Mnemonic Tip: Drift to Sleep in a Palace

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life--Youth

The third in a series of short posts on new wrinkles for old mnemonic techniques. What all have in common is that I have found them useful and have seen them described nowhere else.

The previous post discussed constructing a memory palace from a place you visit. I suggest reading that post before this one.

In any case, this post assumes you have constructed a memory palace, and that it is associated with pleasant memories. This post does not actually deal with a mnemonic technique as such,  but describes a related mental hack. I have found that a pleasant mental palace is a useful tool for falling asleep.

Falling asleep is never an issue for some people, but is an issue at least some of the time for many. That's why drugs are sold with the sole stated purpose of helping one fall asleep.

Assuming that one is prepared physically to fall asleep (i.e., bedroom conditions are suitable, one has not just awoken, etc.), a common source of interference is an overactive mind. On any given day I have at least nine different issues that I am capable of obsessing over while lying in bed. Some may be pleasant, others unpleasant but when trying to go to sleep I don't need them. Calming this internal mental chatter is necessary.

Much easier than trying to think of NOTHING is to replace the mental chatter with some other thought pattern. And for this the memory palace is useful. For me a memory palace typically consists of 50 to 100 locations.

The method consists of this: Breathe slowly and regularly, in and out. With each breath, visualize one palace location in succession. That's all there is to it. With a hundred locations (for example), it would generally take eight minutes to run through the entire palace. Usually I fall asleep before making it that far. Focusing on visualizing the palace locations quietens the mental chatter and replaces it with mental associations.

If you practice this, you may find you become aware of the peculiar mental activity that accompanies the process of falling asleep (the hypnagogic state). Generally I find my thoughts become chaotic or take a silly turn. It is as if dreaming begins before one is fully asleep.

When this happens to you, generally you will lose track of the sequence of locations you were sequencing through. You may come back to full wakefulness and realize this has happened. This is not an occasion for frustration, either because of the losing track or coming back to wakefulness. It is a good sign that indeed you are starting to fall asleep. Just pick up the sequence of locations where you left off.

For stubborn cases, you may practice refinements of the technique. Along with each location, pose yourself a simple problem (to be solved in the span of a single breath). What would the location sound like if your eyes were closed? What would it look like if it had existed in ancient Egypt? If built out of Legos? And so on.

Pleasant dreams.

Albert versus Jinx

This is an unusual type of post. I did not write it. It is a recently-discovered short story written by my mother's late husband "Rosy" (he himself always used quotes around his name).

The story is a bit of whimsical by-play with no deep meaning that I can detect. The title is mine. 

I have no idea when it was written. It is a rather untypical piece of work. "Rosy" wrote several pieces based on his life experiences as oil rigger, cow rancher, etc. You can find more here.

On a bitterly cold Saturday, Albert Ronoff hurriedly packed the few belongings he possessed into his compact duffel bag. He had been overcome with lethargy all day, for the dreary weather had comfortably surrounded him, but now he was all but comfortable. He quickly straightened his aching back and rolled his shoulders repeatedly. It was definitely time for him to move on to another country. The small-town animal shelter of Sun Valley had served its purpose all too well. He had successfully managed to make fur coats out of five hundred very unlucky little kitties Now Sweden’s cats had reason to be worried. One cat in particular, named Jinx, would be his first victim. Jinx was wanted mostly because he had no tail. Albert’s partner in crime, Gertrude Haag, had found the cat a month before and contacted Albert at once. Albert was more than happy to accept, especially since he felt like he was being watched.

He took one last final look around the room that had been his home for over a year. Cool wisps of air filled his lungs as he tried ever so hard to relax. Where was his taxi? A loud shrill honk that pierced his ears and made him jump interrupted that very thought. He hurriedly picked up the heavy suitcase and two shoulder bags that would accompany him on his trip to make fur his fortune. All at sat in his room was a looming heap of the itchy new sheets he had slept on just the night before and all the other nights. He would miss that harsh feeling against his resting skin.

