Memory palaces


Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH


Tanner Marshall, MS

A memory palace is a type of memory technique where you imagine a physical location to help you remember more abstract information.

The reason that memory palaces work is that our brains are better at remembering images and locations, as opposed to abstract things like names and numbers.

Let’s start with an example to show you how this works. Let’s say that you’re trying to remember the six drugs or drug classes that are known to cause pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.

The list is diuretics, corticosteroids, alcohol, azathioprine, didanosine, and valproic acid.

First, you have to ask yourself - is this something worth remembering and is the learning objective clear?

Clinically, it’s really helpful to have these six drugs or drug classes in your working memory so that you can spot them on a medication list and think about them as a potential cause of pancreatitis.

So if you decide it’s worth remembering a list like this using a memory palace, you’ve got to start with picking a place that you’re familiar with, like a bedroom.

But it can be any place you know - like the gym, a store, or someplace you’ve seen or imagined like in a TV show like the Office.

Next, you can start identifying specific spots called loci in that place.

It’s nice to pick really distinct spots - and in this case we can pick out six spots since there are six things to remember - let’s pick the bed, the window, the doorway, the dresser, the rug, and the ceiling light.

Next, you have to create images for each term you’re trying to remember. You can try a few approaches here.

First you might go with “sounds like”, for example “papule” sounds like papa and mule, so you can imagine an excited new dad riding around on his baby mule.

Another trick is to go with “looks like”, for example, a parietal cell looks like a fried egg.

Finally, you might try “seems like”, for example, taking sedative medication and feeling drowsy seems like what a bear might feel while hibernating through the winter.

But rather than try to analyze which trick you’re using, you should simply use whichever image first springs to mind.

So in our pancreatitis example, you might imagine someone urinating all over the sheets to help you think of diuretics on the bed.

A giant steroid body-builder smashing the window to think of corticosteroids and the window.

A drunk person missing the doorway and running straight into the wall for alcohol and the doorway.

For - maybe Aslan the Lion from Narnia hiding in your dresser drawer for Azathioprine.

Maybe a Titanic sinking into the fuzzy rug For Didanosine, and finally a valiant professor Indiana Jones for Valproic acid swinging from the ceiling light.

The more unique and descriptive the image, the better it will stick, because our minds love to hang on to interesting visual images in familiar settings.

So that’s how it works - the memory palace provides a scaffold for abstract information, and over time it can help your brain organize and connect concepts.

And don’t worry if you’re not a good drawer because you don’t have to draw anything out, you can simply imagine it, and it works just as well.

You learn faster while forgetting less, and creating the images themselves makes learning more enjoyable and adds a little flavor to the usual study routine.

In terms of making a memory palace, it’s always important to pick the right material to apply this learning tool - typically you want to pick something where the learning objective is really clear, like learning the steps of a process or a list.