To design a “Memory Palace” is to utilize a method of memorization first used by the ancient Greeks and Romans (also called, “The Method of Loci“) for curating great amounts of information in the brain for easy recollection. It employs a power drawn from the fusion of the imagination and spatial memory, which is responsible for the recording of information about one’s environment in the form of a cognitive map that one can navigate through as if it were an actual part of the physical world.
One’s imagination isn’t drawn from one particular part of the brain, but all of them combined. If you were to imagine a math problem, you’d be activating your prefrontal cortex; if you were to imagine yourself practicing martial arts, your motor cortex would be activated; if you were to imagine a beautiful scene, you’d be working with your occipital cortex.
The hippocampus is what humans and animals rely on in order to navigate their way through the world. It’s the part of the brain that enables you the ability to remember how to walk through your own house, and find your way home if you’re lost in the woods.
The creation of a memory palace is the creation of a place in your mind that’s whole enough in detail for you to navigate in your dreams or in meditative deep thought.
…You may remember the movie, Inception.
In Inception, as depicted in the clip above, it was the objective of a team to infiltrate the minds of target individuals in order to steal or alter people’s thoughts or memories. The targets’ memories were personified in tokens, objects, or walking talking characters completely unique to the respective individual. It was the job of the architect to design entire dream worlds, realistic enough for the target to mistake as the real world, in order to be tricked into releasing private information that would otherwise never be known to the outside world.
Now, this movie, however brilliantly written it may be, is completely a work of fiction; however, the concept of materializing thoughts and memories in one’s brain is actually a very real concept that has been used by scholarly savants for hundreds of years.
Why it’s not taught in industrialized education is beyond me. For the use of memory palaces could and would revolutionize the way students learn information. Almost every student would get a 4.0 GPA if they were taught at an early age to funnel the output of each individual part of the brain that would make the imagination, in order to create a dream world in which they could freely roam and access memories, made tangible in a way unique to them, able to be navigated because of their hippocampus. Now, of course, simply because one may improve the performance of their brain with a memory palace doesn’t guarantee that they’ll always get perfect grades, because that also depends on a myriad of different circumstances, such as their motivation to study, their mental health, and the encouragement of their surrounding environment.
In the BBC version of Charles Augustus Milverton, for example, a fictional character who is one of the main nemeses of the iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes: within his head, he created a vast library of information that he calls: Appledor, a place that he designed and can walk around in, the same way that the architects in Inception created their dream worlds. In Appledor, he saves all of the private information of people he meets, particularly powerful people in governmental positions, in the form of paper files inside of his head, that he uses to blackmail others into doing what he wants.
He would never forget whatever information he saved in his memory palace, because he would save them in a mnemonic order that he would review every time he revisited his palace for a casual stroll, every time he sat down in the pure white room as depicted in the picture on the right.
They actually have national and international memory competitions for real people who utilize the method of loci, awards are given to whoever can remember the most amount of information in the shortest amount of time. The method has also been used by veterans who have been prisoners of war, who kept their sanity during torture by creating the house of their dreams in their heads, one brick at a time.
Creating My Memory Palace
The moment I heard about the memory palace, I was all over it. I wanted to learn how to create my own immediately, so that I could become like one of my idols: Sherlock Holmes. But surprisingly, there is very little information to be found on the Internet about how to actually build one. You could go to websites like wikiHow, but when I visited, the information I read there merely told me what I already knew from the surface, not actually how to do it in sufficient enough detail. However, I aim to remedy that with this article, if you continue reading, providing what I couldn’t find on the internet in hopes that it will help you to create your own.
It took about six months for me to fully design my own memory palace, with many failed attempts before I had managed to finish one. Unlike the award-winning mind-athlete in the New York Times article referenced above, I didn’t have any mentors for this endeavor; I was completely on my own, because no one around me in my respective social group even knew what a memory palace was, that it was real, or even what it was capable of if they had made one, among many other questions.
I had to teach myself, through trial and error, as if I were tasked to navigate the seven seas without a compass.
Teaching oneself anything in life requires constant vigilance and being honest with oneself; it requires one to believe in oneself, despite endless failure, and to constantly question one’s own reality for the sake of identifying any unseen or unacknowledged obstacles that may be impeding self-growth. Here are the obstacles that I went through while struggling with the creation of my palace.
