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.

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