Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
This is a bit of a random post, I suppose. It’s a topic that came up recently and it surprised me as to how many people think that the idea of a mind palace is something that was invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the Sherlock Holmes stories, or worse, some thought that the mind palace was created specifically by BBC Sherlock’s writers… FYI, several Sherlock novels are available at the Kindle store for free! ♥
Sherlock gifs from here
So no, the mind palace technique is not an invention of Conan Doyle or the BBC Sherlock team. Otherwise known as the Method of Loci, it’s a method that has been used since ancient times. I started building mine when I was about 13, and I can honestly say that it has helped me sail through every exam I’ve ever taken since then. Never mind the fact that my last exam was five and a half years ago (Photography courses.. practical assignments.. lucky me!). That just meant that I could dedicate my palace to topics that generally interest me rather than things that I had to study, such as algebra, the very mention of which still makes me shudder to this day.
And it’s not just me and a fictional character that has a mind palace. Derren Brown has one, in fact he’s written a book about it, Simonides had one. In fact I think he developed the idea, or is credited with having done so, at least, back in the 5th/6th century. They’re commonly used by memory champions, and apparently they’re also common among revising students. Yet, despite that, on mentioning that I have a mind palace, rather than hearing the expected ‘sure, me too’ around the room, I was instead met with blank looks. Hence this blog post.
It’s really not difficult to build a mind palace, even if you feel that you’re not a particularly creative person or you don’t have a strong imagination, or a bad memory, because building a mind palace in itself is a super-workout for the mind that will quickly start improving your memory, expand your knowledge, increase your creativity, awareness and observation of the world. Or so I’ve found.
No, elaborate gesticulations such as those shown in the gifs above are not necessary. I’d be lying if I said that when alone I didn’t point or mime the opening of a door or something small like that when alone, but I am perfectly capable of walking around in public while simultaneously storing new information or refreshing old information without closing my eyes, flailing my arms and muttering to myself. Sometimes it does help to close your eyes and block out the world around you, though.
I’m not about to say ‘so this is how you build a mind palace’, because what works for me might not work for others. I just wanted to share how I’ve gone about it. I started small, and I think that’s the most recommended tip of all in the various books and previous blog posts across the internet. Start with your bedroom, your apartment, your house. A place that is familiar to you. The main building of my ‘mind palace’.. which is all accuracy is more a ‘mind city’ now days from years of expansion, is a combination of three houses that I have lived in, merged into one. They were all a similar size and with a similar layout, (hence the merging of three), but I’ve stripped down all decor to make it a blank canvas, a unique space in my mind. White walls, bare wooden floorboards, with just a few items of furniture to distinguish each room: a sofa in the lounge, a fridge and oven in the kitchen, etc.
After making my layout, each room was assigned with a subject. Baring in mind that I was still in school when this started, my front lounge is for English, the dining room is Math, the kitchen is Science, and my bedroom, being my favourite room in the house (obviously), held my memory triggers for my favourite school subject – history. Etc, etc. I’ve never lived in a mansion, so needless to say I eventually had to start adding extensions. Another room for when I started learning Italian, for example.
Another important point is to always follow the same route through your house. I started by drawing a map of my mind-house, and drawing the route that I would follow. That again is just a personal quirk of mine; I write down my memory triggers too. I think it stems from years of filling notebooks with stories as a kid, I can be typing away on my laptop, and then I’ll suddenly get this compulsive urge to copy whatever I’ve just typed onto paper. Just the last few sentences. Or vice versa; I’ll write something down on paper just to immediately type it up and throw away the scrap of paper anyway. I just don’t feel like I’ve recorded something properly until my hand has literally formed each letter itself.