Whenever I want to imagine something, it’s always easier to when I drown out the outside world with music. Personally, I’ve evolved from the heavy metal chaos of my youth, to being in favor of classical greats like Mozart, and neo-medieval music like Estampie (whose music was featured in the film, Kingdom of Heaven, a wonderful historical movie that I recommend everyone in the world to watch the Director’s Cut of at least once in their lifetimes), The Moon & The Nightspirit, and other primarily instrumental or cultural folk music of similar genres that I listen to every single day.
When I listen to the music, the grand scenes that I’m able to create in my mind are spectacular and fantastical; there is a story-line set in my mind to every single song or set of songs that I listen to.
Music is what keeps my mind sane during times of idleness, and gives me an instant boost to my creativity, and cognitive power. All of my mental abilities are enhanced when the right song is played, from visualization to motor skills of reflex and dexterity. So, I thought that music was a necessity to generating the creativity I needed.
I wasn’t wrong, per se; I was most certainly able to imagine vast landscapes filled with all sorts of dramatic action, but I couldn’t freely roam the territory for some reason. I couldn’t fully employ my hippocampus, because it would appear that I was creating linear fantasies by utilizing my occipital and motor cortexes that were controlled by the beat of the music.
In simpler terms: I could engineer great designs in my head, but I was distracted by the beat.
…and no matter what I did, I couldn’t be free in my own mind. I had to be honest with myself about the fact: in order for me to ascend to the next cognitive level, I had to relinquish the music.
At least, at first.
It was then that I began to realize that, for me, it was better to create the memory palace in stages. I had all of the tools necessary to create a captivating palace, but I was using them in the wrong order. Music definitely has its place in the creation of my memory palace, but it’s not what I should have been depending on to fuel my imagination at its source. Music, instead, should be the icing on the cake; the basic design of the world should already be finished before I put any music on, then I can let the music work its magic for creating hyper-realistic detail, as if I were adding graphic layers to the virtual world of a fully 3D free-roaming computer game.
My dependence on, or addiction to, music was holding me back, and I had to admit to myself that I had to liberate myself from this drug in order to attain what I wanted. For so long, I hadn’t even realized that I was actually addicted, by the dopamine that would be released into my brain every time I would experience the climax of a song which led to the climax of a story-line or fantasical depiction in my mind’s eye, which got me hooked.
Once I went through the 12-stage recovery process of liberation from my addiction to music, I went through a period where I couldn’t visualize much. I still listen to music of course, but I’m no longer dependent upon music as the source of my creative and cognitive ability. Learning to visualize without music was like learning how to walk again.
I overcame this by exercising my mind in blindfold chess, something I didn’t even think was a big deal until I posted the following video of me playing against my wife, and people sent me messages applauding what some people would think were superhuman abilities.
There’s nothing superhuman about playing blindfold chess, or creating a memory palace; it’s just about understanding basic neuroscience and working out your brain in order to harness or optimize its capabilities accordingly; that’s something anyone can do with daily practice or training.
NOTE: You can tell by my hair that this was pre-surgery. This video was made when I was very sick with tumors in my skull.
2. A Lack Of Inspiration
Even after my recovery, I was still bereft of ideas; I had reached a block of sorts, an emotional dissatisfaction with anything that my imagination produced. My first memory palace was something that I was going to visit all the time, probably for the rest of my life; I wanted it to be something that I felt poetically resembled who I am.
So how do you create an entire world…from nothingness?
It wasn’t until I woke up one morning and realized that there was an easier way: Skyrim.
That’s right, Skyrim. The cult-classic fantasy role-playing game that has taken the world by storm and revolutionized a generation of gaming.
I came to the epiphany that as a gamer of free-roaming 3D worlds like the aforementioned, my spatial memory and processing ability was already through the roof; I just hadn’t realized it and was mentally blocking myself by trying to reinvent the wheel, so-to-speak.
Anyone who’s played Skyrim thoroughly, or any open-world game (like Grand Theft Auto V, for instance) and can traverse the layout of the game without needing the built-in map, has already unconsciously dedicated the map to memory with a fully exercised hippocampus.
With a little focus and practice, one can fully develop what they remember from the games they play as a memory palace for storing loads of information.
