Using a memory palace to memorize a textbook.

I spent the week prep­ping for fi­nals. One is a year-long cu­mu­la­tive closed-book chem­istry exam that I haven’t had much time to prac­tice for. I was wor­ried about mem­o­riz­ing a few things:

  • Pe­ri­odic trends and exceptions

  • The form and ap­pli­ca­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 100 workhorse equa­tions and var­i­ous forms of mea­sure­ment (mo­lar­ity vs. mo­lal­ity vs. mole frac­tion).

  • Equa­tions that get used rarely in home­work or on ex­er­cises, but might be used as “gotchas” on the test.

  • Some con­cepts that I found ei­ther con­fus­ing, or so sim­ple that I didn’t bother to re­mem­ber them the first time.

My anx­iety wasn’t just my abil­ity to re­call these ideas when prompted:

“What’s the two-point form of the Clau­sius-Clapey­ron Equa­tion?”
ln(P2 /​ P1) = - Δ Hvap/​R * (1/​T2 − 1/​T1)

Nor was I un­able to perform the calcu­la­tions.

My real con­cern was that I had spent the year treat­ing my chem­istry text­book like a refer­ence man­ual, a repos­i­tory for con­cepts and equa­tions that I could look up when needed. I just mem­o­rized the few bits I’d need on any given quiz. Look­ing back at 1,000 pages of chem­istry, I fore­saw my­self re­view­ing chap­ter 5 for a cou­ple hours, but for­get­ting that re­view by the time I got to chap­ter 19.

The sheer vol­ume of work that seemed to be in­volved in mem­o­riz­ing a text­book seemed un­rea­son­able. I hate us­ing Anki, and I spend far too much time in front of screens as it is.

So I de­cided to try some­thing differ­ent—ex­per­i­ment­ing with the mem­ory palace tech­nique.

I per­ceive my­self as hav­ing a poor vi­sual imag­i­na­tion, but I’ve been try­ing to prac­tice im­prov­ing it lately, with some suc­cess. Gw­ern points to ex­pert opinion that vi­sual think­ing abil­ity might be sec­ond only to IQ in terms of in­tel­lec­tual im­por­tance. My ex­pe­rience is that when I’m us­ing psychedelics, or de­liber­ately prac­tic­ing my vi­su­al­iza­tion abil­ities, I do im­prove far be­yond my per­ceived abil­ities. We’re stuck with our IQ, but if it’s pos­si­ble to im­prove our vi­sual think­ing skills through prac­tice in adult­hood, that’s im­por­tant.

I want to de­scribe my at­tempts and the out­come.

First Room

I tried this both with a sin­gle calcu­lus text­book chap­ter, and my en­tire chem­istry text­book. The re­sults were similar but differ­ent. I’m go­ing to fo­cus on the chem­istry palace here.

I close my eyes and al­low my­self to pic­ture noth­ing, or what­ever ran­dom non­sense comes to mind. No at­tempt to con­trol.

Then I in­vite the con­cept of a room into mind. I don’t pic­ture it clearly. There’s a vague sense, though, of imag­in­ing a space of some kind. I can vaguely see fleet­ing shad­owy walls. I don’t need to get ev­ery­thing crys­tal clear, though.

I men­tally la­bel the room as the “Ch. 14 room,” or the “rates room.” That means do­ing lots of things to make the la­bel stick. I speak the words in my head. I pic­ture a ban­ner with them printed on it hang­ing from the ceiling. Or if I can’t see it clearly, I pic­ture a ban­ner-like thing and just know that it says “rates room.” I pic­ture hour­glasses sit­ting on fur­ni­ture—the image comes to me much more eas­ily than a ban­ner with text.

I imag­ine the cru­cial equa­tions sit­ting on colum­nar pedestals. Again, they are eas­ier to pic­ture for some rea­son. I make sure that I can vi­su­ally see each piece of the equa­tion. I imag­ine a la­bel on the pedestal—one says “t1/​2” for the half-life equa­tions; the other says “In­te­grated rate law,” with an hour­glass made out of two in­ter­twined in­te­gra­tion signs.

