then take any direction you want. Later, when you get used to your location, you may walk backward, jump to other places and so.
What to do with large amounts of data? Some of it can't be placed inside one familiar space. I used 2 approaches. You may experiment with others and see what works best for you.
Choose bigger locations. Thus, you can hold more stories inside one. But still, follow the rule of knowing the location well.
Resize objects. If you have to put a house inside a familiar room, you gonna resize either the house or the room. Resizing helps to have fewer locations. However, a new issue appears. It's harder to have more than <X> objects inside a particular area. Especially, if there are no unique dividers. For example, you decided to store a book summary inside one room on your mouse pad. The mouse pad area is a square where the objects won't have recognizable transitions. So you need to put more effort into making better associations and their interconnection.
However, aren't all the places part of something bigger? A room is in a house, a house is on a street, a street is in a city, and so on. It's simpler to remember a few objects inside one location. But if you scale a place down to details, you may put more! The difference is in the place details. Do you remember a book shelf's color, size? Your desktop accessories placement? If you don't, it's better to not scale things much.
A good memory palace properties
You can think up a lot of places to accumulate the stories. However, there are preferences I'd suggest taking a look at.
- Good lighting. A place shouldn't be dark because it eliminates its unique properties. All you see is some more some less dark things. It's almost the same as using a one-color empty room. Only the strong connections between objects allow you to remember a story. The method though suggests using places as an additional feature to enhance remembering.
- Familiarity. If you don't remember a space you put things, they can be lost or become distorted.
- No many repeatable objects because you may mix the stories up. Come up with more or less unique features for every object you want to memorize.
- It should be big enough to contain spare stories. In case, you need to alter a story and add or remove objects there.
- It should be categorized. E.g. a separate house for work-related information, a few houses for my personal thoughts, a street with all its shops for book summaries, etc. It's easy to store everything on the go, but it becomes harder to look for things because they can be everywhere.
Regarding the last point, you may have a place where you put everything you should remember and categorize it later. It's useful when you don't have time or are in doubt where exactly to "put" the objects. Yet don't forget to clean up the place for temporary stories.
You may be noticed that some data is difficult to memorize. A firm example is numbers. How can you associate numbers? If you're a football fan, recall the players' numbers on t-shirts. But even then, it becomes hard when players start to repeat.
Putting a word into a palace is simple because it's easy to visualize it. Yet it's more arduous to visualize a definition, concept. Then, one may need a few images. Words are abstracts that represent something you may interact with. Numbers constitute a different concept, they're more abstract.
A possible solution is to give every number from 0 to 100 its image association. Thus a phone number becomes a sequence of 5 images that's easier to memorize. A strategy to pick an association for one number may vary. It's a topic for another article. You can read about the approaches in the Further reading section.
When you have many things to store in a palace but struggle to find new places, this may help you. While using ready-made spaces is easier, one may also create his/her own versions or completely new spaces.
There is software that allows people to design a room, a house, or even bigger places. This also allows you to have instant access to a place in case you forget some detail.
There is Minecraft also. It's simple to create places there. I was experimenting with it myself. A good thing is I don't need to spend a lot of time designing a place because all I have are cubic-like structures. It seems it doesn't provide a possibility to create details, but it's not true. There are peculiar blocks I can put to make a place unique and memorable.
An advantage I may extract from such techniques is the possibility to customize places for my needs. E.g. I can design a large house specifically for book notes. There will be bookshelves, unique doors, and paths.
If you don't want to spend time creating places from scratch, you may try to search for Minecraft maps. There are whole cities there! And castles, large houses, etc. There is even the Hogwartz map from Harry Potter.
The other alternative is to look for other virtual places. For example, in games, movies. Notice though, the fewer details, the more unique spaces you need.
Memory palaces are suitable for you if you need to store raw data. They don't help you learn but memorize much information. The idea is to have a space where you can store the data in a form of visualizations. Along with spatial representation, visualizations are easy for the brain to memorize fast and remember. A good memory palace has 2 key features: organized space to "put" things and unique connections between the things. The space helps you to find the first element in the story. Unique connections help you to recall the other elements.
Keep in mind you need to review your palace periodically: walking there and see what you've put. Without it, the images are going to disappear or alter, so the original information becomes distorted.
Now, you understand the key principles of the technique. Experiment and see what works for you and what doesn't.
If you have questions or feedback(I would like to extend the guide to make it more ultimate-like), drop me a message on Twitter.
You also may be interested in reading the following:
- Mnemonic Association System for Numbers.
- Augmenting Long-term Memory by Michael Nielsen.
- Moonwalking with Einstein. The book I highly recommend reading if you want to explore other mnemonics techniques(and memory palaces too).
- What active learning is.