What are memory techniques?
“Memory technique” (also "mnemonic") refers to any tool that improves your ability to learn and recall a piece of information. Most often, this means: (1) imagining that information as an image you can visualize, and (2) storing that image in a “memory palace” (also referred to as "mind palaces" or the "method of loci"). Memory palaces are physical locations, real or invented, which you can see in your mind’s eye. You mentally “walk” through this location to recall the information. This basic technique springs from humans’ natural strengths for remembering images and locations (rather than abstract things like names and numbers).
Why should I learn to use memory techniques? What are applications of the techniques?
Our goal here is employ memory techniques as part of a balanced learning strategy to effectively learn new things, to improve not merely memorization but long-term understanding. The techniques are about much more than simply recalling facts. They allow you to organize, access, and connect the concepts you've learned in a way that capitalizes on your natural memory’s strengths. You learn faster while forgetting less. The techniques are not, however, a panacea for learning, and they certainly won't make you a genius overnight. Using them still requires hard work, creativity, and critical thinking. That said, when used appropriately, we believe they can be powerful assets to any learning strategy. Creating imaginative images can also make learning more enjoyable and add some spice to your study routine. The practice of memory techniques has revamped the way we learn and think, in both our academic and personal lives.
Alex: I use memory techniques predominantly to learn exam material, languages, presentations/speeches, and names of people I meet--with the bulk of my efforts centered around learning medicine, Chinese, and Spanish. As a memory competitor, I use them to memorize numbers, decks of cards, names and faces, historical dates, images, words, and poetry.
Can anyone learn to use memory techniques?
Alex: Yes! Like every other memory competitor I’ve met, my natural memory is quite normal. By training the techniques, I’ve been able to elevate my memory to a level I’d never have thought possible.
How easy is it to incorporate memory techniques into my daily life? Simple example?
You can start incorporating memory techniques into your life with no extra time, while still building a foundation to tackle more advanced challenges if desired. An easy way to do this is to imagine an image each time you meet someone new or hear a name (e.g. a robot for Rob, a microphone for Mike, a salad for Sally). Then imagine that image interacting with an interesting feature of the person's appearance. For instance, if Rob has bushy eyebrows, you might imagine a robot helping him trim his eyebrows.
If I'm a beginner interested in applying memory techniques to my learning, how should I use this site?
Feel free to explore whatever piques your interest, but here's our vision for how new users might progress through our content (one hour's work should have you up to an intermediate level):
A Quick Glance: For a quick look at the techniques in action, try our 20 Word Challenge. After 5 minutes, you'll have a 20-word list memorized forwards and backwards. This video should give you a basic sense of how the techniques work and confidence that you're capable of using them.
The Basics: To get started understanding how memory techniques can be used as learning tools, check out this "Getting Started" video tutorial series (18 min). It covers the basics of memory palaces and how to use images to represent terms or ideas. Alex walks through two Spanish and two medical terminology examples. (Additionally, you can check out this short pamphlet describing the memory palace technique.)
To really get on your own two feet, check out our second series, "Refine Your Technique" (25 min). This series explains how to begin creating your own palaces and images in more efficient ways and gives a comprehensive example (we each discuss our own mnemonics for learning high-yield facts about the disease acute pyelonephritis).
Intermediate: You should now be comfortable with the basic ideas and have a sense of how to begin applying memory techniques to your learning goals. At this point, we strongly encourage you to read "Do memory palaces hinder learning?" It summarizes the three key roadblocks--and our eventual solutions after experimentation--when it comes to using these tools long-term.
Although you're hopefully now feeling confident, you'll probably still have questions after experimenting on your own. In the Qs below, we've aggregated our findings and experiences regarding a variety of mnemonic topics, from palace structuring to language learning to spaced repetition. This ever-growing list contains the most common questions we get. In addition, concrete examples are often the best way to grasp how memory techniques can work in practice. Our Learning Examples page has a growing video/blog library showing how we've used the techniques in specific learning scenarios, from pharmacology to anatomy to Chinese to SAT vocab and more. If you're not sure where to start, we'd recommend Tetracyclines.
That's all, folks! Best of luck to all you budding mnemonists. Let us know how it goes!
I've heard of memory techniques before. Where does Mullen Memory fit in?
Mullen Memory is a nonprofit seeking to answer a simple question: What's the best way to employ memory techniques to effectively learn new things, to improve not merely memorization but long-term understanding? Through Mullen Memory, we (Cathy and Alex) are looking to share our experiences--successes, failures, tips, etc.--using memory techniques for learning. We aim to provide free, easy-to-understand tutorials and real-world examples detailing how we've applied memory techniques to subjects like medicine and Chinese. Memory techniques can be a challenge to apply effectively, and slightly different methods can yield vastly different results. Here we explore the approaches and tweaks that have made the techniques invaluable for us. We are very much students of memory techniques ourselves and don't claim to have all the answers, but we hope that our videos, blogs, and tips can help get you on track to finding learning strategies that work for you.
MEMORY TECHNIQUES AS LEARNING TOOLS
Do memory palaces hinder learning? / When it comes to learning, what are your top memory technique tips?