Tripping and making a fool out of himself, Albert finally plopped into the back seat of the beat up-taxi. “Where to?” grunted the extremely overweight driver.

“Om, the airport. Gate 4C on Delta.”

“Great,” mumbled the driver sarcastically. “So are you traveling for business or pleasure?”

“I guess you’d call it business.”“Hmmm. Where’d you say you were going again? Was it South Korea?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly where I’m going,” lied Albert with all too much ease.


After ten more minutes of lovely conversation with the overly, enthusiastic cab driver, Albert was making his way briskly to the check-in counter at gate 4C departing for Sweden. With an alarmingly fast check-in, Albert was two bags lighter and slowly unwinding in a first-class airplane seat by the window. Life couldn’t get too much better so he let himself slowly enter the magical world of La-La-Land. For the next ten hours nothing would bother Albert because visions of Jinx’s fur filled his head.

“Sir, wake up, we’re in Stockholm.” called the piqued voice of a flight attendant. Albert, confused from sleep, sat up and rubbed his eyes vigorously. After his eyes again refocused, he slowly lifted his body out of the airplane seat and grabbed his two duffel bags from the overhead bin. “Thank you for waking me, madam,” Albert replied with an equal amount of happiness.

An hour later, Albert flipped through the damp soggy airport phonebook in search of Ms. Haag’s phone number. (357)-555-9638 Albert clumsily pushed the miniscule buttons of his cell phone with his fat fingers. “Hello, this is Gertrude,” proclaimed a very business-like voice.

 “Gertrude, this is Albert.”

“Hey, Albert!”

“Hey, I’m at the airport. My plane just landed. I wanted to know where to meet you.”

“Well, I was just heading out the door to the factory, so I guess you can just meet me there. Is that all right with you?”

“That’s fine. Where is the factory?”

“It’s on Smorgasbord Drive”

Albert caught yet another taxi. The trip to the factory was very scenic, even though they drove through downtown Stockholm. The taxi made its way across a dozen bridges that all crossed crystal-clear water of the frigid Arctic Ocean. After missing the tum-off for Smorgasbord Drive three times, the taxi driver finally figured out the confusing streets and let Albert out right in front of the towering factory building free of charge. Albert, with much effort, for he was pathetically out of shape, climbed the fifteen steep cement steps up to the entrance of  Gertrude’s factory. As soon as he walked in he was hit in the face with the warm air that that the factory’s many heaters were producing.
The weather in Stockholm was stifling cold, with a high temperature in the twenties.

Gertrude popped out from behind a dark comer causing Albert to grasp with fright. The coffee from Starbucks earlier had left him quite jittery and extremely jumpy. Gertrude seemed very pleased with herself at scaring him so and stared at him with a smile pursed on her lips. Albert suddenly questioned the woman’s sanity and almost decided to bail out when he remembered what he was there for. He would play her game, he decided defiantly. With newly found confidence, he straightened his back and asked in a clear voice “Where is Jinx?”

“Follow me!” grinned Gertrude excitedly.

She took him through a maze of dark hallways that possessed the aura of a dungeon. Finally, Gertrude paused at the heavy wooden door with a security keypad stationed right beside it. Secretly, she hunched her back just enough so that the highly interested Albert would be unable to obtain the confidential code needed to enter the important room. Three beeps and the dark splintery door slid open. The room was very small and contained only a small dusty television, and sitting in the middle of the room was the cage holding the beautiful cat that would make them both rich. It was just a shame that the cat’s eyes couldn’t be used as something for they were the biggest balls of yellow either one of them had ever seen. Both looked at the confused creature in awe. After Gertrude got hold of herself, she began to spurt off the cat’s history, which was of no interest to Albert until she stated “Jinx is actually King Eric’s kitty.” You would’ve died if you had seen him begging on the news for Jinx back. He even offered a one-million-dollar reward. It’s so pathetic.” Albert’s ears quickly perked up to this. One million dollars! Gertrude was a complete fool! She would never get even near that much money by selling the Jinx’s fur coat. All of a sudden, a very sneaky thought crept into Albert’s mind. What if he was to take the cat and return it to the King himself and get that reward money? The only problem was getting the cat out of the factory without Gertrude being aware. He innocently questioned where the royal palace was. “It’s only two blocks away!” she exclaimed and showed him the elegant structure through the small dirty window in the room. 

