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Daily Smart Fact #18: Build Your Own Memory Palace

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Key Takeaway: Its a lot easier to remember places and experiences than lists, numbers, or names. Use your own memory palace to improve your memory by visualizing and associating the things you need to remember with the outrageous and absurd.

I was listening to NPR the other day and the guest was Joshua Foer and they were talking about the USA Memory Championship. That’s right, there’s a national competition for memory.  In order to be a “grand master of memory” you must be able to do the following:

  1. Memorize 1,000 digits in less than 60 minutes
  2. Memorize the order of 10 shuffled decks in less than 60 minutes
  3. Memorize the order of 1 shuffled deck in less than 2 minutes

As of 2005, there were only 36 grand masters in the world.  These people aren’t photographic memory freaks or people who have an IQ of a gazillion.  They’re ordinary folks like you and me.  So how do they do this?  Well one technique is called the Memory Palace.  According to this interview on NPR, Joshua describes origins of the Memory Palace from Ancient Greek times.  There’s a story about Simonides of Ceos walking out of a banquet hall right before the entire building collapsed, killing every single person inside.  In all of the tragedy, no one knew who was who in the hall, how to properly bury the dead, which families should claim which bodies, etc.  Simonides realized though that if he closed his eyes, he could remember every single person in the hall by where they were located. This is how the Memory Palace came to be.

When you visit someone’s house for the first time can you still remember it the next day? the next week?  Where was the TV and the couch?  Where was the kitchen in relation to the front door?  Its so much easier to remember than say, someone’s phone number or address.

The Memory Palace is a technique that allows you to visualize the things you need to remember based on an actual physical place you know.  Here’s how to build your own memory palace (for greater details, read this article):

  1. Visualize a physical place you know really well (most likely your own home)
  2. List all the distinctive features of this place (e.g., the front door, the main foyer, the big painting of the bull fight you bough in Madrid, the steps leading up to your bedroom, the bedroom door, etc.)
  3. Imprint the palace into your mind – know every single detail of your actual physical palace; you’re going to need to remember this
  4. Associate the things you need to remember to your palace – A key thing to note is that you need to make whatever you remember “crazy, unusual, offensive, extraordinary…” if its boring, its unmemorable.  I like the example given here about remembering a grocery list.  If you had to remember bacon, start at your front door.  According to the article, it says you might want to remember streams of bacon coming up from under the door, like zombie hands trying to get at you.  Then when you walk in and the first thing you see is a picture of your mother-in-law with your wife, and you have to remember eggs….and so on.
  5. Visit your palace and see all the things you can remember!

Good luck!  Let me know in the comments how you’ve fared with your Memory Palace.  How many things did you remember?

Some things to try out this week:

  1. Forego a grocery list (ok, maybe keep a backup list in your back pocket)
  2. Memorize at least 2 of your family members’ phone numbers that is in your cell phone address book
  3. The next new place you need to go, try to remember the address using your Memory Palace

Written by Bea

June 2, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Biology

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