Alex: This one's a bit long. Check out the blog here. It amalgamates a few of these FAQs into a post summarizing what I consider our 3 key realizations that took our approach from frustrating to successful.
Should I try to encode or "memorize" everything using memory techniques?
Alex: Our feeling here is an emphatic "no." As we'ved said, memory techniques are learning tools, not silver bullets. It sounds obvious, but you probably shouldn't be using memory techniques for their own sake. Use them when they're useful, and don't when they aren't. Really think about what specific benefit you're getting from mnemonically encoding a particular piece of info.
The way I see it, the best way to learn and remember something is to give meaning to it. Ideally, that meaning comes from true understanding of the mechanisms underlying what I'm learning. If I can find it, that's what I want. So, I don't mnemonically encode most of what I can intuitively understand. The goal is to maintain an optimal mix of understanding/intuition coupled with memory techniques as a supplement. I try to ask myself: in a few weeks, when I've gotten a generally better handle on the material, which images will still be valuable to me? Those are the only images I want to make. Another way to say this is that I "memorize" as little as possible.
That said, there are plenty of pesky facts I need to remember that don't (at least at the time I learn them) have the context needed to make them inherently intuitive. That's where memory techniques come in. They lend special meaning, even if it's "artificial" meaning. One great thing about having things encoded, apart from improved recall, is that I often identify connections in the future that do provide the context to make those once pesky facts intuitive.
Each time I recall something using a palace, I then try to ask myself: "What? Why?" In other words, what's visually happening in real life (not just in the palace)? Why is it that way?
In addition, I always try to think critically about the best way to handle the particular piece of info I'm trying to learn. The traditional memory techniques we often discuss--imagining info as images and placing them in a memory palace--may or may not be suitable to the task at hand. If memory palaces don't feel like a natural fit, I go a different direction with the learning process.
Also see: "Do memory palaces hinder learning?"
Should I reuse palaces to learn new information?
Alex: For short-term information (e.g. day-to-day info), I do. I keep a few palaces on hand and "overwrite" my images again and again when I want to memorize something quickly. This is also what I do for competition (e.g. keep a handful of palaces I use over and over for different speed cards attempts).
When learning for the long-term, however (e.g. medicine, languages), I never reuse palaces I've already filled (unless I've decided I don't care to remember the original information). Ultimately, this comes down to personal preference, but here are my feelings. I want the information I encode at each locus to permanently remain there for review and retrieval. I like to imbue each location with the "feeling" of whatever material is stored there. For example, for me personally, my high school swimming locker room has become synonymous with interstitial pneumonia. It's my interstitial pneumonia headspace. The local university's music auditorium is my acute pyelonephritis headspace. Overwriting those places with different information--having both old and new images in the same loci--interferes with this process. In my experience, that's confusing and unnecessary. This method means I have to keep making new palaces, which isn't as hard as you might think. For tips on how and where you can create palaces, check out "Doesn't it take too much time to make all these memory palaces?"
I will, however, return to old palaces to add in newly learned info about old topics (e.g. I choose a new locus in the locker room to add a pathogen I've just learned also causes interstitial pneumonia).
If you're dead set on reusing an old palace, my recommendation would be to adjust each locus's vantage or focus point (e.g. if you focused on the TV's screen initially, focus on its top instead), so the loci feel different.
Doesn't it take too much time to make all these memory palaces?
Alex: When using memory palaces to learn (unlike for competitions), I don't "create" my palaces beforehand. I keep a running worksheet of potential palaces (check out Refine Your Technique #1 for a quick video tutorial for generating this), but I don't choose the individual loci within those palaces until I'm actually in the process of learning.
For example, let's say I'm learning about antibiotics, and at the start of the chapter I decided to use my elementary school as my palace. As I learned, I followed a path organically through the school, choosing rooms/areas to neatly house my images for each chunk of info. Let's say I've just used the school lobby as my dedicated area for the drug class tetracyclines. Now, the next chunk of info being about the drug chloramphenicol, I might choose the room just right of the lobby to house all my high-yield chloramphenicol images, selecting loci within that room to fit the facts.
As an additional example, I might select a particular area/room to hold all the info I want to memorize about the disorder hyperaldosteronism, and that area/room would be located within a larger palace about adrenal gland diseases. The next area along my path through that palace would, for example, house high-yield facts about Cushing syndrome, another adrenal pathology.
This approach allows me to choose rooms/areas/loci that most appropriately match the material. It also permits me to easily go back and drop in new information. For example, if I encounter a new, image-worthy fact about chloramphenicol, I simply choose another locus within that original school room.
In this way, the creation of palaces fits quite seamlessly with my own analysis of what's worth memorizing and how I should structure it, so it doesn't amount to much "extra time" at all.
Converting information into images is often the more time-consuming process. See Refine Your Technique #3 and "Should I try to encode or 'memorize' everything using memory techniques?" for my tips for doing that efficiently.
What are the key strengths of using palaces as a learning tool? Why palaces and not just images?