Albert thought of a way to get Jinx out when Gertrude announced that she had to go the bathroom. This was his chance, he realized. As soon as the bathroom door was shut all the way, he undid the dinky latch that held Jinx captive in the cold metal cage. Carefully he tiptoed over to the big wooden door with the furry bundle under his thin jacket. Fortunately, you didn’t need the three-number code to open the door, so he quietly continued out the door and through the maze of hallways until he found the main entrance and broke into a full run until the factory was out of sight. Only then did he slow his pace to a jog, which was incredible for his out-of-shape body. Adrenaline pumped through his veins in a tumultuous surge. By the time he fell upon the steps to the royal palace, he was nearly exhausted.

Back at the factory, the unaware Gertrude was just unlocking the bathroom door. As she opened the door, she was quickly let down when she realized that both Jinx and Albert were missing. Her biggest nightmare was now becoming a terrifying reality. Totally sure of defeat, Gertrude did not even bother to search the factory. While breaking down into hysterical sobs, Gertrude decided what she would do. Sadly, on that very cold day in Sweden, Gertrude hopped into an assembly machine and took her life.
Albert, not knowing that his evil decision would cause so much disaster, merrily recovered from his exercise and skipped up the two stairs that led to the palace doors guarded by two watchmen. He quickly explained that he had found the royal cat and even showed them the shivering ball of fur. In a matter of seconds, Albert found himself seated in an overstuffed chair in front of the King’s desk. He was in heaven when King Eric himself came regally into the room and sat in the chair behind the rich mahogany desk. In the King’s hands was Jinx himself sleeping peacefully, seeming to have forgotten the factory and the insane Gertrude. 

“I suppose you know of the reward I put out for the return of Jinx?”

“I certainly do, but you really shouldn’t.” lied Albert.

“No, I insist.”

“All right! Do you think I could hold Jinx just one more time, though?”

“Of course, go ahead.”

Albert picked up the cat with feigned affection. He again sat down in the chair across from the King with Jinx in his lap and began to make small talk when he felt something wet and slimy on his hand. He looked down and realized slowly what the wet liquid all over his hand was. Albert sprang from the chair and launched the cat through the air, yelling “You disgusting beast! I should’ve made you into a coat when I had the chance!”

The King watched the drama with his mouth hanging wide open, almost causing him to drool. When he realized that Albert was not indeed a hero but a thief, he quickly tore up the check that he had been writing. Five guards posted outside of the door quickly busted into the room and carted the hysterical Albert off. The King rushed over to his hurt kitten and yelled to his guards to behead the evil Albert.

Now, a month later, with thieves Albert and Gertrude dead, the King had two fur coats sent out to each mother with a letter written by that King explaining the incident. Although the King never received a thank-you note back from the mothers, he didn’t care, because he had his beloved cat Jinx safely at home with him.

Mnemonic Tip: Bring a Palace Home from Your Next Trip

Photo by David Yu

The second in a series of short posts on new wrinkles for old mnemonic techniques. What all have in common is that I have found them useful and have seen them described nowhere else.

Many contemporary computers include a GPU, a special-purpose chip for rendering 3-D graphics. This is a big help for computer games that involve running around in a 3-D environment and blowing things up.

There is then considerable interest in hacking the GPU; that is, using all that heavy computing power to do other computations that have nothing to do with graphics. Cracking passwords is one of the shadier options.

