Reinventing the memory palace. Everything must stay!

Apologies to regular readers, this post is going to stray a little bit from my normal material, but the recent series of Sherlock reminded me that I wanted to do a blog post on memory palaces, normal service will be resumed shortly, unless, of course, it turns out I like writing about this stuff.

Let’s talk about memory palaces.

First of all – I actively dislike the name, it sounds really quite pretentious – I think ‘memory index’ makes you sound a lot less of an arse if you say it aloud.

Nevertherless, they are incredibly useful structures: not just for making sure that things that are important don’t leak out of your head, but also for things like meditation, insomnia, and, if I’m honest, the pure pleasure of construction.

This post, starts with an illustrative anecdote, then gives a list of arguments for putting together an indexing structure, then it’s going to give an overview of my own approach.

This post is only likely to be interesting to people who already have some experience with memory techniques and who have some experience in storing reasonable amounts of information. I’d encourage everybody else to read the very accessible book by Derren Brown, which, for all it’s flippancy, remains the more engaging introduction to the topic and it’s uses for the casual reader.

I’ve been interested in mnemonics for a long time and about five years ago I took 60 seconds to memorise my shopping list for the day. It went in perfectly, and even years later (I’ve been telling this story for a while) I could, after a mere moment’s hesitation, recite the list.

Having memorised the list of items I went off to town, had a wander around , picked up a few items, and came home. I didn’t pick up anything on my memorised list because I’d forgotten I had one. *sigh*

This wasn’t an isolated incident. More than once I’ve though ‘that would be a useful thing to memorise’ only to twig that I already had – I’d just not noticed at a time it would have been useful.

Clearly, this is not optimal. So I sat down and wrote down the list of the things that I’d memorised over the years – and found the list surprisingly long and full of things that would have been useful at some point.

After a little while of looking at the list, it occurred to me – I was pretty good at memorising lists. I could memorise this list. An index of memory…

It turns out that there are a bunch of sensible reasons for doing this:

  • No wasted effort: nothing gets put into your brain that is already there, and nothing gets added and left unused.
  • Confidence: if you’ve been doing this for a while you find that there is a lot more in your head than you ever thought, being able to rattle off the contents of the list becomes a bit annoying because it takes so long.
  • Maintenance: anyone who has played with mnemonics knows that they need to be run though occasionally because over time links do break and need to be refreshed.
  • Sleeping: tried counting sheep? Turns out that peacefully working your way though your whole index is a really good mix of mediation and visualisation. I very rarely get more than 30 or so links in.

My memory index has 25-30 entries in it, of varying lengths. I’m going to take you though the first few as an example of a structure.

First of all, you’ll need something to map to for your index. If you want to be traditional and have a true ‘memory palace’ then you can use a physical location, or you can use any sequence you know well enough. In my case I used the periodic table as my base sequence. It has everything I need: I know it well (it was one of the first things I memorised) and it has an implicit order. So my first few items are:

  1. Hydrogen. The poem If, by Kipling.
  2. Helium. The set of 53 reserved words in the Java Programming Language.
  3. Lithium. A list of friends a the gifts they gave me in order. This grows a lot.
  4. Beryllium. A list of quotations and references to things like Shakespeare and the odd holy book.
  5. Boron. A list of algorithms related to solving the rubiks cube (I’ll be honest, this hasn’t been used in years, and I suspect is full of holes…)
  6. Carbon – My National Insurance Number.
  7. Nitrogen
  8. Oxygen – I bound these two together (because laughing gas was too good an image to miss) and it matches the list of 15 Rugby Union positions.
  9. Fluoride – My bank details – sort codes account numbers, expiry dates and the long number on the front of the cards. Very useful, particularly if you lose your wallet occasionally.

That’s the first nine, the rest of the index contains such things as star signs, lists of the first 11 US presidents, stations on three or four of the London Underground lines, and so on and so forth. I doubt many of them will ever be useful again (and things like the list of gifts isn’t meant to be useful, it’s meant to be enjoyable to work though when you are sitting the back of a Taxi or stuck in a accounting presentation), but I think it’s worth having an index to make sure that you don’t forget the things that you went to some effort to remember.

Something that may seem odd, is that I also have the information printed out. It’s more a motivational thing than anything else – one day I sat down and typed out every bit of information that was reachable from the index. It’s astonishing to see it all written out. Even with small fonts, many columns and the more dense text I could barely fit it on a half dozen pages. And looking at it all laid out it really quite motivating.


(Page image from wikicommons)

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