Alex: It’s worth noting up front that we find our current methods of implementing memory palaces to be relatively simple (see “Doesn’t it take too much time to make all these palaces?”). We don’t think that using palaces in a mnemonic strategy adds up to much extra time or effort. Otherwise, the following might be moot. The presence of this question is also not to say that standalone images are never useful. We often create them for out-of-context facts or when it may be useful to create quick images on the fly. Standalone mnemonics are also a relatively simpler yet still effective way for, say, an absolute beginner to pick up new foreign language vocab. When it comes to carefully learning structured material, however (e.g. I'm sitting at my computer to learn the lung pathology chapter), I’ve found there to be three main arguments in favor of palaces:
1.. Organization: Palaces can be a boon to the structuring of stored information. I try to use the inherent structure of palaces to keep particular subtopics neatly contained within a given space in the mind. Let’s say I’m using my high school swimming pool as my palace for the lung pathology chapter. I reach a section about interstitial pneumonia, a key type of pneumonia. I might choose the men’s locker room as my exclusive “area” for interstitial pneumonia (this room was simply next along my path through the pool as I progressed through the subtopics of lung pathology). I can tidily contain everything worth memorizing about interstitial pneumonia within this space. When then thinking about interstitial pneumonia, I can easily “teleport” to this one room, which I know contains everything I want to remember. Although often rooms, an “area” might be an entire building (e.g. a neighbor’s house, the details of which I don’t know well), a field in a sports complex, a section of a park, a street, a parking lot, etc. Check out our Tetracyclines and Acute Pyelonephritis videos for examples of this in action.
I find this organization incredibly helpful. Here’s how I’ve noticed my thinking tends to go, and I believe it’s a useful practice: On hearing a topic, I first consider what semantically springs to mind and what intuitive implications arise based on the mechanisms at play (e.g. “Ok, interstitial pneumonia, being spread out and ‘atypical,’ displays weaker symptoms—lower-grade fever and less sputum—than do other pneumonias”; finding this intuitive and easy to remember, I didn’t encode it). As my natural memory begins to run out, I scan the relevant area to cue me into the different things I originally chose to remember (e.g. the specific bacteria and viruses which cause it, which aren’t exactly intuitive). In this way, I force myself to think conceptually while using the palace to cue me into critical info I might not have readily recalled (e.g. “Oh yeah, because interstitial pneumonia weakens immune defenses, it can often present with superimposed Staph or H. flu bronchopneumonias, which are deadlier”). This organizational approach also provides a framework for adding new info I might learn down the line (e.g. I later learned that Coxiella is an additional bacterial cause of interstitial pneumonia, so I added an image to a new locus within my original locker room area). The bottom line: palaces keep your images for each subtopic nice and organized. Unless you create incredibly complex images (which are less effective), you don’t get that with free-standing images. Of course, this benefit applies more to structured material (e.g. the lung pathology chapter), rather than to unstructured material (e.g. random foreign language vocab).
2.. Sequence: Using palaces is an easy way to track the progression of knowledge. By encoding information along a path, you can get a deeper understanding of how each topic builds upon its predecessors. It also allows you to easily step back and survey a broader topic (e.g. “Ok, when it comes to lung pathology, I’ve learned nasopharyngeal issues, laryngeal issues, pneumonias, effects of TB, obstructive and restrictive diseases, neoplasms, etc.”). Again, you don’t get that with free-standing images. As with #1, this mainly applies to structured material.
3.. An extra hook (i.e. a unique place in the mind): By encoding info at a unique locus, you give each piece an extra association—a special position in the mind. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, humans have an instinctive knack for visualizing physical spaces, so associations with locations are incredibly robust. Let’s saying I’m trying to learn the Spanish word for “to rent,” which is “alquilar.” I might simply imagine pouring some alkaline milk onto a taxi (the first things I thought of relating to “alquilar” and “rent”). Why not stop there, with these images free-floating in the ether? You could, of course, and this would still be helpful (this is how Memrise works, roughly speaking). But I think we can do better. By placing this milk-taxi on top of a table in my college dining hall (the position I was at in my palace when learning this word), I give it an extra hook. When I hear the word alquilar in the future, I find myself involuntarily teleporting to this locus, often without even bringing the milk-taxi visual to mind. I often find the location matters more than the images themselves (see “How clear should my visualizations be?” for additional discussion), and I’ve heard many echo this sentiment. Alternatively, you might simply affix this milk-taxi to a specific mental place (e.g. a particular street corner), without it being along any particular mental path or palace. This similarly confers a spatial association and therefore works well (this is how I do the historic dates event at memory competitions). For learning applications, however, I’ve tended to follow the former method of using paths through palaces, mainly for the reasons discussed in #1 and #2.
To sum up, I’ve found that memory palaces can be implemented painlessly while conferring a host of benefits. I didn’t always feel this way, initially finding memory palaces to be clunky long-term learning tools. Since implementing our highest-yield adjustments, however (see “Do memory palaces hinder learning?”), my belief in the above ideas has continued to grow.
How can I use memory techniques to study in medical school?
Our learning strategy in medical school consists of three main pieces: memory techniques, spaced repetition, and practice questions. If you haven't already, we'd recommend watching our Getting Started and Refine Your Technique series first. We also strongly encourage you to read "Do memory palaces hinder learning?" It summarizes our key dos and don'ts re: using memory techniques for learning. Here are medical examples of the techniques in practice: tetracyclines, acute pyelonephritis, opioid analgesics and the trigeminal nerve. In our interview for Luis Angel's podcast, we also walk through a few specific anatomy, biochem, and pharm examples.
