GUEST POST: The Memory Palace: How to Remember Just About ANYTHING
By: Brandon Leuangpaseuth
In recent years, I have built a special affinity for understanding memory.
In 2015, I was hit by a car and I received a severe traumatic brain injury. This left me with the inability to recall what I had done the day before and inhibited my capacity to remember things.
My abysmal ability to recall things sparked my fascination with memory.
What was it that allowed me to recollect some events in my life and completely forget others? How does the brain remember memories? Why do we forget some things that we learn?
I began to voraciously read all sorts of books, articles and watch many videos on memory. I read books such as Made To Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, and Moon Walking With Einstein by Joshua Foer to help me understand memory better. I was captivated by people who could remember decks of cards or lists filled with thousands of words and be able to recite them from memory in their specific order.
I was still in school during the time of the accident, and after learning various memory techniques, I was able to graduate from college.
There was one technique I learned that I found myself using quite often with great success: The Memory Palace
The Memory Palace Technique
The memory palace technique is used pretty commonly by memory athletes, people who compete in memory competitions. The memory palace technique is simply a metaphor for any well-known place you are able to visualize clearly in your head.
A memory palace could include your home, your route to school or work every day, or certain familiar streets or places. This well-known place will be used to help you store and recall just about any kind of information.
Let’s do an example. I will show you firsthand and then explain to you why it works.
We are going to take this hypothetical shopping list and commit it to your memory.
● 3 Bottles of Red Wine
● Honey Mustard
● Mesquite Barbecue sauce
● Rent the Amazing Spiderman Movie
● LeBron James Jersey
● A Dozen of Eggs
● Rib-eye Steak
● Hot sauce
● Tub of Cookies and Cream Ice-cream
At first glance, this may seem like a daunting task but don’t worry, I will walk you through it.
I want you to imagine the front of your home now. If you have a driveway, I want you to see it clearly in your head. Perhaps you have a green lawn or some fences or maybe there is the front of the garage. Got it?
Now I want you to close your eyes and picture 3 bottles of red wine in the front of the driveway. I want you to imagine them as clearly as possible. Think about the taste of red wine and the scent as you visualize the three bottles in the front of the driveway.
Now, I want you to envision walking up to your front door and seeing a bottle of honey mustard. Conjure up the sweet taste on your tongue as well as the smell of the bottle. As you open the front door, I want you to take a look around and capture what the first room in your house looks like. Try to see everything as concretely as possible.
Maybe we are in your living room or dining room now. Look to your left, and conceptualize what is there. A table? Plants? Curtains? Frames with photos in them? A piano?
Now, let's insert the next item into your memory. Some sweet mesquite barbecue sauce. Place the bottle on perhaps on the table in the room, next to some picture frames, or by the couch. Think about those tangy flavors exploding through your mouth. See the dark brownish colors of the bottle as vividly and distinctly as you can. Do you smell that? That smoky aroma of the BBQ sauce? Take a mental whiff.
Now, we are going to stroll to the next room on the right. What room is that? Take a look around, imagine and take note of everything in the room. Maybe we are in the kitchen or the family room.
Whatever room it is, visualize the Amazing Spiderman swinging into the top of the table in the middle of the room wearing a LeBron James jersey, and juggling some eggs. Paint it richly in your head the blue and red colors of his outfit as well as the colors and stitching of the LeBron James jersey. Now hear his voice as he says “It's your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man!”.
Now, walk into the next room. Repeat the steps, insert the next item on the list, and of course, remember the exact pathway you took. Do this for the rest of the items on the list. It is crucial to remember the nitty-gritty details of items in each of the surroundings.
Why This Technique Works
Let’s say you are at a get-together or party at your friend's house and you left your coat on one of your friend’s furniture chairs. After, you put your car keys on their table with all the picture frames. You know that whenever the party or get-together ends, that chair furniture and the picture frames held those specific items. Whether you put your items by the coat rack, the lamps or any other furniture, you could, in theory, go back to those locations and pick up each item.
You could go back right away and grab the items because you encoded that item to those surroundings. The mind palace works the same way. You memorize locations in a room, and you later go back to those locations to retrieve the information you want to remember.
The best part of the memory palace technique is that you hardly have to memorize locations if you use familiar territory like your own house.
There are a few things I want you to note.
As you went through the exercise, I asked you to use your other senses like the smell or the taste of the items. Stimulating more of your senses have been shown to improve your memory recall. (1)
How do you remember tasks like renting a movie? You make it concrete. I asked you to visualize Spider-man swinging into the room. Visualizing Spiderman will spark your memory to do that task.
The human mind also has a great capability to remember bizarre events. (2) pg.86. Think about it for a second. We forget mundane or banal things like what we had for lunch last week. However, if the lunch was different, unique, bizarre or exceptional, chances are you would remember it. The image of Spider-Man swinging into the room wearing a LeBron James jersey while juggling eggs was hopefully bizarre enough to encode into your memory.
Lastly, what distinguished the best or great mnemonist, or individuals with the ability to remember and recall unusually long lists of data, such as unfamiliar names, lists of numbers, entries, etc., is how creative they can get with the images in their head as they encode them to their memories.
Get creative with the imagery, and try to visualize them in concrete detail, smell and touch!
What Does it Take to Have Great Memory?
In the book, Moon Walking with Einstein, it cites many studies done on memory or mental athletes. Many doctors and scientist have studied the brains of mental or memory athletes and what they discovered was quite astonishing…
Their brains did not deviate at all from the average controls brains of their experiment. Their brains were in no way structurally different or an anomaly… Actually, when the mental athletes were tested in general cognitive ability, the results showed that the mental athletes came back in the normal range (2) pg. 39.
The doctors did notice, however, that these mental athletes used a certain part of their brain more often. After researchers put these mental athletes into functional MRIs, they became aware of the mental athletes engaging in several regions of the brain in regards to two specific assignments: spatial navigation and visual memory.
The memory palace technique forces you to use those two regions of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible (3) for spatial memory and is also known to play a vital role in the memory system for specific events. The images you encode into your head will be able to recall faster.
In short, there is no difference between mental athletes and the average person. The brain is a muscle. If you continue to work it out, you can develop a keen memory.
Time to Get to Remembering!
The principles of the memory palace tactic employ one’s beautiful spatial memory to recall items that are not naturally ordered. When you walk the path from your driveway, through your house, you will be able to store information whose order comes less naturally. Just like how it is near impossible to forget the order of rooms in a house you intimately know, it will be near impossible to forget the order of the items.
One needs to understand that we remember different types of information differently. Humans have this profound ability to commit to our memories, visualizations and spatial memory. Use this technique to remember shopping lists, numbers, or just about any information!
(1) Quak, M., London, R. E., & Talsma, D. (2015, April 21). A multisensory perspective of working memory. Retrieved April 3, 2019, from US National Library of Medicine website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4404829/
(2) Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein. Penguin Books.
(3) Shrager, Y., Bayley, P. J., Bontempi, B., Hopkins, R. O., & Squire, L. R. (2007, February 12). Spatial memory and the human hippocampus. Retrieved April 3, 2019, from US National Library of Medicine website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1815289/