7 tips to build a memory palace and nail your exams
More than a convenient plot device in Sherlock and Hannibal Lecter, building a ‘memory palace’ is an extremely well regarded way to memorise vast chunks of information... yup, just like you need to do for exams. In fact, people have been at it for years: medieval scholars used to learn entire books this way.
First attributed to the poet Simonides 2,500 years ago, memory palaces utilise the brains power to navigate and understand space, rather than relying on language. The aim, then, isn’t to simply remember phrases or facts or equations as they come, but to store them as part of a space you build in your mind so you can access then whenever you need. This is done by imagining yourself travelling through your palace and seeing the information as images. Perhaps it sounds more complicated than it is – just remember, it works for memory champions around the world and by utilising one, your exams will become that much easier.
1. Find your palace
Memory palaces can be whatever you want them to be – a boat, a cathedral, Gatsby’s mansion, your bedroom… anything. Some like to imagine a brand new building and design it as they please, but it’s often easier to use somewhere you already know well, such as your family home. The larger the place, and the more detail you can picture, the more information you palace will be able to store.
Visualise this place and take in the details – the colour of your front door, the way the light is in the room, the marks on the walls.
2. Plan a route
If you need to recall information in a specific order, for instance, with formula, walk around your palace, taking in the carpets, the walls, the light switches, the picture frames and everything else. Keep this route clear in your mind – you will be furnishing this route with the information you need to remember. If the information doesn’t need to be memorised in order, this step can be skipped.
3.Familiarise yourself with the details!
Now imagine your palace even more vividly: the smells, the taste of the air, the drawers, the tables, the sounds in the background. The better the details, the more vividly you can recall them, the more you will be able to remember later on. If these details are clear, you will remember the information you attach to them. Which leads us on to the next point...
4. Attach information to these details
A memory palace serves to prompt your mind with images because images are so much easier to remember. After all, visualising your house hasn’t been too difficult, I imagine – but could you recall the first sentence of this article?
Your job now is to put prompts in every room. These prompts trigger the brain to remember the information you would like to recall. For example, if you’re trying to remember the first lines of a poem, put the first sentence on the doormat, on a folded piece of card. Then move on: imagine more words in a painting. If you needn’t be so literal and are trying to learn concepts (for example, the principles of a law case), put reminders in your rooms - for instance, say you need to recall the weapons used in a murder, have them sat on a chest of drawers.
Put a little information in each place: too much and it will overwhelm you. Use lots of little prompts.
5. Be outrageous
The images in your memory palace should be unforgettable - obviously! You are trying to make facts which stimulate your mind, so the images themselves must be as stimulating as possible. Your prompts needn’t be realistic – they simply need to stir your mind.
Use images which are raunchy, explicit, outrageous, hilarious or disturbing. Anything which sticks in your mind vividly will get your mind firing, so emotional connections are fantastic. Trying to remember a particular person? Imagine them dancing around a pole with their name on a sign around their neck – a far more powerful memory than just a name stored away. Remember numbers by attributing absurd images to them. Take 816: a snowman (8) with a pole (1) stuck through his gut, cut into six pieces. It’s faintly grotesque and consequently should prompt that number clearly.
6.Have a ridiculous story
Whatever you’re remembering, attribute a ridiculous story to it.
It may take you a good half hour or so to come up with something you can remember, but it should stick. For instance, if you’re learning about the abolition of slavery, you might have a room with a great white Lincoln Continental car parked in it, with a big 16 painted on the bonnet.. the fact learned? Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, as the 16th president of the United States. Then, behind the car, have a TV playing with a ‘No Win No Fee’ advert, to remind you of the compensation Lincoln offered slave owners.
Once again, the point is to make these images stick. Your memory problem is not storing information properly - and if the memory is ridiculous, you stand a much better chance of holding on it. Say you need to remember a pair of glasses - a very mundane image, meaning you're likely to forget it. Why not have a polka dot grapefruit dressed as Batman wearing those glasses? It's so odd, it'll stick - and consequently, you are triggered to remember the glasses.
A memory palace takes time, especially to find those images vivid enough and powerful enough that they stick with you and can be planted around your palace.
It takes a while to get used to the idea of a memory palace and you'll need to invest a little while toward getting your stories perfect - but when you do, you'll keep that information fresh for much longer. With practice, getting into your mind palace and exploring it needn't take more than a moment.
To get used to your palace, travel the route frequently and shut yourself off from distractions. As you need to learn more and more information, build more and more memory palaces and stuff them with information - try building up each room according to subject.
If you can invest the time and are determined to try, this really does work. Best of luck!