We use the software Anki to take notes and to actively recall concepts in a spaced repetition-based manner.
Also see: "Do you write or draw out your mnemonics?", "What does your Anki setup look like?"
How can I use memory techniques to learn new languages?
Our vocabulary strategy varies depending on the language, but the basic idea is always a variation of the memory palace technique. See Getting Started #1-4 for the basics. For specifics about learning Chinese, see Part 1, Part 2, and this video where Alex goes through one of his Chinese learning sessions. These discussions deal mainly with mnemonics as vocabulary acquisition tools. Of course, a full language-learning approach should also include as much conversation and listening practice as possible.
See this link for Alex's discussion of how he uses Memrise to learn English vocabulary (e.g. SAT vocab).
How can I use memory techniques to learn equations?
Alex: Generally, I try to avoid "memorizing" equations. Again, the goal here is to learn efficiently by giving tangible meaning to what you're learning. In the case of equations, true understanding should be achievable, so memory techniques should generally take a backseat.
That said, I do use memory techniques for specific pieces of equations I find difficult to remember. So I'd recommend trying to identify the one or two tiny things that are tripping you up, and to encode those things specifically. For example, take this equation:
dc1/dt = Q/V1(cin-c1) - PS/V1(c1 - c2/lambda)
Let's say you're struggling to remember that the lambda is under the c2. In an appropriate area of your palace, you might imagine a swan (for 2) landing on and crushing a lamb (for lambda). Or maybe the lamb's simply raising both its front legs.
I'll also use memory techniques to better recall the steps needed to reach a final equation, assuming I've already understood it and still find that sequence difficult to remember (and still believe knowing that sequence is important).
As usual, these tips represent our personal experience and should be taken with a grain of salt. Having your own learning goals, you may find it necessary to memorize full equations, and if you decide to go that route, more power to you. I just haven't found it necessary to memorize full equations for the specific courses I've taken. As an illustration--again, not something I would likely do but if I had to--here's how I'd memorize a full equation:
Let's take the simple formula for the volume of a sphere: 4/3 pi r^3. I'd probably split this over three loci in an appropriate area of my palace (let's say I've devoted this palace to a section on simple geometric equations I'm required to learn):
Locus #1: A large sphere to encode the equation's purpose. Simple as that. Maybe it's banging into things or simply spinning in place. [I sometimes skip this step, as I've found that after a few reviews I automatically associate the ensuing loci with the relevant topic anyway.]
Locus #2: Since I memorize numbers using the Major System (if you're curious, see the numbers memo question at the bottom of this page), I imagine Gordon RAMSAY (my image for 430; nothing to encode the fraction; I'll assume I'll remember it's 4/3 and not 430; if I kept forgetting that, however, I might imagine him getting slashed in the face) tasting a PIE (for pi). [Alternatively, for anyone cringing at the Major System, I could imagine a SAILBOAT (looks like a 4) being HANDCUFFED (looks like a 3) below to the locus. A PIE is balancing on the sailboat's right edge.]
Locus #3: I imagine a RODEO cowboy (for radius; first thing I thought of) trying to wrangle a CUBE (for cubed).
As usual, 2-3 reviews via spaced repetition should make it all stick well. This is obviously a very simple example, but it hopefully makes clear how the technique might be applied to more complicated equations.
How can I use memory techniques to learn programming?
We don't have personal experience using the techniques for programming languages, so unfortunately we can't give good advice here. We get this question often and so wanted to include it for thoroughness.
The basics, though, would be to identify those terms/syntaxes that are important yet still difficult to remember and encode them using images/memory palace. If you're confused about how to do that, we'd recommend checking out our Beginner's Guide.
How well do memory palaces work in real-time situations?
Cathy: As we usually say, these memory techniques are not the final solution. We always recommend training with questions or drilling with friends to help integrate real-time problem solving with mental navigation of the memory palaces, which is really just a stepping stone to making the knowledge completely yours.
This practice is what allows you to quickly name the Chinese restaurants in every single town you've lived in. The same for pizza restaurants, Italian food, trendy places... In fact, you probably have no problem mentally jumping around, and could even list the entrees you like to eat at each and describe the look/feel of the restaurants. Similar to training with practice questions or drilling with friends, you've probably had a lot of practice with quickly analyzing the restaurants by situation (time to eat, need to cater a party) and specific criteria (my date is vegetarian, my budget is $5-10, I need something light on the stomach, must be within 5 minutes drive etc.).
Lastly, in my personal experience, for things that I'd like to retrieve quickly under pressure, using a rhyming or phonetic technique for creating the image allows me to verbalize the information faster.
When using memory palaces, should I "double-encode" information that appears in different contexts?
Alex: I often run into scenarios in which the same piece of information pops up in different contexts. Let's say that--while looking over lists of drugs that cause specific toxicities (e.g. all drugs that cause hepatitis, ones that cause diarrhea, etc.)--I learn that valproic acid is one of a handful of substances that can cause liver necrosis. Since this isn't a particularly intuitive fact, I encode it in my palace containing lists of various toxicities. Later, while I'm studying valproic acid on its own, "liver toxicity" comes up as a side effect.
