Lesson 3: Memory Palaces

Today we get to the biggest part of mnemonics: Memory palaces.

A memory palace is a way to store your information in locations. There are many advantages to this:

(1) Location is one of the strongest mental types of memory we have. Our basic survival doesn’t usually depend heavily on remembering names, but everyone has to know how to get around.

(2) When you store information in a place, it becomes easily accessible. Just think of a place, and you can think of the memories that are stored there. It’s like a mental filing cabinet: You can always access the information when you need it.

(3) Memory palaces can be organized by various categories; you can store extra information simply based on where you place each piece of information.

This last tip is often neglected by many mnemonists, but it’s one of the most amazing features of memory palaces, as we’ll see today.

First exercise: Your house

Let’s do a quick memory palace exercise that quickly and simply demonstrate the power of location for memory.

Let’s say you want to make chili, and you have to go out and buy a bunch of items. Your smartphone is low on battery, so you decide to memorize the grocery list:

– ground beef

– one can of tomato

– 11 cans of beans

– cayenne powder

– fresh onions

– jalepeños

– shredded cheddar

– corn chips

What we’re going to do is use something that you know really well: Your own house.

The fact is, no matter what you think you’re “good” or “bad” at remembering, EVERYONE has to know how to get around. It’s such a fundamental skill that it’s one of the strongest forms of memory we have.

So think about your house, and imagine your own journey from your bed out the door. For many people, the journey looks something like this:

1. Bed

2. Shower

3. Bathroom sink

4. Stairs

5. Kitchen stove

6. Kitchen table

7. Coat closet

8. Front door

Your journey through your house may be different, but imagine yourself going from your bed out the door, and divide that journey into 8 distinct locations.

Great. Now we’ll imagine each of the grocery items with each of those locations.

For the first item, we’ll imagine the ground beef in your bed. To make it very memorable, we’ll pour the ground beef all over your pillow and imagine what it would feel like to have that stuff in your hair between your head and the pillow.

For the can of tomato sauce, we’ll imagine that there’s tomato sauce coming out of the shower. Imagine not only what that would look like, but also what it would smell like, trying to wash your hair with tomato sauce.

Third, we have the cans of beans. We could just imagine the cans in the sink, but instead, let’s open the cans in our imagination and fill the sink with beans, then think about what it would sound like for the sink to try to drain those beans. It would probably get clogged up. Also, imagine that you’re using the metal cans to try to smash the beans down the drain.

But how are you going to remember that you specifically need 11 cans? Well, if you can remember our number mnemonics from lesson 1, the image for number 11 is a “tooth”: Along with the beans going down the drain, try to imagine that part of the problem is a large tooth blocking the drain. That will remind you of the number 11 associated with the beans.

Fourth location: Powder cayenne all over the stairs. Imagine the dust that would rise up and make you cough hopelessly if you were to inhale it. (If you’re concerned that you’ll get this confused with another spice, for example pepper, imagine stepping on a cayenne pepper as well as the dust.)

Fifth location: After reaching the bottom of the stairs you go to the kitchen stove, but there are some onions smashed into the stove, making it impossible to use. Visualize the skins peeling and the onion juice running down the sides of the stove.

Sixth location: The kitchen table has turned into a giant jalepeño slice. If you tried to set a cup of coffee or tea on the table, it would fall through the jalepeño seeds to the floor.

Seventh location: When you open the coat closet, you see that there’s shredded cheddar covering your coat. You try to dust it off, but it’s slightly melted into the fabric.

Eighth location: As you open the front door, you hear a crunching sound. You look down to see corn chips all over the floor, and as you move the door, it drags and smashes them.

OK, so we’ve strongly established what’s in each location. Now, as an exercise, imagine yourself traveling through all these locations in your head. Can you remember what’s in each place?

That’s it. That’s what a memory palace is.

Intro to palace organization

Let’s get a bit more complex.

