The Memory Palace: A Mixed Mental Artist’s Secret Weapon

A good memory is a superpower because the more knowledge you possess, the more easily you can navigate the mental arts, and the world in general. Many people seem to think that a good memory is genetic, and that you can’t improve your natural ability. However, as with any cognitive or physical skill, the more you train it, the better it becomes.

I learned valuable information from the book called The Talent Code, which is about improving athletic ability: Getting better at any skill is all about myelinating the synapses associated with it in your brain. I’m not a neuroscientist, but apparently, myelinating a synapse means strengthening a series of neuronal connections. So the synapse associated with remembering specific information, or swinging a tennis racket with perfect technique, can be myelinated through focused practice. Spending more time on that swing, or reading the tidbit you want to memorize, builds stronger foundations in the neuronal pathways associated with these actions. When the synapses are strong enough, they become intuitive, which means that you can improve even more. This is because you can access that memory, or perfectly swing that racket, without thinking about it.

Once you understand this, the question becomes: How should I do this for the best results? Knowing that your memory can be greatly improved is all well and good, but rote memorization doesn’t seem like the best method. That’s one of the main problems with the traditional education system. Just reading a sentence over and over again is one of the hardest ways to commit it to long term memory. That might work if you’re really interested in the information and/or are about to be tested on it, but you might forget it right after the exam. You can learn more efficiently when you are emotionally invested. This is why you have to trick yourself into liking math if you hate it, but want to get better at it. Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien talk about this in their book called The Straight-A Conspiracy.

You can increase your chances of remembering information if you connect it to a story, something bizarre, or an imagined physical location. Great thinkers figured this out a long time ago, which resulted in the idea of the memory palace. Writing didn’t always exist. So before scribes, and long before the printing press, philosophers and storytellers had to memorize entire speeches and stories. Our memories have become a lot worse with continuous advancements in information storage, like books, and the internet. Homer, if he existed, recited The Odyssey and The Iliad many times before they were ever written down. But people like him were not superhuman. They used a tool that everyone has access to, because all you need is your brain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used the memory palace, so it is an old, simple technique that still applies to the world today. A Greek poet named Simonides of Ceo apparently invented it. When he attended a banquet, he was talking with a few friends outside when the building collapsed. The bodies were too damaged to identify, but Simonides is said to have remembered everyone who was there, based on where they sat. The skill of remembering something based on location became known as the method of loci, or the memory palace.

So how do you build a memory palace? You use your imagination. The idea behind it is that remembering information requires having a place to store it. So you can either construct any physical location in your head, or use a real place associated with strong memories. You can build a castle in your mind as your own place for knowledge, but you would have to remember the details of it to store anything there. So it seems easier to use a real place.

I got out of the practice of using my memory palace, but when I went there regularly, it was my Grandma’s house from when I was growing up. Another idea behind the method of loci is mimicking the process of creating pathways in your brain. These are stronger when you make them bizarre. So when I used my memory palace to memorize my credit card number, this is what I did: I imagined walking into my Grandma’s house, and seeing Yoda next to the coffee table in front of the couch. He picked up my credit card from the table, and recited my number to me in his Yoda voice. This works so well because it’s as if you are storing a memory in a physical location. The pathways in your brain are strengthened when you rehearse how you get to the knowledge. This worked so well for me that I started storing information in files on the bookshelf of my Grandma’s office. I ran out of space in the rest of the house. I can still remember some knowledge from my memory palace, even though I haven’t visited it in a long time.

I first heard about this technique from Sherlock, the new BBC show based on the Sherlcok Holmes books, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Geniuses are my heroes, and Sherlock uses a memory palace on the show to help him remember all sorts of obscure information for solving crimes. This includes mundane knowledge like different types of soil and fabrics. Hannibal Lecter also has one on the newer show called Hannibal, which is part of why he’s a genius psychopath.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a fictional super-genius detective or serial killer to use a memory palace. Anyone can do it! Even someone like me, who probably has an inherently bad memory, can appear to have a good one if I improve it enough. Thinking about this technique recently has inspired me to start using it again. Everyone can benefit from being able to store any important or interesting knowledge. So why not build a memory palace today? You can start populating it with more information than you might even think is possible. The more bizarre the pathways are that you create, the better. So the only limit to an excellent memory is your imagination. The memory palace is a mixed mental artist’s secret weapon.

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