Memory Techniques: Creating a Memory Palace, Dos and Don'ts

by David Fadul
6/10/2017 – The idea of learning to create and use techniques like the Memory Palace is both enticing and intimidating. Where to start? How exactly should one go about it? What are the mistakes one can make and should avoid? All this and more is answered in this next article in the series on Memory Techniques, teaching how to build a Memory Palace with some exercises to test yourself. The author also explains what is needed to apply these techniques to chess.

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The basic idea behind the Memory technique is almost too simple: First you choose a place that you know very well, then imagine yourself walking around the place you chose and place objects that remind you of the items as you move around.

And, although that may sound too simple to register, I was able to completely screw it up the first time(s) I tried it. Which take us to my first mistake:

#MyMistake1: do not simply imagine yourself placing objects on the Palace. Create a scene instead.

When I created my first Palace, I tried to store information by placing the objects I actually wanted to remember (and sometimes even writing notes!) somewhere in my Palace; so if I wanted to remember ‘bread’, for example, I would imagine myself placing a piece of bread on a table. And then I would be frustrated beyond belief when I realized that while I remembered putting something on the table, I could not remember what it was.

Unfortunately, back then information was much harder to find, and I had no idea how to actually use a Memory Palace. The problem with just imagining yourself placing, say, a piece of bread on a kitchen table, is that the image of a piece of bread (probably) does not affect you emotionally – or at all. Moreover, random items are very hard to remember – so are letters, numbers and random words.

So, what you must do is use images, often people (personally, I prefer public or famous individuals and not personal acquaintances), to increase your emotional responses, as emotions are much easier to remember. The human brain has a very strong reaction to other humans and, as far as how your emotional reaction registers in your memory, it does not seem to differentiate much between a person who is actually there and a person you imagine is there.

Since your goal is to elicit an emotional response, you will get a better result if you choose easily recognizable people about whom you already present some emotional response, even if mild. Sexual attraction is obviously a very powerful force, so you can choose some celebrity you find appealing. However, even though it is powerful, don’t overdo sex appeal. If you only choose models, you will eventually mix them up. Try also adding people you hate in the middle, such as a politician, or people you admire such as an actor, singer, athlete, or an inspiring historical figure.

 

I am completely aware that some people can be embarrassed with the prospect of creating such silly images and scenes. If it helps, watch Jonas Von Essen, the 2013 and 2014 world memory champion being slightly embarrassed as he talks about his card memorization technique (at 0:48).

Also, remember that you do not need to share the details of your Palace with any one, so have fun and experiment.

At this point, don’t put too much effort into choosing the images, as those will be only used this time. In the next article I will explain how to create a permanent set of pegs (which is the technical term for the images), for now, just get ten famous people and let us move on.

Now choose your very first Memory Palace. It can be any place that you remember extremely well – a place of which you know the exact layout. It can be the house where you grew up, the school or college where you studied, the house of a good friend that you used to visit, or even the house you are living in right now. My Memory Palace (for temporary lists with 60 items or less) is the apartment I lived with my parents when I was 17. If the list is larger (up to 250 items) I use my grandparent’s house, where I lived as a kid, which was much bigger. Choose now; but don’t worry too much. If you still haven’t decided, just use your current living place (our list is very short, so the size of your place won’t matter).

By the way, how did you do with the list? For some people, memorizing ten items can be done without any memory technique – it is due to our tendency to group items together, which ‘deceives’ our short term memory, since it will treat a group as an individual object. If you did get all items right, how many do you remember right now?

If you want, you can pause here and try the list again, using your Palace this time. If you cannot see yet how to do it yourself, read ahead and I will show you how I used my Palace to memorize that same list (of which I shamefully forgot 40% a moment ago). And don’t worry; I will put another list at the end for you to test yourself.

As a reminder, here is the list:

  1. Bread
  2. Chocolate
  3. Honey
  4. Tea
  5. Orange Juice
  6. Butter
  7. Coffee
  8. Biscuits
  9. Eggs
  10. Rice

Obviously, I will make a verbal description, but keep in mind as you read that the memorization process is entirely nonverbal, rather focusing on the visual, sensorial and emotional aspects of the scene.

Detailed description of my memorization

I am standing in front of the door of my old apartment. The door is opened by Angelina Jolie holding a piece of old-looking bread in her hand; she opened the door with her left while holding the bread in her tight hand, she tries to nibble at it, but the bread looks way too hard  - like the bread that the roman soldiers ate.

Sourdough bread was a core part of the diet of Roman soldiers

I move on. To my right, sitting on the couch, Donald Trump is eating a chocolate bar. It looks half melted and old, and the chocolate doesn’t look very good either. I notice that he let some of the chocolate dirty the couch; my mother would be very angry, she loves that couch.

To my left, on the balcony, Kate Perry is sitting on the balustrade. I am not afraid of heights, but the way she is leaning makes me uncomfortable.

I walk a few steps toward the wall where the antique cuckoo clock hung. Near it, I see Barack Obama. He seems aloof, but interested in the clock. In one hand he is holding a cup of tea and with the other hand he tries to adjust the clock, which is running slow. A few drops of the tea drop from the cup. By the smell it seems like herbal tea. I hate herbal tea.