Since I'm now using a separate set of loci specific to valproic acid, should I double-encode this fact? That is, should I encode Val Kilmer (valproic acid) in my liver necrosis loci and Will Ferrell (liver) in my valproic acid loci?
For me personally, the answer is generally no. I find that doing this forces me to think more broadly, so my palaces act in a more coordinated, inter-connected way. Instead of just listing off the various side effects of valproic acid, I'm forced to scan across my palaces and think more critically about how valproic acid operates and the various places it appears. Of course, if you're keenly aware at every instance in which you double-encode, that problem is likewise solved. Ideally, that should be the case. You should be constantly thinking critically about how new info meshes with the material you've already learned. Personally, however, I've found there's a slight tendency to miss these connections when encoding everything afresh as it appears, so I usually avoid doing it.
This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, of course, just a tendency. For instance, I still encoded the sulfonamides-G6PD connection in both my sulfonamide and G6PD locations.
Should I write or draw out my mnemonics?
Alex: I do write out (generally don't draw) all my palace images so I can reference them later if I need to. It takes more time up front, but I think it's a worthwhile investment.
First, I keep a spreadsheet with all my potential palaces (not the individual loci), coloring in the ones I've already used and noting what I used them for; for example, "University Rec Center (Path: GI)".
Second, for my actual course notes, I keep everything in the spaced-repetition flashcard program Anki. Each card has a "Mnemonic" field where I write in my images (I also keep these in a consolidated word doc as well, so I can more quickly read through everything if need be). For example, that field might look something like: "[stair railing] EINSTEIN knocks over ROTTEN EGG." I capitalize the things that actually correspond to information, sometimes writing in the association if necessary; for instance, "[stair railing] EINSTEIN=epstein-barr-virus knocks over ROTTEN EGG." I keep the language as concise as possible. I used to write long descriptions of my stories, but I found that doing so took too much time. and was largely irrevelant after I'd spent some time with the material. Now, my description often looks as simple as "[locus] IMAGE."
I also tend to fill the Mnemonic field with all mnemonics relating to the relevant subtopic. For example, each of the x cards about Cortisol will contain all mnemonics relating to Cortisol.
Generally, I try to limit the number of IMAGES to 1-3 following each [locus]. In my experience, it's much better to create more loci with fewer images on each than to stuff many images into fewer loci.
My images generally get hazy after a few days. What can I do to combat this?
There are definitely tricks for making stronger images, but this is an inevitable problem to some extent. No matter how great my images are, I generally find myself having to review the information a few times. I use spaced repetition using Anki to do that. The good news is that after 2-3 reviews, the images and ideas tend to stick really well. Here a few tips for making stronger images: Use images/loci that have special significance for you. Try to tie each image strongly into its specific locus. Avoid trying to stuff too many images into one locus (keep it from 1-3). In my experience, it's much better to create more loci with fewer images on each than to stuff many images into fewer loci. Think of a narrative for each locus. Mentally see each locus from multiple angles. When I'm dealing with a particular area of a palace, I try every now and then to "step back" and see all that area's loci together, so as to keep the structure clear in my mind. Also, generally speaking, don't convert everything into images; you should be "memorizing" as little as possible. This of course reduces your number of images. See "Should I try to encode or 'memorize' everything using memory techniques?" for more about that.
Do I need to train regularly (ie. memorize lots of numbers or decks of cards) to become proficient?
It just depends on your goals. If you're looking to become a top competitive memorizer, I'd say 30-60 minutes per day is a minimum. If your primary goal is to get your feet wet with mnemonics and begin applying them to learning, I don't think that's necessary at all. So in that sense, none of the events is "required" training. I do, however, think memorizing a deck of cards regularly (for instance) is a great way to get a feel for the techniques and stay sharp.
I struggle to convert information into images quickly. How can I improve?
This is really one of those areas that gets much better with practice, but check out Refine Your Technique #3 and "Should I try to encode or 'memorize' everything using memory techniques?" for our tips.
We want to re-emphasize that creating images is really just about creating triggers. You don't need to encode the entirety of a term into its image. For example, I use a "crutch" to remember "Krukenberg tumor." Those words are only slightly similar, but the association becomes strong after a few repetitions. Contrary to the examples of "papule" and "pheochromocytoma" we gave in our Getting Started series, we rarely--in practice--break the word down and encode every little piece, because we'll become familiar with the term soon enough. A simple analogy: on your own, you might not be able to recite a particular verse of a song, even if you "know" the song. Given its first few words, however, you can. At that point, there's no real sense in brute-memorizing the rest of the verse with mnemonics. It's the trigger--the first few words--that counts. We use images in a similar way; they need only be cues that bring the relevant info to mind.
Also see: "I'm having problems converting medical terms..."
How clear should my visualizations be?
