At the World Memory Championships, top competitors memorize the order of 20 shuffled decks of cards in an hour and more than 500 random digits in 15 minutes, among other events. Think you have what it takes? Believe it or not, almost everybody has the capability to perform such amazing feats. Competitive memorizers don’t necessarily have “better memories" than the rest of us; instead, they learn and perfect a variety of mnemonics (memory aids) to improve their ability to quickly learn and recall just about anything. One of the most useful and widely used mnemonics is the memory palace, a place or series of places in your mind where you can store information that you need to remember. With time and practice, anyone can build a memory palace, and they are useful for far more than just memory competitions and trivia. Here’s how to build your own:
1) Decide on a blueprint for your palace. While a memory palace can be a purely imagined place, it is easier to base it upon a place that exists in the real world and that you are familiar with. A basic palace could be your bedroom, for example. Larger memory palaces can be based on your house, a cathedral, a walk to the corner store, or your whole town. The larger or more detailed the real place, the more information you can store in the corresponding mental space.
2) Define a route. If you will need to remember things in a certain order, it is essential that you follow a specific route through your palace, both in the real world and in your mind. Thus, once you’ve decided what your memory palace is, decide how you will travel through it. If you don’t really need to remember things in order, this step is unnecessary, but still useful, as it makes memorizing your palace easier.
3) Identify specific storage locations in your palace or along your route. When you use your memory palace you will put individual things to be remembered (a number, a name, or a part of a speech that you will be giving, for example), in specific locations. Thus, you need to identify as many locations as you think you will need. Walk through your structure or along your route and really observe it. If your palace is actually a route, such as your drive to work, the storage locations can be landmarks along the way: your neighbor’s house, a crossroads, a statue, or a skyscraper, for example. If the palace is a structure, you can put things in the different rooms. Within rooms, you can identify smaller locations, such as paintings, pieces of furniture, and so on. The key is to make sure the locations you choose are distinct from each other so that no location can be mistaken for another.
4) Memorize your memory palace. For your memory palace to be effective, you need to commit it to memory perfectly. The best way to do this is to actually draw out a blueprint (or a map, if the palace is a route) which shows the landmarks or storage locations you have chosen. Try visualizing the palace when you are not there, and then check your mental image against the map to make sure you have remembered every location and put them in the correct order. Picture the landmarks in as much detail as possible: make sure your mental image includes their colors, sizes, smells, and any other defining characteristics.
5) Place things to be remembered in your palace. Once you have constructed your palace and have it firmly implanted in your mind, you are ready to use it. Put a manageable amount of information in each place. For example, if your palace is your house, and you are trying to remember a speech, you might place the first few sentences on your doormat and the next few in the keyhole of your door. Don’t put too much information in any one place, and if certain things must be kept separate from others, put them in different places. Make sure that you place things along your route in the order in which you need to remember them, if applicable.
6) Use symbols. You don’t necessarily need to put a whole string of words or numbers in a given location in order to be able to remember it, and trying to do so can be unwieldy and counterproductive. Generally, all you need to store in each location is something that will jog your memory, something that will lead you to the actual idea you’re trying to remember. Thus, if you are trying to remember a ship, picture an anchor on your couch. If the ship is the U.S.S. Wisconsin, picture the anchor made out of cheese. Symbols are shorthand and make memories more manageable, but they also can be more effective than picturing the actual thing you are trying to remember.