I barely have to move to see my father’s old bureau. For some reason, it had a glass door, so I can see inside as if it were an aquarium. On the table there is an old monitor. Mr. Robot (from the show with the same name) sits on a chair in front of it. The room is slowly filling with orange juice and Mr. Robot is trying to hack his way out of it. It looks bad for him.

I go into the kitchen and I see that Marlon Brandon is sitting by my kitchen table.

By the sink, Hugh Laurie is popping a pill and washing it down with cold coffee. I dislike coffee and the idea of drinking old, cold coffee makes me nauseous. In front of him there is a plate of biscuits, sprinkled with Vicodin.

There is a live chicken seating near the fridge and a Chinese woman – very young and wearing one of those conical hats – is standing next to the washing machine.

And those are the ten items, after encoding, I took a five-minute break, returned here and wrote down all the items I could remember. It took me just over a minute to encode the list, which is an abysmal time by any standard – but it is three in the morning. Aside from the late hour, there is another reason for my bad time: I had to create the pegs on the fly. I have a number of images that I use in my Palace, but they represent my preferences, and would probably be meaningless to you. So I chose a number of famous individuals. Oh, I almost forgot, it took absolutely no effort remembering all the items in the order they were listed and I was 100% confident that I had made no mistake. I can also keep the list stored for as long as I want to.

Explanation of imagery

So that you can follow my choices for the images, let’s go over each one I used, so that I can explain what I was doing:

First of all, I try to imagine the whole environment, as I remember it. I imagine myself walking, touching things, seeing details, noticing odors; I even feel my emotional reactions. The more of those details you add to a scene, the better you will remember it.

As you are getting started, there is no harm in overdoing it, as you progress, you will start having a notion of how much you need to focus on each image, and the amount will probably vary depending on whether the list is temporary or permanent.

The first image is self-explanatory. I chose Angelina Jolie, an actress that I find talented and attractive, and had her hold the item. I normally find that the first entry in a list is easier to remember, so I do not put too much effort into creating it (but even then I add some visual cues, such as her hands holding the piece of bread, as overconfidence is a dangerous thing in memory). I have been watching Rome, the famous HBO series, and the memory of the legionnaires eating though bread just popped into my mind, so I used it. Remember that I was not narrating, I just imagined a hard piece of bread.

In the second image, I used the emotional memory of how much my mother liked the couch. Notice that it is not a very powerful emotion and that is why I added some visual detail.

You may have noticed that I did not mention the item on the image with Kate Perry in the balcony. That is because as I was choosing the peg I remembered an old episode of How I Met Your Mother where Kate Perry plays a character referred to as ‘honey’ due to her naiveté. Since this is a temporary list, I ran with it. If I had wanted to store the list permanently, I would have preferred a more direct connection, as I could forget this one. Yes, if improperly created, you can remember an image, but then forget its meaning, which is very annoying.

The image of Obama and the clock evoked no emotion so I focused on the smell of the tea and on the physical interaction with the clock.

The image of orange juice inundating an office like an aquarium is the only ‘silly’ image in this list. Many teachers of mnemonics like to emphasize the use of silly images in memorization, probably because it is less awkward to discuss than violent or sexual imagery, but I find that using excessive silliness tends to somewhat dilute its effect, so I prefer a mix of different kinds of images. That is what is most suited to me, but as you develop, you will need to find what works best for you, whether it be like me, or with adjustments of your own. Also notice that the image emphasizes the fact that the item is a liquid, but not that it is orange juice – or even any juice. When I was still getting used to the method (or if there were something like water in the list), I would add more to the scene, that emphasized the fact that it was specifically orange juice).

Silly images – used parsimoniously – are a powerful mnemonic tool

Speaking about embarrassing images, if you do not know the relation between Marlon Brando and butter, I certainly will not be the one to tell you.

The rest is very straightforward: I took a risk putting two items in the same peg (coffee and biscuits), but I was running out of space in the kitchen and didn’t feel like going to a new room to store a single item. I certainly do not advise doing such a thing unless the items are already grouped thematically, such as was the case of coffee and biscuits.

The connection between a chicken and eggs is obvious but the only reason why I could leave a chicken hanging around unattended and not forget it, is because I recently saw a Facebook post with a horrendous picture of a chicken and that is still very much burned in my brain.

Finally, the stereotypical Chinese rice farmer is more than adequate as the last image, since the last is the easiest to remember. Still, it often happens the easiest connections are the one we forget, so I imagined the hat filtering the light that hit her face, as this sort of small visual detail is useful to reinforce the memorization.

As you probably noticed, a Memory Palace is extremely personal. Normally, many of the associations I create would make sense to me and to me alone. Don’t worry if you cannot conjure a lot of different associations at first. I myself cannot think of any emotional association or any unusual association (like the one between Brando and butter) on the spot. Instead, focus on sensory perception, especially visual detail, of the image. Focus on the smells, pay attention to how the images interact with the environment: remember that your Palace is the location, and the images come and go depending on what you are memorizing, so make sure they interact. That alone will make you memorize more items in a list, if for no other reason because you will spend more time thinking about them.