Alex: Here's my experience, and this goes for both learning applications and memory sports: A key thing to realize is that the visuals themselves aren't always that important, so I don't worry if my images aren't clear. They’re often just fuzzy impressions. The memorability often comes from the story or narrative, simply the idea that image A is interacting with image B (or a particular location) in a semantically interesting way. I blogged about this following my 2015 USAMC experience, and for those interested in digging a bit deeper, that post explains the idea more clearly. When it comes to long-term recall, this idea becomes even plainer. If I haven't recalled something in weeks (or especially months), my image has usually been reduced to its most basic form: an idea in a location. For example, when recalling that toxoplasmosis is one of the clinical uses of the drug combo TMP-SMX, I just have a notion that there is a cat (toxo) on my elementary school's stage (a locus in my TMP-SMX area). No salient sensory impressions, generally--although of course some unique visuals or tactile impressions may stick here or there. I just know there's a cat on that stage, and that's all I need.
I'm having problems converting medical terms to images. I find myself using lots of people (e.g. an angry-faced man for increased blood pressure, an amputee for diabetes), so my palaces are full of arms, legs, and also things like blood and urine tanks, which gets confusing. What should I do?
Generally I try to pick specific people; e.g. Dr. Cox from Scrubs for hypertension instead of an "angry-faced man." Imagining individuals cues you into their unique presences and personalities. So doing that may help in differentiating people. If you feel like your palaces are filled with people, I'd make a more concerted effort to imagine more objects. But it happens. A solid chunk of my images are people. They're just generally more memorable.
I'd add that you shouldn't necessarily feel that your images need to be "true to life." It may work to simply imagine a pair of lungs, for instance, but strange characters or nonsensical objects are often more interesting. For instance, I use Spongebob to represent the lungs, Hagrid from Harry Potter to represent blood cells, a bike pump to represent dialysis, Dr. Cuddy from House to represent UTI, Ron Swanson to represent the central nervous system, etc. They may seem like trivial connections, but they quickly become ingrained with a few repetitions.
If you're filling up your palaces with things like blood and urine tanks, you're probably "over-memorizing" to some extent. These types of associations are better learned from an intuitive standpoint, rather than brute-memorized with mnemonics. Following our tips for encoding efficiently^ and choosing loci (e.g. spacing them out) should minimize palace congestion.
^See: "Should I try to encode or 'memorize' everything using memory techniques?"
Also see Refine Your Technique #3 for general tips on creating images.
What if I run out of loci before I've finished memorizing a section of my notes?
If I run out of loci before finishing, I'll just choose another location to continue my "palace." As an example, let's say I am learning antibiotics and select my college rec center as my palace. I'll place information about each new antibiotic until I’ve used all loci in the rec center. To continue memorizing, I could then move to the college cafeteria next door. For all practical purposes, the rec center and the college cafetria are part of the same "palace" I use to store antibiotics. Conversely, if I finish memorizing antibiotics but find I still have plenty of potential loci in the rec center, I can begin learning my next section of notes, e.g. anti-viral drugs.
What does your Anki (spaced repetition software) setup look like?
See this blog post.
Also see: "Should I write or draw out your mnemonics?"
If you're looking for general tips about making effective Anki cards, I've found Alec from Yousmle's tips to be concise and helpful.
What kind of memory palace (real, virtual, etc.) works best? Should I use places I’ve actually been to?
Personally, I tend to use places I’ve actually been to (notable exceptions: the offices from “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” to name a few). That said, I’ve seen all different kinds of palaces work for different people. For instance, I’m not a big gamer, so I’ve never drawn palaces from game environments, but plenty do to great effect. The bottom line: use any environment you’re comfortable using.
After you’ve spent time with the material, you’ll find that the details of the palace (e.g. how true to life it is) matter very little. I do try to use palaces in which I can structure the information, so places with distinct areas (e.g. rooms of a building) work better. That way, everything about drug x can go into area y, for instance. As always, two to three reviews will make that structure stick well.
For tips on brainstorming palaces and choosing good loci, see the “Refine Your Technique” series.
Also see: “Doesn’t it take too much time to make all these memory palaces?” for a more holistic approach to using palaces efficiently.
Why should I use Anki?
Alex: Anki refers to a free, flashcard-based spaced repetition software available at ankisrs.net. I take just about all of my notes using Anki (for medical school, language learning, etc.). It’s not perfect, but I think it can be a valuable learning asset for anyone when used correctly.
Despite its rigid structure, I find that Anki helps de-constrain me in many ways. I do, however, accept that different approaches work for different people. Here are the main things I like about it.
I like the structure of Anki, since it theoretically optimizes the amount of time needed to get info into long-term memory. I know exactly what I need to do each day, and I feel a sense of completion when I finish. Reviewing for an hour+ each day (when I'm making lots of new cards) isn’t always the most fun thing in the world, but review is unquestionably important for building long-term understanding. Spaced repetition is the most efficient way to do that.
Anki capitalizes on the testing effect. Research shows that active recall aids long-term memory much more than passive recall like re-reading notes.
I can easily attach my mnemonic images using an extra field. This makes the integration of memory techniques into note-taking quite seamless. The coupling of memory techniques and spaced repetition makes for a synergistic combination.
While Anki is helpful for making things stick, it should come as no surprise that it’s not the end-all-be-all of learning. If you’re learning a language, get out and practice with a fluent speaker. If you're learning medicine, you need to test yourself with QBanks like UWorld (or with actual patients on rotations). Even the best-made Anki decks are no substitutes for these. We believe that an optimal learning strategy contains not just book learning/review, not just practical experience, but a mix of the two.