In the previous exercise, we used 8 locations throughout your house. But what if you want to store more than 8 pieces of information?

Good news. Not only can you store much more information than that, you can actually categorize that information using your memory palace.

For example, if you have both an upstairs and a downstairs, you can put one category of information in several locations upstairs, and then another category of information in all the downstairs rooms.

And then, if you’re learning a language, you might put all subject pronouns upstairs and all object pronouns downstairs. That way, when you think of one of these pronouns, you immediately know whether it’s a subject or an object based on whether it’s upstairs or downstairs.

But then, you can divide even further. Many languages separate object pronouns between “direct” objects and “indirect” (or “dative”) objects. Although both categories are objects, they’re used in different situations. But that’s easy: Even though they’re all downstairs, you can put all the direct objects in one of your downstairs rooms, while the indirect objects are stored in another downstairs room.

And then you can categorize even further. Within your “indirect object” room, you can put the second-person indirect objects on one end of the room (your images for “to you” and “to all of you”), the first-person indirect objects on the other end (“to me” and “to us”), and your third-person indirect objects on the sides (“to him”, “to her”, “to them”).

So you see, you’re taking the information that you need to learn and organizing it. First it gets sorted out generally (subject versus object), then in smaller and smaller categories.

And best of all, this whole categorization will stay in your memory very strongly, because it’s all location-based.

Guided exercise: Dinosaur classification

As an example of how to learn complex subjects using memory palaces, we’re going to memorize dinosaur classifications. Actually, we’re just going to start the project; if you like, you can continue on your own.

The highest-level classification is order Saurischia (stress “risk”) versus order Ornithischia (stress “thisk”).

So we’ll separate the inside of your house from the outside of your house. Everything we store inside will be in the Saurischia, while everything outside is Ornithischia.

How do you keep those straight? Well, this whole time we’ll imagine that the inside of your house is on fire, but outside it’s raining. So inside we have a “risk”, but outside the rain and the wind makes a constant “thisk” sound.

Now say the words “Saurischia” and “Ornithischia” a few times, thinking alternately between the storm outside and the fire inside. Now you’ll probably have no problem remembering those two categories.

Nice. Let’s move on and categorize a bit further.

I want you to divide your house into two major areas. It’s convenient if you have an upstairs and a ground floor; that makes it very simple! If not, try imagining a fine line between half of the rooms and the other half, making it so that there are clearly two different zones.

This is where you’ll have to start getting creative, because I don’t know what your house is like. So I’ll start giving you examples, but you need to adapt them to your own house.

We need to label one of these general regions as a largely carnivorous (meat-eating) region. I’ll assume that this is upstairs, and I’ll imagine that there’s a giant slab of steak at the top of the stairs; I’ll also imagine that there’s grass growing on the floor downstairs to represent that the downstairs dinosaurs are herbivorous.

The “upstairs” dinosaurs are called “Theropods”. The stress of this word is on “ther”, and I’ll imagine that the steak at the top of the stairs has a post planted in it, with signs pointing in all kinds of directions. This is useful to emphasize the word “ther” like “there”, plus it helps to represent that the classification of the theropods is somewhat confusing and controversial.

Meanwhile the “downstairs” dinosaurs are “Sauropods”. I just imagine that the grass is sour, as if it’s a lemon grass that actually tastes like lemon.

Outside, we have two large groups: “Thyreophorans” (main stress on “four”, with a secondary stress on “thigh”) and “Cerapods” (stress on “Sarah”).

Do you know anyone named Sarah? Imagine that she’s in a tree in your yard, with three horns sticking out of her face and a big horn on the back of her head. In fact, imagine that she’s hanging from the tree by her horns. “Cerapods” are various dinosaurs that often have horns on the fronts of their heads (like Triceratops) or on the backs of their heads (like Parasaurolophus).

Also have Sarah holding on for dear life to her pet iguana. This will remind you that dinosaurs like the Iguanodon are in the same classification as Cerapods.