I look up a pic­ture of Svante Ar­rhe­nius and pic­ture him in the room. He takes on a life of his own. I can tell he’s proud of his equa­tion, which ap­pears in bold let­ters at the back of the room, with a sort of cur­tain around it. He’s the keeper of the room. It takes on a calm at­mo­sphere here. He’s also the door­man. I have to tell him how to calcu­late the over­all re­ac­tion or­der in or­der to en­ter. But if he knows that I know how to do it, I don’t have to ex­plain it in as much de­tail. We have a psy­chic re­la­tion­ship.

Se­cond Room

Mov­ing back­wards to Ch. 13, I once again imag­ine a new room, the Solu­tions Room. Stand­ing there, I can still see the en­trance to the first room—I can even pic­ture some of the things in­side, from a dis­tance. I start pop­u­lat­ing the room with sym­bols, ob­jects, equa­tions, and the chemists they’re named af­ter. They are happy to ex­plain things to me as many times as nec­es­sary.

Ab­stract con­cepts that the book pre­sents in words, still images, or equa­tions get vi­su­al­ized in new ways. Par­tial pres­sures be­come two beakers, one with yel­low steam and the other with red steam emerg­ing. They get mixed into a sin­gle beaker that now emits a mix­ture of yel­low and red steam, some­where in be­tween the amounts that the yel­low and red beaker emit on their own. François-Marie Raoult is stand­ing by to demon­strate his law to me. There’s a bot­tle of Coke with Henry’s Law printed on it.

The sol­u­bil­ity rules are ac­cessible when I glance at the pe­ri­odic table on the wall. Rather than see­ing a list of rules, I see the in­di­vi­d­ual el­e­ments, which take on a life of their own. The alkali met­als, am­mo­nium, and ni­trate zoom around the room, not in­ter­ested in talk­ing to any­body, on their own ad­ven­ture. The halo­gens are too cool to talk to any­body ex­cept silver, mer­cury, and lead, who are im­mensely pop­u­lar. Silver had a fal­ling out with ac­etate, who’s a com­mu­nist and not in­ter­ested in money. Be sen­si­tive! Chro­mate is a rich chick in an ex­pen­sive chrome-hubbed car cruis­ing around, look­ing for a boyfriend. Sulfur is bicu­ri­ous, so she’ll bond not only with the tran­si­tion met­als but with as­ta­tine, ar­senic, bis­muth, and lead.

I prac­tice trav­el­ing back and forth be­tween the first and sec­ond rooms. They stay re­mark­ably sta­ble. Un­like re­call­ing flash cards or the text­book, when I’m in my mem­ory palace the ideas come al­most un­bid­den. The el­e­men­tal re­la­tion­ships I’ve used to con­cep­tu­al­ize the sol­u­bil­ity rules come burst­ing out of the pe­ri­odic table.

Fur­ther rooms

I con­tinue this for 6 chap­ters over the course of sev­eral hours. I am shocked and delighted at how easy and pleas­ant it is both to cre­ate the mem­ory palace and to ac­cess the mem­o­ries stored there. Not ev­ery­thing goes in—just the bits that I tend to for­get. If I’m not sure about some­thing, the fa­mous chemists who pop­u­late the rooms will re­mind me, liter­ally by talk­ing me through their ideas.

The pres­ence of the chemists is also helpful for keep­ing me fo­cused. I sus­pect that my brain is re­cruit­ing my so­cial mo­ti­va­tion. If the only peo­ple in my en­vi­ron­ment are ge­nius chemists who are delighted to keep me in­ter­ested in chem­istry, then why would I get dis­tracted by the in­ter­net?

