The Memory Palace Technique Redefined
The memory palace technique involves calling to mind a familiar place—like thelayout of your house —and using it as a sort of visual notepad where you can deposit concept-images that you want to remember. All you have to do is call to mind a place you are familiar with: your home, your route to school, or your favorite restaurant. And voilà! In the blink of an imaginative eye, this becomes the memory palace you’ll use as your notepad.
The memory palace technique is useful for remembering unrelated items, such as a grocery list (milk, bread, eggs). To use the technique, you might imagine a gigantic bottle of milk just inside your front door, the bread plopped on the couch, and a cracked egg dribbling off the edge of the coffee table. In other words, you’d imagine yourself walking through a place you know well, coupled with shockingly memorable images of what you might want to remember.
Let’s say you are trying to remember the mineral hardness scale, which ranges from 1 to 10 (talc
1, gypsum 2, calcite 3, fluorite 4, apatite 5, orthoclase 6, quartz 7, topaz 8, corundum 9, diamond 10).
You can come up with a memory sentence mnemonic: Terrible Giants Can Find Alligators or Quaint Trolls Conveniently Digestible. The problem is that it can still be difficult to remember the sentence. But things become easier if you then add the memory palace. At your front door, there is a terrible giant there, holding a can. Once inside, you find an alligator. . . . You get the idea. If you are studying finance, economics, chemistry, or what-have-you, you’d use the same approach.
Walk through your memory palace and deposit your memorable images. It’s a helpful way to remember lists such as the five elements of a story or the seven steps of the scientific method.
The first time you do this, it will be slow. It takes a bit to conjure up a solid mental image. But the more you do it, the quicker it becomes. One study showed that a person using the memory palace technique could remember more than 95 percent of a forty-to-fifty-item list after only one or two practice mental “walks” where the items were placed on the grounds of the local university. In using the mind this way, memorization can become an outstanding exercise in creativity that simultaneously builds neural hooks for even more creativity. What’s not to like? (Well, maybe there’s one thing not to like: Because this method hooks into your visuospatial system, you do not want to use the memory palace technique when you are doing other spatial tasks, such as driving. The distraction could prove dangerous.)
Songs that help cement ideas in your mind are related to the memory palace technique in that they also make preferential use of the brain’s right hemisphere. There are tunes to help you remember the quadratic formula, volume formulas for geometric figures, and many other types of equations. Just Google “quadratic formula” and “song” for examples, or make up your own. Many nursery rhymes use actions along with song to help embed the lyrics (think of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”). Using meaningful motions, from a prance to a jiggle to an itty bitty hop, can offer even more neural hooks to hold ideas in memory because movement produces sensations that become part of the memory.
These kinds of techniques can be helpful for many things beyond equations, concepts, and grocery lists. Even speeches and presentations—those occasionally petrifying do-or-die experiences—can become much easier when you realize that potentially memorable images can help the key concepts you want to speak about stay in mind. All you need to do is tie the essential ideas you want to talk about to memorable images. See Joshua Foer’s masterful TED talk for a demonstration of the memory palace technique for remembering speeches. If you’d like to see how to apply these ideas directly to memorizing formulas, try out the SkillsToolbox .com website for a list of easy-to-remember visuals for mathematical symbols.7 (For example, the divide symbol “/” is a children’s slide.)
Memory aids—whether memorable images, sticky songs, or easily imagined “palaces”—are useful because they help you focus and pay attention when your mind would rather skitter off and do something else. They help remind you that meaning is important for remembering, even if the initial meaning is wacky. In short, memorization techniques remind you to make what you learn in your life meaningful, memorable, and fun.