A ‘memory palace’ is your secret tool for remembering information

It's elementary, dear reader.
The Château de Chambord in Chambord, France, which may not make a great memory palace.
The Château de Chambord in Chambord, France looks impressive, but it probably won't make a good memory palace. Dorian Mongel / Unsplash

A “memory palace” sounds as enticing as it does intimidating, but building your own is easier than you might think. Also known as the Method of Loci, this memorization technique taps into your brain’s ability to store lots of location-based information and applies it to new data you hope to file away for later. Notice that we say “data” here, and not “memories”; the types of information you can store with this method are limited. Depending on what you’re trying to remember, a well-built memory palace may be the perfect tool for you—or it could come up short.

When to use a memory palace

Right now, you’re probably thinking of a sprawling mansion filled with hundreds of rooms, each one containing snippets of your childhood or special days in your life. That’s a great thought, but it’s not an accurate description of this technique.

First, unless you literally grew up in one, your memory palace won’t be a palace at all—it’s meant to be a familiar environment that you know by heart, which we’ll talk more about in the next section. Furthermore, this mental space isn’t designed to hold complex information that you don’t already understand. Only the simplest information—often stuff that can be visualized, or raw data like numbers—can be stored within.

This technique won’t help you comprehend information, it will just make it easier to call to mind. That means you can use it to memorize a long grocery list or the digits of a password, but will probably struggle with applying it to math equations or the meanings of foreign language vocabulary words. According to Barbara Oakley, who has a Ph.D. in systems engineering and has written five books on learning techniques, this is because rapid-recall memorization engages a different part of the brain than more complex memories do.

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“When you practice a lot with what you are trying to remember, your memory links get shifted over from declarative or ‘hippocampal’ neural links to become procedural or ‘basal ganglia’ links,” she says. “Procedural links are a lot faster to access. So the memory palace can be helpful in allowing you to memorize a vocabulary list, but it will not allow you to develop the kind of memory links you need to become an intuitive computer programmer, or to speak a foreign language with ease.”

How to build a memory palace

If you think the memory palace technique is right for you, here’s some good news: using the Method of Loci is less about “constructing” a mental space and more about meaningfully placing information into mental spaces that already exist inside your brain. This means that your memory palace is already built, waiting to be filled. To get started, pick a location that you’re extremely familiar with—one that you can call to mind instantly and in detail. Your current home, the house you grew up in, or your workplace are all great options.

As you develop your memory storage skills, you’re likely to expand into additional locations to store more information. They don’t have to be indoor spaces: your local park, favorite campground, or an amusement park that you know by heart can also work well. You know a lot more places than you think you do, and since this technique is all in your brain, they don’t even have to be physical spots. The setting of your favorite video game, for example, could work as long as you know it well and can navigate through it in your mind. A fictional environment from a beloved book series, the set of a popular TV show, or a virtual reality space that you visit often can all work as well.

Map a path to specific places

Once you have a spot in mind, start to think about some of the places within that location. These could be pieces of furniture in a room, clearings along a hiking trail, or shops in a virtual town. Set up a path through your chosen location that moves logically between these places. If you settled on your childhood home, for example, try starting with the front door and walking through the rooms as you would if you were actually there.

“Nearly half of our brain’s connections relate to our visual systems, so tapping into that system through use of the memory palace technique helps tremendously with jump-starting memory of particular information,” Oakley says. The number of places you choose along your route will depend on how many pieces of data you want to memorize. If you’ve never used the mind palace technique before, try starting small by choosing 10 places in a given location. Write them out in the order you’d naturally encounter them, and make sure you can see them clearly in your mind.

Place data along your path

Populating your memory palace with information is the most crucial part of this process, so don’t rush it. The key is to create a specific, memorable link between the piece of data you’re memorizing and its corresponding place in your familiar location. It’s not enough to simply mash the concepts together and hope you’ll recall them as a pair later. Instead, you have to ascribe an action or event to their relationship that’s funny, bizarre, or otherwise surprising.

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Let’s say you’re trying to memorize the 10 spices that go into your family’s pumpkin pie recipe, and you’re doing so by placing them around your apartment. The first spice on the list is cinnamon, and the first place you’ve chosen is your coat rack. There’s no obvious memory trick, like rhyming words or a movie reference, that links cinnamon to a coat rack, so you’ll have to make one up yourself. For instance, imagine a cinnamon stick with little arms and legs doing gymnastics on the rack, swinging between the coat hooks. Or maybe your coat rack turns into a sentient cinnamon stick and takes your coat like it’s a rejected character cast out of a Beauty and the Beast fanfic.

If these scenarios sound implausible and stupid, that’s because they are. The more bizarre, action-based, and ridiculous these connections are, the more likely you are to remember them. Envisioning a connection like “the pegs on my coat rack are actually cinnamon sticks” is a nice mental image, but when you try to recall it, you may not remember what particular object the pegs are supposed to be. That’s why you need to tie a distinctive action to every relationship between data and place.

You would continue the pumpkin pie example by traveling through your apartment to the 10 spots you picked, and assigning a spice to each one using a weird, memorable action. Really envision these bizarre scenarios, and write them down in case you forget a few in the short term. With a little time and practice, you will be able to visit the 10 spices in your mental apartment whenever you want.

Visit your palace regularly

The memory palace technique isn’t a one-and-done memorization method. You’ll need to use a method called spaced repetition to solidify the locations of each memory in your mind, Oakley says. “Unless you have a naturally gifted brain for memory, you’ll need to retrieve the information in your memory palace several times over several days to ensure it sticks,” she says.

Try revisiting your mental location after one, then three, then five, and then seven days to allow yourself enough time to almost forget your target material during each interval. While you might have to check your written-down list a few times at first, you should eventually find that the wacky connections in question are secured solidly in your brain. Remembering your target information will now be as easy as recalling which location you left it in. A royal success.