Building Your First Memory Palace

Caustic Incense filled my lungs. As I paced the marbled floor pieced together from stones from all corners of the Mediterranean, my eyes darted back and forth surveying every inch of detail. Over the tannoy system “silence please” ironically blared out in a dozen different languages. If the guard slumped over his newspaper, hidden away behind a booth of glass, was alert he might have noticed me passing for the fifteenth time and considered it odd.

My attention shifted rapidly from point to point, lingering at the same locations each time. Raphael’s tomb, the holy-water font, the guard’s booth, a stall selling audio guides; with each passing, the visual images solidified in my mind’s eye. I might have been mistaken for a particularly jittery worshiper, but my pensive walk was for another reason. I had chosen this particular church, known to most as The Pantheon, as a chamber in my memory palace…

If you’re wanting to give the memory palace technique a try you’re going to have to memorize a few places first. In Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein he is recommended to start with at least 12 spaces to work with. If you’re worrying you wouldn’t be able to find that many places you know well, remember, anywhere can be used as a memory palace. It doesn’t even have to be a building, your walk to work would do, or you could even use an imaginary location or one taken from photographs or art. The spaces you start with don’t have to be perfect either. In a second I’m going to go through the rules for finding the perfect locations to build palaces from but even if you ignore every single one of these rules you’ll probably find your location is still adequate for the basic stages of memory work.

So what makes a good memory palace? Here are some basic rules to help you in finding the perfect spot:

1) Stick to quiet spots.

When you’re trying to study the last thing you want is a host of distractions vying for your attention. The same is true of memorising a visual image of a palace. Crowds will not only distract you with noise but also constantly cut across your line of sight disturbing your mental image of the place. If you desperately want to use a popular place, try visiting at odd hours when it’s a bit quieter or even use photographs and videos online to piece together your mental image.

2) Avoid repetitive designs.

St Pauls outside the walls

Unique design is a great way of solidifying a place in your memory but when certain design features are repeated multiple times you can easily forget where you are when trying to mentally walk through your palace. Greco-Roman classical styles are a bugger for this, with repeating columns, alcoves, and motifs being a standard in a lot of their buildings. If the building is small and the design only repeated a few times you can get away with it but if you’re having to ask whether there were thirteen or fourteen Corinthian columns you may be better off with a different location!

3) Not too large, not too small.

If you can’t fit through the front door, it’s probably too small.

If your background is so massive that the images your going to be placing against it are dwarfed in comparison you won’t remember much of them. Equally, somewhere too cramped would be hard to place images in at all.

4) Get the lighting right.

Pick somewhere too dark and you’re mind’s eye will be squinting trying to make out the images you’ve stored there. Too bright and you’ll be seeing sun-spots! Usually if you’ve been to a place physically a few times you can reconstruct a version that is well lit. If you are making up your own space then you have complete control over how you light it so this shouldn’t be a problem.

5) Space it out.

Images crammed together like these sculptures would be hard to remember.

Ideally you should be walking a short distance between each of your points of interest that you’ll later be putting images at. Just turning your head to look at the next point is a far less memorable separation than physically (mentally?) walking to the next spot. The recommendation is about 30 feet but I find as long as you have to move, even a couple of metres is enough to create a distinct separation.

I haven’t just made these up – promise! These rules were originally written down in a late Roman republic text known as the Ad Herrenium. For much of the middle ages this was falsely attributed to Cicero who has written on the art of memory in some of his other works, although these teachings were so main stream at his time he decided not to “waste the ink” on writing them in full! The real author of the Ad Herrenium will always perhaps be unknown, but the teachings written in the book have inspired memory training – known as mnemonics – for centuries.

Next time I’ll look at how to create memorable images as well as going over a few systems for the different types of facts you may want to store in your memory palace.

If you fancy picking up a copy of the Ad Herrenium I recommend the Loeb Classical Library edition that you can get here.
The text on memory is only thirteen or so pages long so if you just want to read them you can find it free here at section 16 of the chapter.

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