I don’t get the urge to do that for every single little thought that enters my mind though, luckily, so most of my memory triggers are recorded in a digital format. I have an Evernote Notebook dedicated to my mind palace, with a specific note for each room, and then I just list and describe each memory trigger. And every evening before I fall asleep, I’ll walk through my mind-house, following the same route, and I’ll just go over everything, keeping it all fresh in my mind until it becomes so deeply engraved that when I’m old and living in an old people’s home, they’ll all presume I’m mad because I’ll barely be able to remember my name or where I live, but I’ll know that Big Bird in a tux shouting ‘wazzappp’ reminds me of the correct pronunciation of ‘oiseau’. I won’t bother to break that memory trigger down. You can figure it out for yourselves. Mostly I don’t need Evernote, but it’s there just in case – especially if for whatever reason, I’ve had to add 100 memory triggers to my mind palace at once. Then it’s definitely needed to help it all sink in.
That’s the thing about memory triggers: the crazier the better. I tend to follow the same rules for creating memory triggers. If I have to remember something that I find tedious and boring (again, algebra springs to mind), I’ll try and think of a crazy, funny trigger, whereas if I want to remember something that I’m genuinely interested in, I lean more towards creating logical leaps, because I don’t need to find something to entertain me regarding that topic in the first place.
Again, this is where creativity really comes in handy. An example of one of the triggers lurking in the corners of my mind palace… I was struggling to remember the word for ‘cat’ in Italian: gatto. On hearing the word out loud, my mind immediately springs to my favourite dessert: black forest gateau, and so I placed a gateau on a table in my ‘Italian room’ – a spare bedroom. From there I began thinking about the colours of the berries: purples and, once they begin to mix with the cream, pinks, from which my mind leaped to the Cheshire Cat in the Disney animated version of Alice in Wonderland. Purple/pink berries, purple/pink striped cat. Suddenly this gateau was shaped as the Cheshire cat’s face, grinning up at me, the berries and cream forming its colourful stripes.
Gif from here.
One last detail for this memory trigger; the word for cat in Italian is pronounced more as g-Ah-tto. Having at this point recently watched Singing in the Rain, I remembered those Vowel prints in the Moses Supposes scene. Bam, my Italian room suddenly has the ‘A’ print hanging on the wall behind the Cheshire cat gateau, and there you go, I suddenly remember to think about the pronunciation of the a when saying cat in Italian. Yes, I know that technically, the print in that movie is representing A rather than Ah, but it works for me.
Over the years, adding to the mind palace has become a habit. I have this personal rule, because I’m one of those people who has a tendency to obsess over intelligence; I just never feel like I’m never smart enough, so every day, I add three things to my palace, as a minimum. Just to keep my mind steadily expanding, keep things sharp, and so on. That’s just me though. I like to think that I’m always growing smarter, even if it’s at the glacial pace of three facts a day. You can see why it’s no longer just a house with several extensions, but a full-blown city. Well, not an entire city, but rather, the well-trodden route that I have covered about a hundred times in Rome, walking from Vatican City to Trevi Fountain, via Castel Saint Angelo, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. It’s quite a recent addition, having happened only in December, while I was in Rome. It just seemed like an obvious step to me; I was walking that same route most days, often acting as an amateur tour guide for my new friends who had never been to Rome before, so adding the route to my mind-map engraves the city in my mind for future visits, while also giving me plenty of space for future memory triggers. I also have the Eiffel Tower thrown in there as a memory trigger of its own. Because of course, a personal mind house/palace/city doesn’t have to make sense.
It’s proven to be such an essential and useful part of my life, it’s helped me remember shopping lists, learn languages, remember film/book recommendations, and generally just learn useful/useless facts. I’m not saying it’s given me memory super powers.. I can sense certain friends reading this and saying ‘oh but what about that time I asked you to buy milk/pick up my order/etc and you forgot?’ That comes down more to my bad listening skills, so I’m sorry, lovelies, but using a mind palace will not get my head out of the clouds when you’re talking to me. Apologies.
I hope this hasn’t come across as arrogant, and ‘oooo, I have a mind city so I’m therefore better and smarter than youuuu’, I just thought it’s something I’d share. I’m definitely not some sort of genius. I’m not even that bright. I’m just a little bit of a narcissistic perfectionist about my intelligence. Maybe.
Basically, just because Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character doesn’t mean that mind palaces are only found in fiction!