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How Effective Are Memory Palaces

If you are interested in the technique of memory palaces, you are probably asking yourself, “How effective are they?” What is your goal, anyway? For example, your goal might be to learn how to remember dates or numbers. Your goal might also be to improve your general memory or increase your ability to retain information over a period of time. Do you want to remember things for years, or do you want to reduce the need for repetition so you can repeat less and recall more instead? How much information do you want to be able to remember? What topics do you want to work on, or what information do you always want to keep fresh in your mind? If you have not answered these questions yet, and are tired of rote memorization, this article will help you find a solution using an ancient memorization technique.

What is a Memory Palace

The idea of a “memory palace” or “mind palace” – whose official name is “The Method of Ioci” – is thousands of years old and has been used as a mnemonic technique to remember everything from the order of a card game to the name of every student in the class to long lists of food, phone numbers or addresses.

The loci technique was attributed to the Greek lyricist Simonides of Keos by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero around 500 B.C. and then used in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century. The most recent famous example comes from the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. He won the U.S. memory championship with it in 2006.

When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’ it’s often because there’s nothing for it to stick to.

Joshua Foer

How a Memory Palace Works

In a nutshell, the mind palace technique works by combining spatial memory (remembering the layout of a place) with visualization of familiar objects. For example, if you want to remember a grocery list, you might start by visualizing yourself walking through your house.

At each place, or ‘locus’ (which is why it’s called the Ioci technique) imagine an object that corresponds to an item on your list. For example, if you need milk, imagine it coming out of an electrical outlet. This sounds silly, but it really works.

The most important thing is to use your imagination as often as possible. For example, if you need bread and you are in your bathroom, do not just imagine bread, imagine sliding off a giant loaf into a tub of jam! This process of transforming things into colorful and vivid associations for memorization is called elaborative coding.

It is helpful to create a series of places in your memory palace, each equating to a specific location, and not have too many items in each room. It is also good to have items that move around in one way or another. Remember that you can (and possibly should) have multiple memory palaces.

Why Does a Memory Palace Work?

The power of memory palaces as a mnemonic device, as I learned, is that they allow us to use our spatial imagination to organize, structure, and recall information.

For example, you might have a room in your house that you know well. You could then place objects in that room (perhaps on the mantel or a chair) and use those locations as memory anchors, as a mental image. Since you already know the layout of your house so well, it’s easy for you to remember where items are located. So when you need to remember something, you can imagine walking through your house and seeing the item exactly in its place.

Another way to think about it is that we use our existing knowledge (i.e. the layout of our house) and create new memories by linking them to the places where they exist.

Applications of Memory Palaces

As I mentioned earlier, memory palaces have been around since ancient times and are widely used in many cultures. Mnemonics, or people who study the art of remembering, have used this technique to enhance their memory skill and to memorize entire books and long lists of items.

Mnemonics work so well because it’s easy for our brains to convert information into mental images and then put those images in order in a familiar place.

If you were trying to memorize the names of all the U.S. presidents, that would be quite a challenge. But if you imagine a bizarre image of George Washington and associate him with John Adams dressed as a cowboy and riding a horse, that’s much easier to remember. And then you might associate Abraham Lincoln holding an ax and chopping down cherry trees with Teddy Roosevelt. And so on.

By combining these three things: mental images, familiar places, and linking one thing to another through strange associations, you can create long chains of information that are easy to remember later.

5 Advantages of a Memory Palace

  1. It uses our brain’s spatial memory system, which is one of the most reliable systems in our head.
  2. Our spatial memory is so good that it can remember things in a very specific order.
  3. Our spatial memory system can remember many details at once, so we can use it to remember a lot of information at once.
  4. Once you build a memory palace, you can use it for years.
  5. If you are really good at this technique, you can even remember random numbers and cards from shuffled decks, and play memory tricks!

5 Disadvantages of the Memory Palace Method

Although the memory palace is a very effective method, it also has its weaknesses. Here are five disadvantages of the memory palace.

  1. You have to build it first. Building a memory palace can be very time-consuming. It’s not for the faint of heart! If you are in a hurry to memorize something, this method may not be right for you.
  2. Not everyone has a good enough visual imagination to create a vivid palace. If that’s the case with you, then you may have trouble with this method. Then why not try audio instead?
  3. It takes practice and dedication to learn how to use a memory palace effectively. This can discourage people from using this method if they want to get overnight results.
  4. You need to be able to memorize your way through your palace to recall things in order. For some people, this means they will only use their memory palaces occasionally and not every day.
  5. If you want to remember something that does not fit neatly into your palaces, such as an abstract concept or mathematical formula, you will have more difficulty than if you want to remember something concrete like a list of names or words (which is what the memory palace was originally designed for).

How to Measure the Effectiveness of a Memory Palace

The best way to determine if a memory palace works is to try it out. Fill a palace with images without using any other technique and see how much you can remember.

If you want to measure whether a Memory Palace is more effective than another memory technique, all you have to do is count the number of things you can remember in a given time.

This is exactly what we do when we study for an exam. Memorizing a series of facts is called semantic memory – as opposed to episodic memory, where we remember specific events.

It’s so easy to track your progress when you use this system because it’s easy to create new palaces. You’ll notice that the palaces get more elaborate and detailed from palace to palace. This is largely because your mind gets used to seeing these new places and filling them with objects.

The more palaces you create, the better your brain will be able to make associations between new images and familiar places. Also, since each palace is unique, it will become easier to make associations between new images each time, since you will not rely so much on images you have already created.

