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Memory Palace

I’ve often wondered if my poor memory is just a narrative I’ve told myself about something I’ve never committed much effort to improving. For the past eight weeks, I’ve been in a class that is notorious for its demand on exhaustive memorization, and it presented me with a opportunity: why not try something different than the standard flash cards and repetition?

I think I first heard about memory palaces in BBC’s Sherlock. The name makes it sound silly and, at the time, I didn’t take it very seriously, chalking it up to a quirk of the fictional character. But the idea returned to me while preparing for this class, and after watching a few instructional youtube videos, I decided to give it a try. Would using a memory palace be easier and more successful than simple rote memorization at retaining random sets of information?

The class was divided into four units. We were tested daily on all of the numbers we had received so far, culminating in the overall unit test. When we started a new unit, some previous numbers carried over, but some did not. New sets were added as well.

I “set” each unit in a place I was very familiar with. Each group of numbers represented something I was “looking” at, in my mind’s eye, in that space. Recalling the numbers meant moving through the space in my imagination and systematically focusing on each object which represented a set of numbers. Here is an example:

Three hawks circle overhead. The oldest one is the bully hawk. He comes to steal food from the critters on the deck during certain hours of the afternoon. His brothers have to scout the place out in the morning before animal control tries to capture them all.

Weird, right? But it stuck out in my memory. Even when I couldn’t remember the particular numbers attached to these ideas, I always remembered the images themselves: hawks, bully, critters, deck, animal control. The rest was just details.

This method did demand effort. Thinking up with ways to apply numbers to an imaginary physical object took a surprising amount of creativity. In fact, after we got each new set of numbers, my classmates would usually go to lunch while I stayed behind for a while. I needed quiet to concentrate, scribbling down a nonsense story to tie the numbers together. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process, but it paid off: once I had some context in my head which united seemingly random data, it stuck. After returning from lunch, I found that I remembered a lot of it even without a committed effort to studying. I filled in the blanks for a few hours and left each day with a clear picture in my head.

For the first two weeks, that was all well and good. One unit, one location. When we started the second unit, though, I had a decision to make: do I put everything all in the same place, or do I separate each unit by location? Each choice, I think, had its own benefits and limitations. I ended up going with the latter and put the new unit in a new place.

I think the memory palace method would be extremely useful for someone who is trying to memorize something that will always be in the same order: the digits in pi or a chapter of a book, like in the video above. The route through the memory location will always be the same. When I was able to systematically move through the space I had imagined, my recall was very good. It became much more challenging when I had to jump from object to object out of order as we dropped and gained numbers for each new unit. This would be like asking someone for the eighteenth digit of pi, or the fourth word in the ninth sentence of a particular chapter of a book. It’s in their brain somewhere, but it might take them a minute to maneuver around mentally to where they can retrieve that information.

Ultimately, with this method, I wanted to know three things:

  1. Would it result in a good grade?
  2. Would it require less effort to memorize and recall than rote memorization?
  3. How much of the information would I retain after two months?

On the first point, I never scored below a 98% on any test, and almost all of those errors were the result of my complacency! I was getting so confident that I was making stupid mistakes!

Second, it took some effort in creating the context, but once I had it, I had it. The hardest part was reorganizing everything in my head for each new unit, as only some known numbers were carried over to the next. More importantly, though everyone performed very well on all of the tests, I experienced substantially less stress than my classmates. As much as I would like to chalk that up to my personality, that would be really, really dishonest; everything stresses me out. I went to optional night study only once, and all it did was remind me that I did, in fact, remember everything.

Third, I can easily recite the stories for each set of numbers, even from the very beginning. I can describe each object in each location without much effort. The images really stand out. Retaining all of the details, though, requires some regular refreshing. Many of the particulars fade with time. If I had reviewed everything everyday, even for a few minutes, I think I could remember an enormous amount of information indefinitely. I feel confident about that. (The same could probably be said for other memorization techniques, though.)

In fact, this whole experiment made me feel much more positively about my memory as a whole. I could have struggled with this class but I didn’t. Finding a better method made a huge difference.

(An unexpected, possibly coincidental, side effect of cramming so much into my memory at once – or maybe because of inventing so much imagery – for the first few weeks, I had nightmares almost every night. It made me feel more curiosity than fear, but it was definitely strange.)

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