How To Memorize Anything - The Memory Palace

I consider myself to be a reasonably smart person. I speak multiple languages, read daily, and tend to develop minor obsessions in becoming an expert on topics that interest me. However, I have for a long time been embarrassed about my lack of basic knowledge when it comes to geography, particularly in naming the countries and capitals when looking at a map. This is where my newest obsession of learning how to memorize anything began. 

Having decided to take the time to memorize every country and it's capital city I decided to pick up a book called Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, to try and maximize my efforts. To my surprise what I discovered was a whole new world in which creativity was the determining factor.

The book follows Joshua Foer, a journalist with no previous memory training, as he practises to become the next USA Memory Champion. Drawing upon cutting edge research the book delves into some of the techniques used by self proclaimed 'mental athletes' that enable them to have seemingly super human memories. The exciting part is that the techniques used are actually incredibly simple and can be learned by anyone with just a little bit of time and effort. 

I decided to try out some of these 'memory tools' also known as mnemonics, by practising with a deck of playing cards. If you're curious the world record for memorizing an entire deck of cards is 21.90 seconds held by Simon Reinhard. The main principle behind any strong memory is being able to associate the thing to remember with something that is more vivid and vibrant so that it will stick in your memory. Synesthesia is a condition that causes a tangling of the senses effectively making one sense activate when another is used. People with this condition may experience the sense of taste when they hear a specific word or a particular sound may be experienced as a colour. Daniel Tammet, who experiences synesthesia, is considered a prodigious savant. He is capable of reciting the mathematical constant pi to 22,500 decimal places, can complete complex mathematical equations in his head such as 37 raised to the fourth power, and can currently speak 9 languages, claiming to be able to learn a new one in just a week. The secret to his incredible ability to retain information he says lies in the condition that allows him the 'see' numbers and words as colours, temperatures, and other sensations. To him the number 117 is described as being handsome, tall, and lanky while the number 6 has no distinct image but instead feels empty and like "nothingness". Instead of memorizing numbers Daniel is actually vividly experiencing complex and unique combinations of sensations that he associates with individual numbers and is so able to remember them with extreme accuracy. What if average people like you or me were able to apply the same techniques consciously instead of unconsciously as is the case for Daniel. In fact we already do this a lot more often than we might expect!

For example, you probably can't recall what you had for breakfast on July 8, 2016. However, if your above the age of 30 you can probably remember not only what you had for breakfast, but also where you were and who you were with on the morning of September 11, 2001. That is because you have associated something normal that happens every day and is easily forgotten with something horrific and impossible to ever forget. Our brains are capable of retaining extraordinary amounts of information as long as we have something to associate it with. Humans are not evolved to be good at remembering phone numbers, addresses, or the names of strangers. In our hunter gatherer times the concept of numbers hadn't even been invented yet, we didn't stay in one place for extended periods of time, and we only engaged with a few close family members and other members of our group. What we were evolved to be good at was remembering the quickest and safest path to a water source after just a single trip, being able to distinguish between what plants were poisonous and which were safe to consume, and between which animals were predators and which were prey. We evolved to associate certain smells with disgust telling us to avoid them, and to be intensely attracted to the taste of sugar, a rare but valuable source of energy. What I learned to do in regards to memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards, something I am not evolved to be good at, was figuring out how to tap into the areas of my brain responsible for spacial awareness and image processing and then connect the two into a singular memory. I trained my brain to associate these individual playing cards with vivid, textured, and sensory rich images that I could clearly visualize.   

The way I did this was by taking the first letter of the card's suit and making a new word from it. So for Hearts all the words start with H and for Clubs with C. Additionally, the value of the card also determines a letter towards the middle or end of the word. For example 6 became an S or SH, 9 became a P, and 3 became an M. The six of clubs would become C_SH and so I filled out the blank with an A to make it the word CASH. Now whenever I see the 6 of Clubs I will always think of holding cash in my hand, specifically a paper note. The 3 of Hearts became H_M so I filled the blank with an E so that I could make the final word HEMINGWAY. All of the picture cards I gave words that in some way related to one another without using set beginning letters or value determined last letters. The Queen of Diamonds became a necklace made out of turquoise rocks, the King of Clubs became an artillery cannon that I changed into a Canon lens shifting into focus, the Ace of Spades became pink clay poker chips that I could feel in my hands and so on.