I find it deeply re­as­sur­ing to stand in the In­ter­molec­u­lar Forces room and know that just by walk­ing a few rooms over, I can get back to the Rates Room, where all the equa­tions are stored. Per­haps I’ve built a path through the men­tal moun­tains? The next day, it’s pretty easy to get back to the mem­ory palace, and ev­ery­thing is as I left it. I just have to close my eyes and wait for a mo­ment to get back in.

Con­cerns and questions

I also did a mem­ory palace for calcu­lus. I did it day-of be­cause I felt more con­fi­dent about calcu­lus, it wasn’t a com­pre­hen­sive exam, and it was open book. I’ll de­scribe it an­other time. Mostly, it helped me feel more con­fi­dent that I un­der­stood the breadth of the ma­te­rial. I found it much more con­ve­nient to re­fer to the text­book when nec­es­sary.

But for to­mor­row’s, I’m very glad that I now have a store of chem­i­cal facts in my mem­ory palace. The anx­iety that had been plagu­ing me this week has van­ished. I’m not cer­tain that it will re­ally help. But I do an­ti­ci­pate con­tin­u­ing to use this tech­nique in the fu­ture. I think it helps not only my mem­ory but my syn­the­sis of learn­ing.

For ex­am­ple, our chap­ter on Lewis Struc­tures also in­tro­duces the topic of elec­tronega­tivity and for­mal charge. Any­one who’s taken first year gen chem knows they’re re­lated: any nega­tive for­mal charge should go on the most elec­tronega­tive atom.

But when I would stare at the elec­tronega­tivity pages in the text­book, I would fo­cus on the rules offered there: the range of EN differ­ence that char­ac­ter­izes a co­va­lent vs. ionic bond, the pe­ri­odic trend in EN, and how to calcu­late net dipole mo­ment. Like­wise, in the for­mal charge sec­tion, I would fo­cus on how to calcu­late the charge.

It took see­ing Linus Paul­ing hold­ing a sym­bol for elec­tronega­tivity in one hand, and a sym­bol for for­mal charge in the other, to more deeply un­der­stand that these are not just two differ­ent calcu­la­tions to do. They’re deeply re­lated ways of mod­el­ing how molecules are struc­tured. They go to­gether like yeast and flour.

I also see how much faster and more in­tu­itively I think about both chem­istry and calcu­lus when I can vi­su­al­ize them. It’s just no com­par­i­son. Try­ing to re­mem­ber Raoult’s Law by re­mem­ber­ing a ver­bal de­scrip­tion or pic­tur­ing the equa­tion is just no com­par­i­son to look­ing at those yel­low and red steam­ing beakers. Similarly, it’s so helpful to pic­ture a 3D moun­tain range and see a tiny lit­tle yel­low gra­di­ent vec­tor sur­fing up and down it on the steep­est slopes.

Advice

I’m a true be­gin­ner here, so I don’t want to make any grand claims about how to learn or how use­ful these tech­niques are. But I’d give a few poin­t­ers so far:

  • If you think you can’t vi­su­al­ize, you might be wrong.

  • Start by just clos­ing your eyes and al­low­ing your brain to pro­duce images with­out try­ing to con­trol them. It seems im­por­tant to have a re­laxed, ac­cept­ing at­ti­tude to­ward my own brain’s way of vi­su­al­iz­ing.

  • The way to add con­trol is to take a gen­tle, ex­per­i­men­tal at­ti­tude. Go with what’s easy. Let your­self be sur­prised by what’s do-able and what’s use­ful. Is it hard to pic­ture let­ters on a ban­ner? Try vi­su­al­iz­ing Isaac New­ton and ask him to say the thing you’re try­ing to re­mem­ber. Maybe you don’t even need to do that—maybe it’s enough to pic­ture a vague stripe in the sky that you just know is a ban­ner, and you just know has the words “rate room” printed on it.

  • It takes a while to nav­i­gate the rooms and get the in­for­ma­tion you need, so this might need re­fine­ment or prac­tice if you’ve got to re­mem­ber things quickly.