Pro Tips / Student Support / November 12, 2015

Do you have a “Mind Palace?”

Do you have a “Mind Palace?” It isn’t that hard, you can be just like Sherlock!

Hold on, what are we even talking about? In the most recent BBC series Sherlock, Holmes has more than just elementary deduction up his sleeve. His photographic memory has helped him and Watson out of many tight spots. Loci are the name of the game, and anyone who is crazy about remembering anything knows about it. Dominic O’Brien, a World Memory Champion used this technique to memorize the order of 54 fully shuffled decks of cards after looking at each card only once. You read that right, not 54 cards, 54 decks of cards!

This method of using place and association to trigger memories is old. Simonides of Ceos was a traveling poet from ancient Greece, who had to recite long passages from memory. He was once hired to recite long of these long poems at temple in Thessaly, where after a dispute about payment, he left in the middle of the banquet. This turned out to be a good move, as the hall collapsed and killed everyone inside shortly after he left. The bodies left inside were so disfigured that no one could identify them for proper burial. Simonides, however was able to remember where each of the guests had been sitting at the table, and so was able to identify them all from memory.

So how do you perform this feat of memory? All you have to do is think of a place you already know. This could be a city street you’ve walked a thousand times, or a local hangout or even just your room. Now, you just mentally place anything you want to remember somewhere in that space, and associate it with the location you already know. It helps to arrange in a simple pattern so you can “walk” about the room in your head. You might store items on your bed, or a shelf or even in the refrigerator. If you take a list of something that you want to memorize — a shopping list of 20 items is a good place to start: cookie dough, pasta, milk, pop, oats, apples, etc. Now, take one or two items at a time and place a mental image of them in each locus of your memory palace. The more exaggerated, the easier it will be to recall later. For example, if the first item is “cookie dough” and the first locus in your memory palace is the front door, picture a giant tube of cookie dough, or Cookie Monster opening up your front door. I bet you can see it already!

This method, as simple as it is, is perfect for remembering a sequence, or a prepared speech. You could use this to remember the order of the Chinese Dynasties or chemical Elements, or any long list.

Remember that mnemonic devices increase your ability to recall information, not understand them. It take a while to learn, and under stress you may forget the mnemonic and be unable to retrieve the information you need, so you still need to invest enough time to have the list down.


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