I mention this because I like to think of mnemonic techniques as hacking the human brain in a similar way. If we could see a schematic of the brain's design, it would include all kinds of special-purpose processors. There is one that recognizes faces, for example. We know this because in some people the face-recognition processor appears to be broken. Most mnemonic techniques recruit parts of the brain that would ordinarily not be involved in a particular task—by encoding numbers as images, for example, This has been at least partly verified by neuroimaging, and gives some substantive meaning to the unscientific statements one hears that "most people use X% of their brains, but I use Y%." Mnemonic techniques allow you to use more parts of your brain to remember things.

The "Palace" in the title of this post is a memory palace. The point of a memory palace is to leverage the brain's ability to associate things with particular locations for purposes of memorization. The "palace" need not be (and indeed usually is not) an actual "palace", but rather any kind of place familiar to the individual with several sublocations. Generally one visualizes something in each sublocation of the palace in order to fix it in memory. Later, the memorized objects can be recalled by mentally visiting the sublocations in an orderly fashion.

Almost always a particular sequence of sublocations is defined so that the memorized items can be recalled in order. It need not be so, however. One could use the mental map to place memorized items on a two- or even three-dimensional grid. This is a subject for future study.

An obvious choice for a memory palace would be your own house, office, school, etc. This has the advantage of familiarity. It does not, however, make for much fun. After all, you see your own house every day; there is little thrill in thinking about it.

I much prefer to use a location that I enjoy visiting. This way, using the memory palace is not only practical but brings to mind pleasant memories.

For example, the first memory palace I constructed was based on my trip to Svalbard, mostly the town of Longyearbyen, where I spent most of my time (and had an awesome time). The first location is the tarmac of the airport:

(This is how all airplane trips should end. You know you've arrived some place.)

The second location is the airport's single baggage-claim belt:

(Calm yourself, the bear is not alive. The town of Longyearbyen probably has the world's largest per-capita ratio of mounted polar bears. You run across them everywhere. I picture a scene wherein every time some poor decrepit polar bear wanders into town, they shoot it with a sigh and then call around, "All right, who wants this one?")

And so on and so forth, for a total of 54 locations (which is where I ran out of ideas).

I commit the palace to memory using Anki—a card for each location, tying the sequence number to a description of the place. The description only has to be good enough that I will recall what it means. For example, "gear shop interior".

For my last trip, I added a new wrinkle. On the trip I make a point of photographing locations for a memory palace. This differs from usual vacation photos in that it includes a lot of locations that people don't usually bother to photograph—a hotel vending machine, for example. The photos go into the Anki deck, which again raises the pleasure factor of reviewing the cards. One can also cull photos from Google Streetview, Flickr, hotel websites, or the Internet in general.

And the benefit of this memory palace works both ways. Not only is it a tool for memorizing shopping lists or lists or whatever, but by using the palace over time you will reinforce your knowledge and memories of the place in itself, how to find your way around and what's where.

Batman's Sock Drawer

So look what happens at about 1:15 into the following video segment:

Notice what you do not see here: Batman opening a drawer and rummaging through it... "Where is that grappling hook?" That would be bad. Assuming he locates it eventually, he would be distracted and hardly in shape to run out and confront the Joker.

Switching movies for a minute, consider the (hypothetical) mind-expanding pill that forms the basis for Limitless. What is the first thing that Eddie Morra does after taking the pill and becoming a genius? He cleans up his apartment.

Note also that Paul Kyriazi's Rule 3 of the James Bond Lifestyle is: "My base of operations is clean and organized."

A clean, uncluttered environment promotes a peaceful and efficient mind. Or conversely, a cluttered environment is stressful and depressing. Women seem to understand this intuitively better than men, and sometimes cope with stress or melancholy by cleaning house. This is a good idea. It takes little mental or physical energy and promotes a feeling of well-being.

But let's get back to Batman and his organizational skills. Notice how everything he needs is right there. All he need do is reach out and pick it up.

