Monday, September 17, 2012

Building a Memory Palace

At the World Memory Championships, top competitors memorize the order of 20 shuffled decks of cards in an hour and more than 500 random digits in 15 minutes, among other events.

Think you have what it takes? Believe it or not, almost everybody has the capability to perform such amazing feats. Competitive memorizers don’t necessarily have “better memories" than the rest of us; instead, they learn and perfect a variety of mnemonics (memory aids) to improve their ability to quickly learn and recall just about anything. One of the most useful and widely used mnemonics is the memory palace, a place or series of places in your mind where you can store information that you need to remember. With time and practice, anyone can build a memory palace, and they are useful for far more than just memory competitions and trivia.
Here’s how to build your own:

1. Decide on a blueprint for your palace. While a memory palace can be a purely imagined place, it is easier to base it upon a place that exists in the real world and that you are familiar with. A basic palace could be your bedroom, for example. Larger memory palaces can be based on your house, a cathedral, a walk to the corner store, or your whole town. The larger or more detailed the real place, the more information you can store in the corresponding mental space.

2. Define a route. If you will need to remember things in a certain order, it is essential that you follow a specific route through your palace, both in the real world and in your mind. Thus, once you’ve decided what your memory palace is, decide how you will travel through it. If you don’t really need to remember things in order, this step is unnecessary, but still useful, as it makes memorizing your palace easier.

3. Identify specific storage locations in your palace or along your route. When you use your memory palace you will put individual things to be remembered (a number, a name, or a part of a speech that you will be giving, for example), in specific locations. Thus, you need to identify as many locations as you think you will need. Walk through your structure or along your route and really observe it. If your palace is actually a route, such as your drive to work, the storage locations can be landmarks along the way: your neighbor’s house, a crossroads, a statue, or a skyscraper, for example. If the palace is a structure, you can put things in the different rooms. Within rooms, you can identify smaller locations, such as paintings, pieces of furniture, and so on. The key is to make sure the locations you choose are distinct from each other so that no location can be mistaken for another.

4. Memorize your memory palace. For your memory palace to be effective, you need to commit it to memory perfectly. The best way to do this is to actually draw out a blueprint (or a map, if the palace is a route) which shows the landmarks or storage locations you have chosen. Try visualizing the palace when you are not there, and then check your mental image against the map to make sure you have remembered every location and put them in the correct order. Picture the landmarks in as much detail as possible: make sure your mental image includes their colors, sizes, smells, and any other defining characteristics.

5. Place things to be remembered in your palace. Once you have constructed your palace and have it firmly implanted in your mind, you are ready to use it. Put a manageable amount of information in each place. For example, if your palace is your house, and you are trying to remember a speech, you might place the first few sentences on your doormat and the next few in the keyhole of your door. Don’t put too much information in any one place, and if certain things must be kept separate from others, put them in different places. Make sure that you place things along your route in the order in which you need to remember them, if applicable.

6. Use symbols. You don’t necessarily need to put a whole string of words or numbers in a given location in order to be able to remember it, and trying to do so can be unwieldy and counterproductive. Generally, all you need to store in each location is something that will jog your memory, something that will lead you to the actual idea you’re trying to remember. Thus, if you are trying to remember a ship, picture an anchor on your couch. If the ship is the U.S.S. Wisconsin, picture the anchor made out of cheese. Symbols are shorthand and make memories more manageable, but they also can be more effective than picturing the actual thing you are trying to remember.

7. Be creative. The images you put in your palace should, obviously, be as memorable as possible. Generally, images will be more memorable if they are absurd (out of the ordinary)[see warnings] , or if they are attached to some strong emotion or personal experience. The number 124 is not particularly memorable, but an image of a spear shaped like the number 1, going through a swan (which looks like the number 2), and splitting the swan into 4 pieces is. Yes, it’s disturbing, but that’s part of what makes it stick in your mind.

8. Stock your palace with other mnemonics. There are many simpler mnemonics that you can use in combination with the memory palace. As an example, suppose you need to remember a great deal about music composition. As you enter your kitchen, you could see a little boy eating a piece of chocolate fudge, which would evoke the first-letter mnemonic “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge," which would in turn allow you to recall the order of notes on the lines in treble clef (EGBDF).

9. Explore your palace. Once you have stocked your palace with evocative images, you need to go through it and look at them. The more you explore your palace, the more easily you will recall its contents on demand. In your mind you want to see James Joyce, for example, sitting on your toilet as if he belonged there and was really an integral part of your bathroom decor.

10. Use your palace. Once you have memorized the contents of your palace you can recall them simply by mentally walking through it or looking around it. If you need to give a speech, just follow your route in order as you do so. If you need to remember that your girlfriend’s birthday is March 16, simply go into your bedroom and see the soldiers “marching" on the bed to the tune of the 80s cult classic “Sixteen Candles." With practice you will be able to start anywhere in your palace or along your route to recall a specific piece of information.

11. Build new palaces. A memory palace can be reused over and over again if you need only commit things to memory for a short time. Just replace the existing contents with new ones, and you’ll soon remember only the new ones. If you need to remember the contents of your palace for a long time, you can keep that palace as it is and create new ones in which to store other information as needed. If your house contains the phone numbers of everyone you know, you can walk to your workplace if you need to remember the order of a deck of cards.

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