The point of a memory palace

A mem­ory palace seems like an in­effi­cient way to learn, un­less it’s for a mem­o­riza­tion stunt. At least, that’s what it seems like as a be­gin­ner. It’s slow, re­quires a very peace­ful frame of mind, and isn’t the kind of thing you can just dip into when needed in a time crunch. Nor does it make you bet­ter at the sort of fast calcu­la­tions you get on an exam. Flash cards and home­work seem like a more effi­cient way to grind in or­der to im­prove your speed and ac­cu­racy of re­call.

We now have fast tools for in­for­ma­tion re­trieval and vi­su­al­iza­tion. It’s usu­ally more effi­cient to build a per­sonal refer­ence sheet than to con­struct a mem­ory palace, un­less you’re try­ing to count cards.

Yet my ex­pe­riences with vi­su­al­iza­tion prac­tice and mem­ory palaces have been in­trigu­ing. I want to out­line some of the benefits I’ve seen.

1) Con­struct­ing a mem­ory palace makes text­book read­ing more en­gag­ing and fo­cused.

Text­books are dry, dense, and full of ex­pla­na­tions that even­tu­ally be­come dis­trac­tions from the in­for­ma­tion you’re search­ing for. A mem­ory palace turns dry prose into a far more en­gag­ing multi-sen­sory ex­pe­rience. When you’re already in a peace­ful, re­laxed frame of mind, the dense charts and long lists of equa­tions be­come in­ter­est­ing mem­o­riza­tion challenges rather than dry refer­ences. I can study far, far longer if I’m vi­su­al­iz­ing the ma­te­rial than if I’m just scan­ning words on a page, try­ing to figure out which equa­tions I’ll need for the next test.

School does not in­cen­tivize this kind of sci­en­tific read­ing for plea­sure, or even sug­gest it might be pos­si­ble. It 100% in­cen­tivizes stu­dents to calcu­late, calcu­late, calcu­late, and to get their grat­ifi­ca­tion from high grades. This is a dis­gust­ing out­come, and I see vi­su­al­iza­tion prac­tice as a way to re­claim your own mind and imag­i­na­tion from this Molochian trap.

2) Vi­su­al­iza­tion lets you see what you know all at once.

I’m a clas­si­cally trained pi­anist, and the trou­ble with au­dio/​ki­netic mem­o­riza­tion is that you can only hold one pos­ture or sound in your head at a time. At least that I’m aware of. Au­dio/​ki­netic mem­ory can also be frag­ile. Ever tried to play a piece of clas­si­cal mu­sic, hit a sin­gle point in the mu­sic where you can’t re­mem­ber what comes next, and just found your­self loop­ing and flounder­ing at the stuck place?

With the vi­sual sense, we can all keep track of many ob­jects all at once, and it’s effortless to ob­serve them. We might drop de­tails. But be­cause we’re of­ten imag­in­ing the thing it­self (the molec­u­lar di­a­gram, a 3D map with la­beled ex­treme val­ues, a pho­to­graph of a per­son), we have some struc­ture available to help us fill in the blanks.

That makes it easy to go over a list. If you’ve placed 7 ob­jects on a table in your mind palace, you just have to stand back and look at it. No more de­pend­ing on re­mem­ber­ing a se­quence of words in the same or­der they were pre­sented to you.

3) A mem­ory palace helps you re­late and un­der­stand con­cepts.

In my gen chem text­book, elec­tronega­tivity and for­mal charge are pre­sented in the same chap­ter, but are sep­a­rated by a few sec­tions. I un­der­stood how nu­clear size and elec­tron con­figu­ra­tion gave rise to elec­tronega­tivity, and I un­der­stood how elec­tronega­tivity was im­por­tant in de­ter­min­ing which for­mal charge made for the best atomic di­a­gram. But I hadn’t thought at all about re­lat­ing nu­clear size and elec­tron con­figu­ra­tion to for­mal charge.

Scott Alexan­der’s piece on men­tal moun­tains keeps com­ing back to me. Vi­sual think­ing seems to al­low you hold up chunks of your mem­ory that weren’t formed to­gether, and let the mind’s nat­u­ral ten­dency to find pat­terns go to work. If you’re study­ing sci­ence, this is pro­duc­tive, be­cause the whole idea is that it all links to­gether. I vi­su­al­ize each text­book chap­ter as a room in my mind. But I can look through the doors into the other rooms and see the ob­jects in­side.

4) Vi­su­al­iza­tion prac­tice and mem­ory palaces make you more able to see and ma­nipu­late 3D struc­tures.

We’ve all had the ex­pe­rience of look­ing at a com­plex 3D image and not be­ing able to un­tan­gle the full struc­ture from the 2D rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It just looks like a jum­ble of lines and col­ors. The eye slides off it, since we’re not in the habit of figur­ing out how to trans­late it from the image to the ob­ject. Take a look at this molecule. You prob­a­bly no­tice the cen­tral atom, the three branches, and the way that there’s six blue atoms, each with two black atoms, and ev­ery­thing with white atoms.

But did you no­tice the way each looped branch is twisted rel­a­tive to the oth­ers? Did you see how the an­gle of the tetra­he­drons within each branch is ro­tated from link to link to link? Those are fea­tures that I only picked out when I com­mit­ted this image to mem­ory. After­ward, they jumped out at me even when I look at the origi­nal image. The pic­ture looks differ­ent to me than it did be­fore.

So what?

If you want to learn, do the real thing. Every­body learns what their job re­quires them to mem­o­rize, what it al­lows them to refer­ence, and when it’s best to con­sult with an ex­pert. The mem­o­riza­tion you’ll ac­com­plish by do­ing the work, not build­ing a mem­ory palace.

School is a sig­nal­ling sys­tem. The smart thing to do is fo­cus on max­i­miz­ing your grades with min­i­mal effort, not mem­o­riz­ing your gen chem text­book. Real learn­ing is what you do on the job. So you should fo­cus all your efforts on get­ting the job you want as effi­ciently as pos­si­ble, not on this self-grat­ify­ing scholas­ti­cism. If you’re get­ting tested on your calcu­la­tions, and ad­mit­ted to grad school or hired on the ba­sis of your grades, then screw deep learn­ing—start grind­ing!

I’m hop­ing the grind-and-grad­u­ate per­spec­tive is not just sad, but also sub­op­ti­mal. It might be that mem­ory palaces can be not just a slow and vivid hard drive, but can also al­low you to do origi­nal think­ing, set up calcu­la­tion schemes, and ex­pand what you’re able to learn.

It’ll be hard to say what’s pos­si­ble with­out a lot more prac­tice. But I’ve never heard any teacher give one iota of guidance on any of this in my life, which makes me think it’s prob­a­bly a ne­glected topic. Vi­sual think­ing abil­ity and imag­i­na­tion is hard to mea­sure even by the stan­dards of psy­chol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion sci­ence, and it’s hard to turn into a product. So no won­der. I think it would be valuable just to have some case stud­ies from peo­ple in this com­mu­nity who are will­ing to try it and see what hap­pens.