Memory Palaces – What they are and how to use them

In a previous blog post I outlined a very basic memory technique which works by creating a story out of to-be-remembered information. This makes the information more memorable than recalling a list of unrelated words and the technique itself requires no real groundwork, after all, you are just making up a story.

Whilst impressive results can be obtained by using the story method, it is limited in scope and it is only when you delve a little deeper that memory techniques truly come into their own, enabling students to make a real difference to their exam preparation.  The most popular of these more advanced methods is the so-called “memory palace”, popularised by BBC’s Sherlock – albeit in a slightly misleading way.

In this post my goal is to convey a sense of what a memory palace really is and how students can use it to great effect.

In simple terms, a traditional memory palace is a building that you know very well indeed.  Typically, one would use their own home.  Imagine walking around your home in a logical manner, making a note of significant ‘landmarks’ along the way. These landmarks will eventually become the hooks on which memories are stored.

Here is an example of a very basic memory palace using the downstairs of a house that I know well:

  1. Front door
  2. Living room – Sofa
  3. Living room – TV
  4. Dining room – Table
  5. Dining room – Cupboard

In my subject, Psychology, serious students who have revised well can write out a whole essay using only a highly condensed essay plan. Simple keywords within such a plan are enough to act as retrieval cues for an entire paragraph of 50-70 words. However, it is often such keywords that get no further than the tip of their tongues until they leave the exam hall.

The trick is to use a memory palace, with a healthy dose of imagination, to remember their plans with ease.

Here is an essay plan for the 10 mark question Evaluate the fight or flight response.

  1. Negative consequences – health problems
  2. Tend and befriend response (Taylor)
  3. Freeze response (Gray)
  4. Positive behaviours instead
  5. Genetic basis to sex differences in response

With a memory palace at the ready and an essay plan created, it is now up to the imagination to forge some long-lasting links.

Memory Palace Essay Plan
1.       Front door 1. Negative consequences – health problems
2.       Living room – Sofa 2. Tend and befriend response (Taylor)
3.       Living room – TV 3. Freeze response (Gray)
4.       Dining room – Table 4. Positive behaviours instead
5.       Dining room – Cupboard 5. Genetic basis to sex differences in response

Your own imagination would be better than mine, but for now, imagine the following scenarios which create a link between each place in your memory palace and each point in your plan:

  1. There is someone with serious health problems at your front door. Perhaps they are struggling to open the door, maybe they are wheezing, coughing, spluttering.  Perhaps they simply have a bad cold.
  2. As you move into the living room you see a family member on the sofa making friends with a stranger. To add a bit of weirdness to the mix perhaps they could both be tending to animals too.
  3. You move across to the TV and notice that it has become frozen solid and has even turned a peculiar grey colour
  4. You leave the living room and are now in your dining room and on the table there are hundreds of ants, helping each other to carry food back to their nests
  5. Walking across the dining room you get to the cupboards and when you open the door you see that inside there are two pictures of DNA. One drawn by a boy and one by a girl. How strange that they are in the cupboard.

In order to remember the essay plan, you simply need to begin your journey again (at your front door) and allow the scenarios that you have created to unfold in your mind, enabling you to quickly jot down the plan from which an entire essay can be written.

This whole process can seem rather cumbersome and lengthy, especially to remember only 5 points.  Remember, though, Psychology students are required to remember over 90 of such plans and reproduce them quickly in the exam.  The memory palace technique creates a structured way for them to achieve this and also goes a long way towards reducing the stress that is typically associated with the necessity to remember such a vast amount of facts.

In a short blog post such as this it is only really possible to use a quick example, but this technique is practically limitless.  In preparation for my final exams at university I used the entire city of Glasgow as an extended memory palace. Whilst I was sat in the exam hall my mind was elsewhere, visiting a series of flats, houses, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, university buildings, train stations etc. each one crammed full of information, stored as images.  The required facts, figures, evaluation points, researchers’ names and details of their studies were all at my fingertips.

I really hope that you will try this out for yourself and your students. It really is worth the effort and I would welcome any questions that you may have.