If you’re an avid gamer, your spatial intelligence is already through the roof. Just use the maps that are saved in your brain from the games that you play!
This counter-intuitively makes playing Skyrim (or any game like it) an unorthodox but fantastic method of studying for exams! As long as I played the game for the sake of dedicating the entire map to memory, then meditate on that for a few minutes every morning and evening so that I can roam the map freely inside of my mind, I can then use places like the castle of Whiterun for storing answers to tests, and storing anything that I study!
At last, I had figured it out!
It’s just that I had to make sure that I played the game for the sake of building my memory palace, not for the distracting story-line, else I’d procrastinate from my schoolwork.
It’s simple. I just had to pick a place in Skyrim, play it for maybe 20 minutes every morning and 20 minutes every evening, then get off of the computer, meditate on what I saw in order to seal it as an actual place in my mind/memory that I can explore like a dream in my mind, then save whatever information I study where ever I want in the map in my mind, and then revisit it whenever I want in order to remember it.
For example, every room in the castle of Whiterun can be what stores the answer to any test I want.
…and that’s not cheating; that’s just a great method of studying.
I used Dragonsreach for practice, in order to get comfortable with the idea, allowing myself to fall into meditative trances long enough to become comfortable with and perfect my inner mental architectural skills, before I took on the herculean task of building my own original memory palace from scratch. I borrowed certain small elements from Skyrim as a tribute to the game creators for helping to make this major breakthrough in my cognitive abilities, but overall, the arrangement of my memory palace is unique to me and me only.
Think of your brain as an organic computer. I know it’s not actually a computer, but entertain the hypothetical: If you overload it with a game that has graphics that are too much for your processor or video-card to handle, your computer will overheat and crash.
The same kind of thing will happen to your brain; you could overload yourself with stress and, in the worst case scenario, cause a stroke, and/or get really stressed out.
Think of your short-term memory as the RAM, and your long term memory as the hard-drive. Think of your ability to process data (including, but not limited to, math) as the processor, and your ability to see things as the video-card.
1. Draw The Map
If you try to build your memory palace from the outside-in, you’ll probably fail, unless you’ve got a processor that puts both John Nash and Stephen Hawking combined to shame. You’ll overload your RAM, and overheat your video-card, mentally exhausting yourself, which is what I’d consider to be a crash.
Instead, I endorse that you’ll find it much easier to create it from the inside-out, starting with the bare-bones skeletal structure. I did this by drawing it on a whiteboard.
It’s imperative that you draw it out like this on some kind of whiteboard or paper, so that you don’t overload your short-term memory trying to remember everything that you imagine. Writing or drawing is the act of clearing your mental cache; it’s able to leave your RAM once it’s left on the paper, freeing up valuable mental resources you could use to visualize other things: the next step, for example.
Needless to say, you don’t actually need to be good at drawing; you just have to put what you visualize down in a way that you’ll uniquely be able to remember it. You’re not trying to impress anyone; you’re only trying to aid your own memory. What you draw is for you, and for you only.
What you draw is for you, and for you only.
2. Write A Super Detailed Walk-Through Of Your Palace
When I say “write”, I mean write. There’s something about the process of using a pen and paper to inscribe each individual word of description that seals it in your long-term memory far easier. You’ll also realize that during the time it takes for you to write every hyper-realistic detail of your palace on paper, you’ll be able to think of and/or visualize new things. If what you drew as a map on the whiteboard or piece of blank paper is the skeleton, think of your first written rough draft of your walk-through as the skin, the muscles, and inner organs.
I’ve provided a perfect example of my own memory palace walk-through for your reading pleasure, here. You may laugh at the nature of it, but remember: It was written for me and me only. I merely present it publicly in order to present a live example.
I think that you’ll find that physically writing out the tour of your memory palace in detail will be the most tedious part of the process, but the most rewarding. This is when I recommend to use music, since the skeletal structure of your palace is already expressed in the map that you’ve drawn at this point.
It took me two full days of nonstop writing in order to complete the 9-page exhibition of my memory palace. I sacrificed a single weekend by locking myself away in my house, but now that it’s complete, I’ve gained the ability to curate an entire universe of information from any topic of my choosing at will.
…and knowledge = power.