Meanwhile, below the tree, someone is crawling on all fours… but instead of arms, he has two more thighs coming out of his shoulders. Meanwhile he’s wearing a big shield on his back, just in case Sarah falls out of the tree. “Thyreophorans” are shielded dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus.

Now stop for a second. Even now, you’ve already memorized a lot of information about dinosaurs. You know that Iguanodons are Ceropods. You know that ceropods are a subgroup of “Ornithischia” because they’re outside the house. You know that Thyreophorans are also Ornithischia because they’re outside too, although they’re in a different suborder (they’re not in the tree).

If you wanted, you could start storing more and more dinosaurs in the tree to get more specific about the different types of Cerapods that exist. Or you could put more families of Thyreophorans in your yard. But for now, let’s go back inside instead.

So I said earlier that we have Sauropods downstairs and Theropods upstairs. But it’s actually not quite that simple. Most of the downstairs categories are Sauropods, but there are a few other minor groupings as well: “Thecodontosaurus” (stress on “dont” and “soar”), “Plateosaurid” (“plat” and “soar”), and “Massopoda” (“mass” and “pod”). I recommend placing images of these three dinosaurs in a few small rooms, leaving the rest of the room for the proper Sauropods. That way, you’ll remember that even though they’re downstairs and grouped with the Sauropods, they aren’t proper Sauropods.

Meanwhile, upstairs, we need to divide the whole floor into four main areas. “Tetanurae” is going to be the largest, by far. The other three small sections will be “Ceratosauria”, “Coelophysoidea”, and “Herrerasauridae”.

See if you can create your own images for these areas. Also note that the upstairs is possibly the most interesting part of the house, with a large variety of dinosaurs that you’re probably familiar with.

Within the large Tetanurae area, we’ll create four main areas. Go ahead and choose those four areas.

In the first area, imagine a mnemonic for “Tyrannosauridae” (stress on “ran”). I would just imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex running around the room, knocking over something with his tail.

In the second area, imagine a mnemonic for “Coeluridae” (stress on “rid”).

In the third area, imagine a mnemonic for “ornithomimid” (stresses on “nith” and “mim”).

In the fourth area, imagine a mnemonic for “Maniraptora” (stresses on “man” and “raptor”). This is a really fun area, because within it you can imagine both “raptors” (Deinonychus) and birds (Aves).

Yes, birds are scientifically classified as dinosaurs. And as you now know, they’re considered “Maniraptora”, which is a type of Tetanurae, which is grouped under Theropod. So birds are the best-known type of Theropod. Cool huh?

I’ll let you continue using your own research and imagination to work on filling up this memory palace. You can learn all kinds of classification using your own house, and there’s basically no limit to what you can store! Now that you have all the essentials down, go ahead and check out the link below, start exploring, and create images in your mind to remember what you learn.

Dinosaur classification on Wikipedia


Bonus section: More numbers

So far we’ve learned the object pegs for numbers that only include the digits 0, 1, 2, and 3. Adding the digit 4, we’ll be learning nine new numbers.

To learn 4, just remember that the name “four” ends with the “R” sound (“fourrrr”). 4 is equivalent to the letter R.

For example, when you combine 0 with 4, you get SR, which for me is “sari”, which is a sort of fancy blanket-like garment that Indian women wrap around themselves and wear.

Here are all the objects for today:

04: “sari”

14: “tire”

24: “wiener” (sausage)

34: “hammer” (“h” is not in the major system)

40: “rose” (blossom, thorns, and all)

41: “radio”

42: “horn” (a squeaky horn from a kid’s bike)

43: “rum” (a mug of rum)

44: “rare” (undercooked steak)

Here’s a quiz with the numbers from lessons 2 and 3. (Lesson 1 can take a break for today.)

Quiz: Lesson 3 numbers

In the next lesson, we’ll go into detail about preparing for exams, taking everything we learned and putting it into very practical application. Stay tuned!