For general tips about making effective Anki cards, I've found Alec from Yousmle's tips to be concise and helpful.
*See: “What Does Your Anki Setup Look Like?” and “Should I write or draw out my mnemonics?”
Do you ever erase palaces or actively clean them of old images?
Alex: You might consider making an active effort to erase "ghost images"--images on loci you want to reuse. The short answer is that I don't actively erase old palaces whose material I've decided isn't worth remembering. I believe the alternative strategies--brainstorming and using a new palace, or using a palace so old that its images have faded organically with time--are better. (Using new palaces needn't be painful. You can find our tips here.) If creating a new, ghost-image-free palace is easy, why spend time actively erasing an old one and risk confusing yourself anyway? It's also worth noting that I try to be very selective about what I encode using memory palaces. Generally, I only encode information I'm quite sure I'll want to remember indefinitely (e.g. most high-yield medical information, language vocabulary), so having a palace I want to overwrite isn't usually an issue anyway. If, however, you're dead set on reusing an old palace, my recommendation would be to adjust each locus's vantage or focus point (e.g. if you focused on the TV's screen initially, focus on its top instead), so the loci feel different.
This is all not to definitively say it's never worthwhile to erase palaces. It's just not something I've found necessary, either in competition or learning.
You recommend “encoding as little as possible.” What if I need to know something verbatim?
I'd recommending reading “Do Memory Palaces Hinder Learning?” if you haven’t already.
It will of course depend on your goals. For instance, if your course necessitates you learn every symptom of pneumonia to be recalled exactly, then yes, I'd absolutely encode every symptom. The two main reasons I try to "encode less" are simply: 1. It helps prevent me from brute-memorizing everything without proper thought, 2. It prevents me from having to wade through a “sea” of images, only 50% (for instance) of which may actually be useful once I've spent a few weeks on a topic. Of course, that's just in service of the goal of learning everything as "best" I can. However, sometimes you just need to know something verbatim (or close to it), so in those cases I'd encode more than I usually would.
What memory books and websites do you recommend?
Alex: These are the resources I used to get started:
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien
Memory in a Month by Ron White
MEMORY SPORTS (ALEX)
What are your official memory sports stats?
World Records (10) : Hour Numbers (3029)^, 30 min Numbers (1933), 15 min Numbers (1100), 5 min Numbers^ (520, shared with Marwin Wallonius), 5 min Binary (1110), 10 min Cards (416), 30 min Cards (910), Speed Cards (analog: 16.96 sec, digital: 16.86 sec), Hour Cards^ (1626), 80 Digits (17.65 sec)
National Records (12) : Speed Cards (analog: 16.96 sec), Hour Numbers (3029 digits), Hour Cards (31.27 decks), 30 min Binary Digits (4125 digits), 15 min Abstract Images (521 images), 5 min Numbers (520 digits), 15 min Numbers (1100 digits), 30 min Numbers (1933), 5 min Binary (1110), 10 min Cards (416), 30 min Cards (910), 5 min Dates (121)
How did you first get interested in memory competitions?
I first entered the world of memory techniques after stumbling across a TED talk by Joshua Foer entitled “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do.” Fascinated, I read Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, which interweaves the science of memory with the world of memory competitions. Soon after, I began training the techniques and experimenting with different learning strategies.
What resources do you use to train?
I do most of my training online. The bulk I do on Memocamp, a fantastic site for practicing any memory competition event under the sun: cards, numbers, dates, names, abstract images, etc. The site has leaderboards so you can see how you stack up against the best. I also often use the Memory League training site to practice cards, numbers, names, words, and images. Both of these are paid services. You can find free training resources on Art of Memory.
What system do you use to memorize numbers?
Since mid-2014, I have used a 3-digit system (one unique image for each 3-digit combo from 000-999) based on the Major System phonetic code, shown below. My system is approximately ⅓ people and ⅔ objects. I place two of these 3-digit images per locus. In my first year of training, I used a 2-digit Person-Action-Object (PAO) system.
Each digit is assigned a corresponding phonetic sound:
0: s, z; 1: t, d; 2: n; 3: m; 4: r; 5: l; 6: j, ch, sh, soft g; 7: k, hard g; 8: f, v; 9: p, b;
For a given 3-digit combo, I squeeze the three sounds together to form an image. For example, 375 might correspond to MKL, so I chose “Michael Jordan” as my image for 375. 357 became “milk.” 604 became “chess rook.” 970 became “Biggie Smalls.”
Here are a few links for brainstorming Major system images (if you're stuck on a number, try plugging it into these for some ideas):
Also see: "When you have multiple images in one locus, how do you remember their order?"
What system do you use to memorize cards? How would you compare your system to other higher-level systems (eg. Ben System)?
Since mid-2014, I have used a 2-card system consisting of 1352 images (992 of which overlap with my numbers system). Like my numbers system, it is based on the Major System phonetic code. Fellow USA national team member Lance Tschirhart wrote a detailed description here (my system is Part 1 of his system). My system uses a variable number of loci each deck. In my first year of training, I used a 1-card Person-Action-Object (PAO) system.
