Do you ever get the feeling that there's something important that you're forgetting? Maybe it's the name of your new coworker, or directions to the pet store, or, hypothetically, the subject of your next article at the curiosity-fueling publication you work for. Hmm ... oh, that's right! The memory palace, a time-honored technique for remembering a truly astonishing amount of stuff. Step into the foyer and we'll show you around.
If you were to give your memory a physical shape, what would it be? Is your memory like a filing cabinet with everything you've ever seen carefully organized and cross-filed for easy access? Or is it more like a slightly leaky bucket — you can hold on to a memory for a little while, but unless you keep replenishing it, it will eventually fade away? Don't be embarrassed if you're more the latter than the former. Most of us are. And in fact, it's pretty interesting to see exactly how those memories fade away, get misplaced, or are transformed by time.
Leaks in Your Memory Bucket
As you might have seen on the show "Sherlock," there's a different way to think about your memory that could give yourself a permanent boost. The memory palace (or mind palace, or method of loci) is a mnemonic device that transforms a physical location into an easy-to-navigate mental storehouse. Now, Benedict Cumberbatch certainly didn't invent the technique, and neither did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, the original character of Holmes didn't even have a particularly good memory. In "Study in Scarlet," the first Holmes story, he even forgot that the Earth revolved around the sun. No, the memory palace goes all the way back to ancient Greece.
A Dinner Party to Remember
In a fairly dark account told by the legendary Roman statesman Cicero, this method was devised by the Greek poet Simonides after a dinner party that went pretty much as badly as possible. First of all, the wealthy host insulted Simonides' poem. And as if that weren't bad enough, the party ended when the roof collapsed and crushed every single guest beyond recognition — except for Simonides, who had been mysteriously called away before it happened. Fortunately, he was able to help. By remembering where each of the guests were sitting, he could reunite the guests' remains with their mourning families. He realized that he could use a similar spatial method to remember less morbid information as well.
Welcome to Castle Cognition
In "Sherlock," the mind palace takes the form of an imaginary estate that doesn't quite make spatial sense. Holmes only uses it to keep memories safe; it doesn't need to actually function as a home. This isn't how you should build your own memory palace. It's actually pretty important that the place you choose isn't just a real one; it's also one that you're intimately familiar with. Your own house, your office, or even the route you drive to work are all great choices for this. Made your choice? Here's how it works.
Let's say that you have a huge list of errands you need to run today, and you're worried you'll forget one of them. You need to go grocery shopping, pick up the dry cleaning, get an oil change, find a birthday present, and take the cat to the vet. Sure, you could make a list, but why waste the paper?
Instead, think very carefully about the layout of your house. Imagine coming home and walking up the steps to the front door. As you pull out your keys, you notice a pair of grocery bags playing around on your front lawn, pushing each other in the swingset (the more outlandish you envision something, the more likely it is you will remember it). You enter the house and stand in the vestibule, where you're suddenly swarmed by a flock of freshly pressed dress suits. Pushing past them, you walk into your living room, where your car is relaxing in a kiddie pool full of black oil. As you pass the bathroom, you hear strains of "Happy Birthday" being played, and you peek inside to discover somebody has replaced your shower curtain with wrapping paper. Finally, you make it to your kitchen in the back of the house. There's your cat, sitting at the table with a thermometer in its mouth. "I really don't feel great," it says to you.
The point is, you know the layout of your house, and you don't have to think very hard to imagine getting around it. That makes it easy to envision major changes that will stick in your mind. It's not just a list; it's a list livened up with exotic details and grounded in firm reality. The combination makes it easy to add more items and more details as necessary, too. For example, you could actually enter the bathroom in your mind palace for more details about the birthday present — perhaps you add a tiny dinosaur fighting Luke Skywalker on the toilet paper to remind yourself of your daughter's two biggest fandoms, and leave a pile of socks soaking in the shower to remind you what not to get her. While it might seem convoluted, memory palaces work. We have to wonder if that's how Cumberbatch memorized his lines.
I recently ran these two--do you remember?
Here's one version of the song "Memory":
And here's another:
Here's one for you if you're a mother: