The Memory Palace

the memory palace

UPDATE JANUARY 2014: There seems to be a great interest in Memory Palaces recently due to the phenomenal success of the BBC’s “Sherlock” series. This is the method that I learned and teach on my NLP Practitioner training courses. In just 15 minutes I can usually get trainees from remembering 5-6 things in order to remembering 20+.

I used to boast that I didn’t need a diary, that I remembered pretty much everything I needed to know, that I had a great memory and that I can remember a lot of information without the need of notes (other than phone numbers. Since getting a mobile phone, I have become incapable of remembering any numbers at all). This wasn’t “showing off” as such, just demonstrating the power of the techniques I had learned and developed to improve my own memory. As with most psychological feats, anyone can do it if they are so inclined and I hoped to “lead by example”.

However, recently I have found that my memory has been failing me. Rather embarrassingly I can’t even remember peoples names on training courses!

So I have been going back and reviewing and revising all the techniques I have learned and developed over the years to improve my memory.

One of my favourite (and one of the most powerful) techniques is the “Method of Loci” or “Memory Palace”.

The Memory Palace has been used since ancient Rome, and is responsible for some quite incredible memory feats. Eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien, for instance, was able to memorize 54 decks of cards in sequence (2808 cards), viewing each card only once!

As chance would have it, this technique was demonstrated in a recent episode of The Mentalist (Season 2, Episode 11: “Rose-Colored Glasses”), but I first came across the technique in Thomas Harris’s “Hannibal” back in 1999. In this, the third book in the Hannibal Lecter series (sadly cut from the – frankly awful – film adaptation), Doctor Lecter uses the technique to recall extensive details of his patients records (we learn in the previous books in the series that Lecter is a “mnemonist” – someone with the ability to remember unusually long lists of information) and is able to internally adjust his perception of time so that he may “quietly wander the halls of his own psyche”. But in Hannibal this principle is expanded to depict the entire scope of Lecter’s “memory palace”; a four-dimensional building containing all the works of art, texts and detailed memories (including gruesome details of his murders) which he wishes to preserve intact.

Since reading the book, the idea of a memory palace fascinated me and I tracked down details of how to develop one for myself, this was around the time I was just starting to get into NLP and associated fields.

How Do You Do It?

The great thing about the memory palace technique is that it is simple and quick to learn. I often teach it as part of my Master Practitioner training, and in about 15 minutes I can teach people to be able to recall a list of 20 or more random objects.

The memory palace technique is an association or “pegging” (more on that term in a moment) technique based around “spatial mnemonics” or placing items to be remembered in specific locations (in your thoughts).

Let me explain…

Before I begin, a note to NLPers – this is a technique based largely around visualisation (but, of course, utilises all the senses to some degree), if you don’t consider yourself a “visual” person or maintain you do not learn or remember things “visually”, you need to work or building up your visual sense. The Representational System you work with is the one most suitable for desired outcome, NOT the one you just happen to prefer (unless you really want to limit yourself?).

1. Choose Your Palace

You will need to pick a place that you’re very familiar with. The effectiveness of the technique relies on your ability to mentally visualise and “walk around” that place with ease. You should be able to ‘be there’ at will using your mind’s eye only. Most people (and I also recommend this) start by using their own home (you can choose a different place, expand this one location or design your own once you get the hang of this technique).

2. Choose a Route

Once you have picked a location that you can visually clearly (it doesn’t need to be as clear or clean as “real life”, but it needs to be detailed) you need to be able to define a route around your Memory Palace.

In that route “tag” specifically defined sections where you can place information (which is why your house is so good, it has rooms in it, which are perfect sections!)

For example, when I started this technique I chose the house I lived in at the time, so my sections were:

  1. Drive
  2. Back garden
  3. Patio
  4. Kitchen
  5. Lounge
  6. Hall/Stairs
  7. Landing
  8. Bedroom one
  9. Bathroom
  10. Bedroom two

(we lived in a small house, and used to use the back door to go into the house!)

Go through you chosen Memory Palace and walk around the route your have chosen, as you do break it down into manageable sections (10 is a good number to start with, but it can be more or less depending on what feels comfortable).

3. Associate!

Now it is time to add the information you want to remember.

The Memory Palace technique works with the use of visual associations. The process is simple: you take a known mental location, called the “memory peg” and combine it with the element you want to memorise. For us, each memory peg is a distinctive section of our Memory Palace. Once you have got the hang of it, you can add more “pegs” by breaking each section down into specific feature (for example you could break your lounge down into specific pieces of furniture: sofa, coffee table, television, etc), or adding more sections or locations.

I found to begin with adding 2 items to remember in each room was ideal. If you do this, decide how you are going to look around the room (to make sure that you do not transpose the information in that section), so always scan the section left to right for example.

To really imprint your items that you want to remember you need to make the image crazy, huge, ridiculous, silly, funny and totally over the top. Make it unique and exciting, if it is boring you are doing to “wrong” and it probably won’t work for you.

So, say you want to remember 20 things on your shopping list:

Transport yourself to your Memory Palace and walk around it a couple of times to familiarise yourself with it “empty” (this is particularly important if you use it regularly to make sure you have removed the other associations), then you want to start adding each item on your list to a section of the Palace (so, with 20 items, in this case, you need to add two items to each section).

So, say the first thing your list is bacon, you place that in the first section of your Memory Palace (which, in my place would be my drive), but don’t just plonk a packet of bacon there, make it crazy and memorable. So what could you do to make it memorable for you? Maybe a frying pan cooking bacon? Or a big cartoon pig? Whatever works for you.

Once you have the image firmly in place, move to the next item on the list and do the same.

Get the idea?

Go through the list as many times as it takes to get the images locked in place, so you can walk through your Memory Palace and recall each item easily with just one stroll (very quickly, with practice, it will only take one “walk through”).

And there we have it, 3 simple steps to create a memory palace that you can use to remember information.

You can use it to store short term information, such as a shopping list or the contents of training or talk your giving (this is what I mainly use it for), or you can use it to store longer term information (I use mine to store pin numbers and password).

4. Just a Few Final Hints

  • Visit your Memory Palace regularly to keep the image clear in your mind, mentally walk the route on a regular basis (especially if you are using it to store long-term information
  • Use it! Use it every day to recall simple pieces of information, the more you practice the better you will get and the faster you will get there.
  • If you intend to use a Memory Palace to store longer term information, it may be worth using a different palace for the this purpose or a section of your main palace that you only visit to for this information
  • Relax! Over thinking your memory palace will actually make it harder to store and recall information.

So there we have it, a simple, yet incredibly effective way of memorising a lot of information, maybe you are study for exams at the moment? If you are you can use this to memorise and recall all the information you need.

To learn this and much more, click here to book on my flagship NLP Practitioner training, where you will learn this along with much, much more.

Matt

About Matt Caulfield