In an interview with Nelson Dellis, I explain how I differentiate between my two card "blocks": start at around 17:00. I explain the basic idea, but Lance's link will still be necessary to truly understand the phonetics (although it's essentially the Major System with a few tweaks to handle the face cards).
Of course, different systems work differently for different people, so it's hard to identify one "best" system. That said, the reasons I chose my system (over other 2-card systems like the Ben System) are two-fold: 1. With only 1352 images instead of 2704, I can maintain faster image recognition with less practice, while still capitalizing on many of the advantages of a large 2-card system. 2. Because 992 of my 1352 card images overlap with those of my numbers system, I only need 360 "card-specific" images (vs ~1700 for a Ben System).
The Ben System does have an advantage in that you can use a consistent number of images per locus (eg. 2 or 3); my system requires a variable number. There is also no ambiguity in the Ben System: an image always corresponds to a particular card pair, rather than 2 possible pairs.
Also see: "When you have multiple images in one locus, how do you remember their order?"
What system do you use to memorize abstract images?
I created preset images (pulled from my larger cards system) for each of the ~150 background textures. I then place two images per locus, skipping the fifth image for a total of 2 loci per line.
How long did it take you to learn your current systems?
I created my 1352-image cards system in June of 2014. It took until approximately October (training about 30 minutes each day) until I had reached what I deemed to be a decent level of proficiency (i.e. equaling my personal bests set using my old PAO system).
Do you recommend learning a higher-level (eg. 3-digit/2-card) system?
It all depends on your priorities. For those seriously interested in competitive memorization at the highest level, I'd wholeheartedly recommend a system like the one I use. For the more casual memorizer, I'd consider that overkill. In my opinion, it's much more time-efficient and sensible to learn a basic 2-digit or 1-card system, which can be created in less than an hour.
When you have multiple images in one locus, how do you remember their order?
Since I use "single-image" systems -- each digit/card/etc group always translates to a single image -- I must still recall the order of images within each locus. Contrast that with PA- or PAO-type systems, which by definition give you the sequence.
I deal with this mainly by focusing on story directionality. For example, say I'm looking at 375 - 004: Michael Jordan - scissors. I might imagine Michael Jordan using scissors to cut the locus. 004 - 375? A large pair of scissors are cutting Michael Jordan as he lies on the locus.
For some image pairs, that process doesn't work as cleanly. In that case, I focus on making the images interact directionally in space -- left to right or top to bottom. Take 536 - 609: lime juice - Empire State Building. I'd imagine a lime juice container hovering above and squirting sour lime juice down on the ESB. 609 - 536? Perhaps the ESB falls to its right and squashes the lime juice container. Or maybe it's dropped from above and crushes it. Another option is to make the first image ostensibly larger than the second.
Granted, I still occasionally make "swapping" mistakes, but following these is usually enough to ensure I recall the correct order.
What’s your main advice for improving at memory sports?
In the early stages, my main advice would simply be to enjoy the process. Don't worry so much about speed. Once you've laid a sufficient foundation, I'd then focus on speed and trust that accuracy will follow.
What is your training schedule like?
I train for approximately 30 minutes to an hour each day, on average. Generally, I spend about 25% of my time on speed drills and the other 75% practicing competition events. I usually space out these drills and events throughout the day.
How do you balance your time between medical school and memory sports?
I keep my memory sports commitment relatively low (less than 60 min per day) so as not to take too much time away from my schoolwork. For more details, see "What is your training schedule like?"
Do you ever erase palaces or actively clean them of old images?
You might consider making an active effort to erase "ghost images"--images on loci you want to reuse. The short answer is that I never actively clean palaces, whether for memory sports or learning projects.
In training for memory competitions, it's a necessity to reuse your stock of "competition palaces," as it would be neither practical nor wise to use a new palace for each new discipline. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer mentions that "mental athletes always halt their training a week before contests in order to do a spring cleaning of their memory palaces. They walk through them and mentally empty them of any lingering images, because in the heat of competition, the last thing you want to do is accidentally remember something you memorized last week." For instance, you might imagine each image exploding or melting into nothingness.
Although I usually rest palaces I will use in competition at least a week before the event, I don't actively do anything to clean them. I just let any old images fade with time, and I find that sufficient. In training a discipline like speed cards, I cycle through 10 palaces. By the time I've returned to palace #1 again, say a week or two later, any of the old deck's images are gone, or at most very faint. I would estimate my images only take 2-4 days to fade away. All of this means I don't have much insight into how one might actively erase palaces as part of a training strategy, but my point--for any newcomers considering this approach--is that I personally haven't found it necessary.
How many memory palaces do you use for competitions? How do you organize them?
For competition events, I use about 3,000 loci spread among 80 memory palaces (see this post detailing how I created them all). Generally, I select five loci per room/area, using as many loci as I can for a given palace (i.e. some have 200, some have 20). When using memory palaces for learning, I simply pick a location to start and choose the loci as I go - and so do not keep track of the number of loci. For more details about brainstorming potential palaces, check out Refine Your Technique #1: Finding Palaces.