This does not mean that I’m some kind of super genius; it just means that I have a very disciplined and tidy brain that I’m more in control of than the average person. This style of memory palace is superb for long-term recollection; so, when I save things to it, I first break things down to the tiniest details that I possibly can, until I reach the first principles of their nature. Then, I save those first principles to my memory palace, and, in meditation that allows me to explore it, I build off of those first principles.
No matter how well I’m able to remember and figure things out, I’m still limited by concepts like boredom, fatigue, etc. that can negatively impact my performance in school, work, and other areas of life, despite the boost in cognitive ability. This will apply to you as well; this is not a panacea of instant genius.
You’re going to be tempted to write it in past-tense and address yourself in third-person, because that’s how they teach you to write short stories in school; however, don’t. Write it in present-tense, and speak to yourself by addressing yourself as “you” for a very specific mental trick that will be mentioned later in this article. Don’t worry about being thought of as narcissistic; it’s for a hypnotic purpose.
3. Type A Super Detailed Walk-Through Of Your Palace
Typing the second draft of your memory palace on a computer (or, perhaps even a typewriter?) will be like adding the skin and hair on top of the muscles and inner organs. During the editing process, you’ll undoubtedly think of things to add or take away, more details that come to mind.
Typing it is typically less tedious than writing it, and it also forces you to review what you’ve written once more, burning it further into your mental hard-drive, or long-term memory.
4. Make An Audio-Recording Of Your Walk-Through
This is why I said earlier to write your exhibition in present-tense, addressing yourself as “you”. When you make an audio-recording of your walk-through, like an audio-book:
- That further irons it into your long-term memory, but better yet…
- By adding the music that inspired you to the .mp3 file (or whatever you saved your recording as), you can revisit your palace in intimate detail by listening to the recording; this is vital for defragmenting your memory.
That’s right; I said “defragmenting“. We human beings typically save memories in waves that we forget over time, like a PC that sits for too long that develops errors in its memory.
This means, that in order to keep yourself from forgetting sections of your memory palace (or the entire thing altogether) it requires occasional upkeep, exactly the way an actual house would. Each time you visit your memory palace, you can use your finished walk through to re-visualize what you’ve designed. The more information you save in your palace, the more often you’re going to have to revisit it in order to retain everything. For some people, they may only have to meditate for five minutes once a week, once a month, or even once a year or so, depending on how much or little information they save in it.
Each time you visit your memory palace, you can use your walkthrough to re-visualize the foundation of what you’ve designed. The more information you save in your palace, the more often you’re going to have to revisit it in order to retain everything. For some people, they may only have to meditate for five minutes once a week, once a month, or even once a year or so, depending on how much or little information they save in it.
…for the kind of data that I read and put into my mind, it requires at least ten minutes of meditation twice a day, in either the morning or night, because I like to commit entire textbooks to memory.
More realistically though, I actually spend a lot of time in my memory palace, almost as a default of daydreaming and the playlists of music that I usually listen to that trigger the associative memories of it. Because you have to think: You’re basically ironing a fantastical world…in your head…with deliberate repetition. At some point, yes, it will seem like that’s where you just effortlessly and automatically go in your head whenever you drift off from whatever’s happening in the moment that bores you (e.g. a dull teacher).
5. Remember The Information That You Put Into Your Memory Palace With Unique Mathematical Notation
Once you’ve fully created your memory palace, and find yourself satisfied, you’re going to want to remember how to remember all of the data that you want to put into it. Remembering the architecture of your memory palace is one thing; remembering what you put in it is another.
There is an easy-to-learn algebraic notation or algorithm that I’ve designed myself. It’s not mandatory to use, but it can definitely aid you. If you’d like to learn it, click here.
Mike Norton is an American award-winning marketing strategist with a BA in Internet marketing from Full Sail University.
He’s also the CEO of Wolven Industries and OMI Firm, as a physicist studying part-time at the University of York. He is the bestselling independent author of Fighting for Redemption, and a veteran of the United States military who is a 7-time winner of the USS Dwight Eisenhower award for essays of world peace and respect.
As a mostly self-educated vagabond, he gains inspiration from a myriad of experiences wrought from the adventures of his nomadic lifestyle. He prolifically writes and journals where ever he goes in the world, from one country to the next.