How to Know if Your Memory Palace Is Not Working

If you are having trouble remembering the items you have placed in your memory palace, it might be helpful to take another look at the design of your memory palace.

Perhaps the places you have chosen are too sparse or too crowded.

If you have designed your memory palace well, this should not be a problem. Each place in your memory palace should be different from its neighbors, and each item should be connected to the place by a strong visual association. If you can remember one item but not the next, it could mean that the two items are visually similar or that their associations are similar.

For example, let us say I wanted to remember a grocery list with five items: Milk, Bread, Eggs, Butter, and Cereal. Let us further suppose that my memory palace was in my house, and I had chosen five places (in this order): the front door, the kitchen table, the bathroom sink, and my bedroom closet.

The first item on my list is milk. If I imagined milk spilling out my front door onto my shoes while I was trying to leave my house, that would be a sufficient association for me to remember later. However, if I also imagine butter spilling out of my closet when I try to open it later (because we keep butter there), that would be too much information.

What You Can Do to Improve Your Memory Palace Technique

Once you have learned the basic technique, there are a number of ways you can improve it and use it even more effectively. Here are some ideas:

  • Practice the technique regularly – try to use your memory palace at least once a day, if not more often. Practice with things that are not as important, and slowly work your way up to the more important things. If you do not use the technique all the time, review it briefly before using it for something important.
  • Use more than one palace – create multiple palaces and store different information in each palace. You may prefer different palaces for different types of information, or you may want to keep related information together (for example, if you have a long list of items and want to keep track of their order).
  • Add landmarks – use visual landmarks (signposts) at each location along your route to break the journey into smaller sections – this helps keep track of the order of things on long lists. You can use signs for numbers or letters when you use them as signposts.
  • You can also invent any other kind of signpost that makes sense to you (a certain shape or color, some kind of object, etc.).
  • Store disconnected information in the same palace – You can store information that does not help you remember what you want in your palaces, but might still be useful. For example, you could store phone numbers and addresses in your palace that you use frequently, or addresses of friends or family members who live in a different location.

Other Memory Techniques to Consider If Your Memory Palace If Not Effective

What if your memory palace does not work for you? There are other techniques that can help you improve your memory. Below I will list some of these techniques and their main benefits:

  • Link Method – The easiest method to memorize lists of items. This simple technique works by imagining vivid and humorous images between items on a list. Each link promotes remembering what comes next. It is good for remembering lists in order.
  • Peg System – A method for remembering long lists. It is based on the link method but adds a new level of creativity and ease of use by using rhymes (e.g., “one is a roll”) or phonetic pegs (based on consonants). The method is used to remember items both in order and out of order.
  • Story Method – A method of remembering large amounts of information by turning it into a story. The flow of the story helps the memory remember the information and the way one thing relates to another.
  • Mind Mapping – A brilliant way to visualize connections between different pieces of information using diagrams or maps. It works because both imagination and association are involved in the process of creating the mind maps. I use this technique every day.
  • Major System – An alternative method of remembering numbers by turning them into words or pictures. It can be combined with other memory systems.
  • Mnemonics – Using rhymes, abbreviations, and other associations to improve memory.

Do Memory Palaces Work for Long Term Memory

The short answer is yes, memory palaces are good for long-term memory. In fact, they are the best way to remember something long-term because they make associations between the new information and the old information you already know.

So it’s not so much about learning how to remember something, but rather how to connect two pieces of information in your memory.

The best way to do this is through visualization and repetition.

How Sherlock Holmes Used a Memory Palace

The BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a huge success. One of the reasons for its success is that the series invigorates the detective genre by adding new facets to the familiar characters. The most famous of these is Holmes’ memory palace technique, which he uses to remember details of crimes and witnesses.

In the series, Sherlock can recall any detail he needs from a case in his head by navigating through his memory palace. He remembers not only what happened here or there, but also specific items on certain shelves and from certain angles.

I think that a person’s brain is originally like a small empty attic that you have to fill with the furniture you choose.

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet

What Kind of Students Can Most Benefit From Using a Memory Palace

You don’t have to be a memory champion to use the Memory Palace method. Most students can benefit from using a memory palace, but there are some groups that benefit more than others.

Medical Students

Medical students are some of the most pressured learners of all. They have to acquire an enormous amount of information, and they need to be able to remember it all when they need it. A memory palace can help a medical student remember various diseases, symptoms, treatments, and more.

Law Students

Law students also have a lot to remember. A big part of their learning is remembering laws and cases from history. The Memory Palace can help them organize all this information so that it makes sense and they can recall it when needed.

History Students

History is another subject where remembering a variety of dates, names, and places are essential. It is hard to keep track of all the information that history classes bring, but the Memory Palace can make it much easier for students to remember what is important and what is not.

The Science Behind Memory Palaces

If you want to read a recent scientific study on the technique of memory palaces, you should consult the work of Isabella Wagner, a cognitive neuroscientist at the College of Vienna, on lasting memories and effective memory training, in which she studied memory athletes and showed that memory training promotes lasting, longer-lasting memories.

There is evidence that consistent use of the Memory Palace method can even change the structure of the brain, making it easier to remember things in the future.

Memory Championships and the Memory Palace Method

There are a number of memory championships around the world where participants – each of whom is called a memory athlete – use the Memory Palace Method to remember as many specific details as possible in a given amount of time.

For example:

  • The World Memory Championships
  • USA Memory Championship
  • The Memory Olympics
  • The Memory World Cup
  • Tokyo Memory Championships