Building Your Memory Palace & Encoding Elaborately
Dating back to Ancient Greece, where orators would memorize entire speeches and books using the technique, the Memory Palace works by harnessing our capacity for spatial memory. Here’s how it works: key chunks of information are stored in imagined physical locations in your mind and this allows you, the creator of your memory palace, to essentially walk through a familiar space, like your house, and store information at key locations.
Elaborate encoding works by taking abstract concepts, like language, and adding associative hooks to them. There’s something called the Baker / Baker paradox that illustrates this really simply, and it’s how Foer explains the concept in his book.
If you tell two people to remember the word ‘Baker’ but you tell one person that it’s a man’s last name, and the other person that the man is a baker by profession, you’ll get very different results. The person who was told that the man was a baker by profession will be much more likely to remember the word. Why? It’s because you can easily picture things associated with someone who’s a baker by profession. For me, the smell of bread, dough on a baking board, muffin trays, a flour-covered apron, and a big baker’s hat are all things that I associate with the profession Baker. These images rush into my mind without having to really think about them and help me encode the data. With ‘Baker’ as a last name, there’s nothing that I can visualize – I don’t know what this “Mr. Baker” looks like or anything about him and therefore I have no hooks to associate and encode the data. As a result, it’s easily forgotten.
Let’s combine these techniques and try and memorize a list of 4 everyday tasks. Here’s my list:
- Pick up laundry detergent
- Make a reservation at my favourite restaurant for Saturday night
- Email my cousin about the family BBQ
- Sketch out some potential logo ideas for a new client
Alright, that’s my list. Now let’s choose a memory palace. I’m going to use my apartment for the purposes of this example, but you can use any physical space that you’re really familiar with. Starting with the “pick up laundry detergent” task, I’m going to open the front door to my apartment. I can picture my doormat and the salt stains (this might just be a Canadian problem) on the hardwood floor. I can see the line of shoes running parallel to my front hallway. If I look up to my left I can see coats hanging on the wall and that crack in the drywall that seems to be steadily getting bigger. Looking forward towards the curling staircase that leads up into the main floor of my apartment I’m going to picture a bright orange bottle of Tide detergent. I can smell the fresh scent of lavender in the air and see the grooves in the dark purple cap. This isn’t an ordinary bottle of detergent though. This bottle has arms and it’s lifting weights. It’s got a headband on and it’s doing bicep curls. Tiny beads of sweat are slowly running down the neck of the bottle. I have to sneak past it and as I head up the stairs I start to hear a phone ringing. I turn left at the top of the stairs and walk into the TV room. I can see my green leather sectional couch and my cheap, black Ikea coffee table. On the table sits a phone and it’s ringing but it’s not like any phone I’ve ever seen before. The phone is made entirely of pizza. The buttons are made of pepperoni and the console is made of cheese. Floating above the phone is a tiny solar system. It’s our solar system and I can see Saturn and it’s iconic rings. As I step back, now wishing I had a pizza to eat, I turn and head towards the bathroom. I walk past the hot water pipes that lead into the hallway radiator and with each step that I take, the hardwood floors creak underneath me. I open the door to the bathroom and I can hear what sounds like a keyboard clicking away. It seems to be coming from the shower so I pull back the nautically themed shower curtain (also an Ikea purchase!) and to my surprise, there’s a massive drum barbecue in my shower. I open the bright red lid and there’s a computer slowly turning on a spit roast, the keys slowly clicking away. The scent of burnt plastic is overpowering. As I exit the bathroom and head farther towards the back of my apartment I slowly start to notice that the walls are starting to change. They no longer look real, as if they’re slowly fading from actual walls, to rough sketches of walls (like in the music video for Aha’s ‘Take On Me’). By the time I reach the kitchen, the entire back half of my apartment is a sketch and there’s a giant pencil still drawing the fridge.
That’s my memory palace. It took several minutes to write out here but maybe 30 seconds to think up. Essentially what I’ve done is gone task by task and thought up vivid and often outlandish images in distinct physical locations to represent each item I’d like to remember. If I walk through my memory palace quickly in my mind I can picture the weight-lifting bottle of Tide and I know that I need to pick up laundry detergent. I can see the pizza phone and Saturn’s rings and I know that I need to call and make a reservation for dinner on Saturday night. I can see the computer roasting on the barbecue and I know I need to email my cousin about the family barbecue. And lastly, seeing my apartment slowly turn into a giant sketch, I know that I need to make some sketches for that new client and that I kind of want to listen to that ‘Take On Me’ song now. In all likelihood, if I were to ask you what that list of items was several weeks from now, you’d be able to remember it with surprising detail.
This ultimately works as well as it does because of something called “chunking”. We’re giving each task that we need to remember it’s own physical space and assigning it highly engaging and visual chunks of information. It’s the combination of a familiar physical space with elaborate imagery that makes it so easy to remember. Of course that example was only four items and that wouldn’t be too challenging to remember anyway, but when you get into 20 or 30 items, or several decks of cards, the power of the method becomes very apparent, very quickly.