What do you want to bet that Bruce Wayne's sock drawer is just as organized? No digging through the drawer looking for the socks with the little bats on them. All he does is open the drawer and immediately he sees his favorite socks.

You may think you are managing pretty well by at least keeping your socks in a separate drawer from your spoons, but why not level up your life is a small way by organizing your sock drawer like Batman? Thanks to one of the deleted scenes, which inexplicably consists of twenty minutes of Alfred folding laundry, I can now demonstrate for you just how Batman folds his socks:

You can then lay them out in your drawer just like Batman's supply of ninja-bat-stars. Perhaps, though, you have so many socks that the bottom of the drawer is covered before you run out of socks. I can suggest two ways of handling this.

One is to put the socks in edgewise, so that they take about 1/4 the horizontal space. You can fit four times as many socks and still see all of them at the same time. If you still don't have enough room, then face it, you have just too many socks.

The other option (which I use) is to stack socks as necessary, but always stack like on top of like (since I have several identical pairs). Then you can always see one of each type at a glance.

I confess to being inspired somewhat by decluttering guru Marie Kondo, although I haven't read or watched enough of her to actually copy anything. Marie Kondo is about the least Batman-like figure you can imagine, but I gather she does present a spiritual aspect to decluttering.

Learn Foreign Languages like James Bond

Check out the podcast I contributed to the Being James Bond site on learning foreign languages.

Mnemonic Tip: Use a Standard Shopping List as Pegs

The first in a series of short posts on new wrinkles for old mnemonic techniques. What all have in common is that I have found them useful and have seen them described nowhere else.

A prosaic use of mnemonic techniques is to memorize a shopping list. Several standard methods approaches would be suitable. Simplest would be to link each item to the next in a chain. Or if one has a set of numeric peg words, one could associate each item on the list to a peg word in sequence. Briefly, having memorized a set of objects ("pegs") corresponding to numbers, one creates vivid mental images linking each peg with an item on the list. Mentally running through the list of pegs brings to mind the items on the list. 

Or one could use a memory palace, visualizing each item at a location in the palace sequentially. This is generally what I do, using a memory palace based on the time I spent in Svalbard (more to say about this in a future post). The method works well (why wouldn't it?); however, I noticed that I ended up using the same images repeatedly, or worse, little variations on the same image, with only a slight change in location. Because of course there are certain items that I buy repeatedly, and the sequence of items on the list is irrelevant.

So I decided to turn it around. Make a numbered list of my most popular groceries. Commit it to memory, and then the grocery items themselves become a list of numeric peg words available for other purposes.

Self-revelation time: Here is my list.

1. Bananas
2. Milk
3. Dr. Pepper
5. Eggs 

Which is not to say that this is all I eat, but merely that these particular items I end up buying more often than anything else.

On any trip to the grocery store, I run through this list to see if I need anything on it. Other items go into the Svalbard memory palace as usual.

And, then again, suppose I want to memorize the five members of "The Greatest Concert Ever" Jazz Quintet. I could do it as follows:

1. Bananas→Charlie Parker, saxophone. Charlie Brown attempts to play a saxophone sitting in a parked car, but only bananas come out.

2. Milk→Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet. Trumpets emerge from the udders of a cow, swirling around until they make the cow dizzy. (Udders are generally my mental symbol for "milk"; "Gillespie" is not going to be a problem since I know only one jazz musician [only one human being, for that matter] named "Dizzy".)

3. Dr. Pepper→Bud Powell, piano. A chili pepper wearing a head mirror (my standard image for "Dr. Pepper") examines Colin Powell. Ah, here's the problem! This flower bud growing out of your nose. We'll smash it under the piano lid.

4. Kind bars→Charles Mingus, bass. Charlie Brown (him again) smashes a priceless Ming vase with a huge Kind bar. The bass that was swimming inside flops around on the floor.

5. Eggs→Max Roach, drums. Mad Max cracks an egg on the edge of his drum. Roaches swarm out.