Making Memory Palaces: Keep It Simple!

A recently constructed palace: St. Paul Street, Baltimore

With my first World Memory Championship coming up in December, I found myself thinking a familiar thought: I need more memory palaces. Having competed in smaller events and applied palaces only sporadically to learning, I’ve been able to scrape by with a library of about 850 loci (ie. by WMC standards, barely any). In addition to needing them for the WMC, more palaces would help me in a host of different ways: fewer ghost images, more training variety, more room for learning applications, etc. There’s just one problem: I’ve always hated making new palaces, and they often don’t stick very well. So here’s what I’ve been doing differently.

For the last few years, my palace creation method has looked something like this. I’d go out and take pictures of places I liked; then, at some later point, I’d sit down in front of my computer and review the pictures, writing down my chosen loci as I went. Given that I only recently cracked the 1000 loci mark, it’s pretty obvious this approach has held me back. It always felt time-consuming and inefficient, since I'd often forget my chosen loci and would have to keep referencing the pictures. A lot of the time I never even made the effort to turn my pictures into palaces. And if I didn't review the palaces I did made, they’d fade away. This isn’t to say that making and remembering palaces this way are impossible, but there were just enough barriers to success that I rarely got off my ass and did the work. This past fall, I forced myself to make two of them for a pair of Biochemistry and Histology tests. I struggled, and without review I’d forgotten nearly everything—images, loci, and all—within a few weeks. Very frustrating. Isn’t this stuff supposed to work?

So, here’s what I’ve been doing recently. I'm focusing on places I already know well, specifically ones that I can visualize decently without a picture reference. I was able to generate 100+ after a quick brainstorming session. This way, all I need to do is sit down and mentally walk through the palace for a few minutes, writing down my chosen loci along the way. If I can’t remember something exactly, I embellish (for example, a forgettable foyer becomes a fountain). Moving at a semi-relaxed pace of 50 loci per 10 minutes, I've been able to add about 2000 loci in just a few weeks. No pictures, no going back and digging up loci I didn't even know well. Beautiful.

These ideas are pretty simple, maybe even downright obvious. That said, for me, these changes have been the difference between a library of 850 loci and one of 2000+ (which didn’t feel like much work, I’d add). Finally, I’m also incorporating the palaces into my Anki reviews. That away I’m reviewing them consistently, and after a week or two they’re ingrained in my memory.

If you have your own quick and dirty way of making palaces effectively, drop a comment below!