Besides, understand that there are no hard rules as to how to create images. The way I did it was one that, by trial and error, I discovered works for me.

A few pointers: you can play with the items in the list. For example, I used a chocolate bar to represent chocolate, but the actual item could be chocolate powder, or something else that clearly said chocolate to me. In the same way, I imagined herbal tea, but the item could be any tea. Most of the time normal memory will fill in the gaps if you are familiar with the item and you access the information relatively soon after storing it – which is standard procedure with temporary lists. Also, It is often helpful to think of the scenes three dimensionally, even if you are trying to remember a drawing or another two dimensional image.

In this article I used the pegs only to increase my emotional response (and to subtly introduce the concept of pegs), but an actual peg is a permanent symbol, an image associated with one object or concept that you memorize frequently, like Jonas’s association of the Ace of clubs with Kate from Lost as shown in the video above. Also, with permanent pegs (and some practice), temporary images can be placed with much less attention to detail, but that is a subject for the future.

If there is one thing I hope you take from this experiment, it is this: After you get used to applying this method to a ten-item list, it is really easy to expand it to a list of twenty, thirty, a hundred or however many you want. That is, incidentally, the difference between memory tricks and memory methods. I could teach you a memory trick that would allow you to memorize ten or twenty items with no effort: just create a funny story involving the items – no need to create a palace or pegs or anything else. And trust me, it would work, at least for ten items or twenty. The problem is that as the list of items increased in size, the memorization would become increasingly difficult. Furthermore, such simple tricks would not help you one iota in memorizing something as complex as chess.

With the Memory Palace, the opposite happens. The first module will be the most time-consuming to create (it may take up to an hour), but the second will be faster, and third even faster. And with a Palace, it is up to you how many items you want to be able to store.
Chess and other more complex enterprises (such as speed memorization of decks of cards) require specialized pegs to be done efficiently. For that reason, I will only show how to apply mnemonics to chess after we cover pegs.

At the end of this article, I will give two sample lists to exercise with: one of ten items, and another of twenty. Take your Memory Palace for a test drive. As you do, try to avoid another mistake I used to make:

#Mistake2: do not overcrowd your Palace

Don’t try to fit five images in the same space. Instead, try to associate one image to one part of the Palace or an object in it – so that you can always visualize every image individually. Moreover, follow some order so you can always remember what comes next in each Palace you create. I like to follow the shortest path from an entrance to an exit.

Overcrowding is never good

In the Palace I just used, the locations would be: Front door, couch, first balcony, clock, bureau, my parent’s room, second balcony, my parent’s closet, my parent’s bathroom, my room, balcony no.3, my bathroom, the kitchen table, the sink, another sink, the washing machine, back door.

If the list is very small, as ours was, I may go straight from the bureau to the kitchen.

Before I had these ‘stop points’ memorized (and yes, they have to be memorized in the old fashioned way), I often skipped an item simply because I would forget that I had put something, say, on a balcony. After I memorized the stop points (which I see as the structure of the Palace), it stopped happening.

After you test your Palace, you may want to choose your own stop points in it. Choose objects that say something to you and don’t hesitate to write down a list of locations – remember, the greater the effort invested in the groundwork, the better the results.

If you already tested yourself with the first list, you probably realized how useful the technique is for temporary memories and are asking yourself how that could be applied to permanent memorization. The two practices that helped me the most in creating permanent Palaces were creating a structure (the ‘stop points’ I just mentioned) before using it and having a permanent set of pegs. I will explain the Peg system in the next article.

You may also be asking yourself why, if this technique is so efficient and so simple, why it is not widely used by the general population? With so many memory champions claiming to use the Memory Palace and other mnemonic techniques, it is hard to doubt their efficacy, so what gives? If I had to guess, I would say that most do not care enough to try it, and Rule #1 is one of the reasons. Most people prefer to delay effort the longest possible. Increasing effort now to reap rewards later is not something most are willing to do.

For now, let us try ourselves and our Memory Palaces. Make sure you write down how long it takes for you to encode the list and count to ten out loud before writing down the items you remember (counting out loud is a way to ‘reset’ your working memory). You can post your results in the comments. I’ll memorize the list too and let you know my results in the next article.

10-item list

  1. Cinnamon
  2. Asparagus
  3. Ketchup
  4. Salmon
  5. Deodorant
  6. Steak
  7. Ice cream
  8. Pizza
  9. Tooth paste
  10. Salad dressing

20-item list

  1. Apples
  2. Pears
  3. Pie Shells
  4. Nuts
  5. Baked beans
  6. Basil
  7. Garbage Bags
  8. Paper Napkins
  9. Machine Soap
  10. Sponge
  11. BBQ Sauce
  12. Olive Oil
  13. Cream Cheese
  14. Lemon Juice
  15. Hot Sauce
  16. Peanut Butter
  17. Pasta Sauce
  18. Olives
  19. Pasta
  20. Salt


David graduated in Law in Brazil in the early 2000's. During his college years, he was introduced to memory techniques and its applications under the tutelage of one of his professors. He is currently a PhD candidate in Epistemology, with a focus on analytical philosophy.

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