Now that I had given each individual card a corresponding word that I could make into a vivid image, I practiced associating one image with another. This was for two reasons, the first being that it would allow me to remember a single image instead of 2 separate ones, but still be able to get 2 cards out of that image. Instead of remembering a burning candle (Four of Clubs) followed by a bottle of perfume (Queen of Hearts), I could combine the two images together to create a scene in which perfume sprays onto the flame causing the perfume to ignite in a fire ball. The second reason for combining images is that it creates a much more memorable image that is often bizarre and unlikely to accidentally remind you of anything else. The image of lime juice being squeezed onto a laughing head is pretty unique.

Now that each pair of cards has become a single, vivid, and easy to recall memory it is now time to be able to remember their order. As I mentioned earlier, humans have evolved to be very adept at remembering how to get from one place to another. We can't remember the address of a friends house but if we walk their even just once following our google maps we are likely to be able to find the same way there without help the next time. Some might say that they are bad with directions, but considering this. Try remembering a place that you have only been to once. Maybe a friends home for a dinner party, a hotel you stayed in on vacation, or a restaurant you enjoyed. I would bet that if you thought about it you would be able to remember a surprising amount of information about this space that you really only saw once or twice and perhaps even years ago. You can probably remember where the main entrance to the room was located, where the windows were, how many doors there were and to what other rooms they lead to. You may not be able to remember every detail, but if you think about it you are probably able to visualize quite a vivid image in your mind. Now take your own home or the home you grew up in. Here you can likely remember even the smallest of details regarding furniture placement, smells, framed photos, and even which way the doors open. These types of locations, the ones that you can remember as if you are actually there looking at it, are the places that you can use to create your 'memory palace'.

A 'memory palace' can consist of many different rooms and locations, the only criteria is that you have to be familiar with them and know their basic layout. Such places can be the house your currently live in, your childhood home, the path you walk everyday to get from your parked car to your office, or your local super market. The concept behind a memory palace is that you can place things that you are trying to remember in the various rooms that you are familiar with, then retrace your steps at a later point when it comes time to remember and find each vivid image exactly where you left it. For example, lets take just the first 5 images from the video I made above and place them in rooms around the house you are currently living in. Imagine that you are walking towards the front door of your current house. It is a pitch black night, the street lights are off, and the moon is hidden away by clouds. As you approach the door you see a burning candle that barely emits light sitting on your doormat. Unable to see where the key hole is you take a bottle of perfume positioned next to the candle and spray it on the flame, making a giant fireball that lights the entire door for a brief second, enabling you to see the key hole and get in. When you get in you turn on the nearest light switch to brightly light up the entire house. When you touch the switch you realise that it is covered in slippery soap and that it is dripping onto a beautiful turquoise necklace that was lying beneath it. You continue into your home and take off your shoes, placing them next to an odd looking pair of leopard print shoes made with real leopard fur that you can see has been neatly brushed with a hair brush. You walk into your living room and sit down on the couch to read a page from your new Hemingway book. Removing the dollar bill that you used as a bookmark you begin to read. After finishing the page you get up and walk into the kitchen where you discover a family member desperately trying to take a photograph of your oven using their canon camera and a pair of sunglasses as a lens filter.

Without going back and reading try to start from the beginning outside of your house. Retrace your steps and see if the images have stuck. If they have and if they had been images you had previously come up with yourself in order to remember something you would be able to remember the first 10 things in order, and will probably still be able to remember them a month from now. This technique can be used for anything you wish, as long as you have enough memory place locations to draw upon. You can use this technique to remember the names of new people you meet at busy events. Quickly change their name into an image, place their face and the corresponding image into a position in your designated memory palace. For example, you meet Will Langdon (fresh from an online random name generator I just used) and decide to turn his name into something you can visualize. Will becomes Will Smith and Langdon sounds like London, so you decide to imagine Will Smith making an important phone call in a London style phone booth while the person you just meet is knocking on the door asking him to hurry up. Place this bizarre scenario in your childhood bathroom and you can be sure that you will remember his name the next time your see him. Do this a couple of times and you will get quicker and quicker until it will becomes second nature. The applications are endless and the creativity it entails is both fun but also stimulates your brain in a way that keeps it attentive and focused, which is always a good thing.  

I intend to use these memory tools to help me excel in networking situations where being able to recall someones name at the end of a first conversation will likely make them remember you because they will subconsciously feel like you connected. I will also use these tools to once and for all commit all the world's countries and capitals to memory. Who knows what else these tools can be used for!?

Please email me if you have any questions, would like to know more, or simply found the subject interesting and have a comment! I will make sure to reply!