Do Memory Palaces Hinder Learning? Our Top 3 Don't-Miss Tips

I came across this med student's question recently re: the effectiveness of memory palaces for learning. It's a bit long—as is my response—but if you're someone struggling to apply memory palaces, I think it's worth a read. Below I discuss three of my key realizations about memory techniques as they pertain to learning. These are the ones that, in my view, took my approach from frustratingly ineffective to invaluable. (If you're brand new to memory palaces, I'd recommend starting with our Basics video series first). 

Here's the initial concern:

"For the past 12 months, I have been experimenting with learning using memory palaces where I literally completely rely on memory palaces in learning everything. I have made over 400 memory palaces with a total of about 20,000 loci. No doubt I was able to significantly increase the amount of things I can recall. However, I also come across a major problem in applying memory palaces to learning.

I find retaining more information via memory palaces does not translate to better applying those knowledge acquired in problem solving. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Memory palaces allow a person to place things he/she want to remember in loci in memory palaces so that he/she can easily recall. However, those information acquired are essentially "locked" inside the memory palace. What I mean is that to access those information, he/she will need to revisit the memory palace. By recalling those information over and over again, one might get quicker in retrieving the information, but the process still require revisiting the memory palace (at least subconsciously).

Now the problem is: Say there is a question that can only be solved by retrieving information stored in 5 different memory palaces. Since information stored in each memory palace are essentially self-contained, the brain cannot simultaneously access 5 different memory palaces to solve the problem.

In contrast, learning via the conventional method is like storing information in one big void. It is harder to find the information since one need to search through a much larger part of the brain, but at the same time the brain is able to simultaneously access those information required to solve the question.

I don't know if I have explained myself well enough. But that's the drawback I find. I would be interested in knowing what you guys think."

My Response:

Hi, your problem is definitely one I've run into personally. When I first began using memory techniques for school, I found them clunky to use and not nearly as effective as I wanted them to be. They in fact seemed to be hindering learning, as you describe. I was allowing the "memorization process" to distract me from truly understanding the material. I do, however, think these problems are solvable. I'm currently a medical student like you, entering my third year, and after a few years of experimentation I've gotten to a point where I now find memory techniques extremely valuable. Here are what I consider the key realizations I made along the way:

1. *Don't encode everything using images*: I don't mnemonically encode most of what I can intuitively understand. I'd estimate that only about 1/4 of all my cards (see #3 below) have associated mnemonics. The goal is to maintain an optimal mix of understanding/intuition coupled with memory techniques as a supplement. If I can understand the mechanisms underlying a process or disease, that's what I want. And that even goes for terms or concepts I feel I can learn quickly by rote. Memory palaces are just learning tools, and—it sounds obvious but it's worth saying—they shouldn't be used for their own sake. The techniques are not fully generalizable, but they can be helpful as-needed tools. Use them when they're natural and effective, and don't when they aren't. They're really just there to help me keep the vast swath of material straight, and to help me recall unintuitive yet important details. If you over-make images, you'll soon find that, after some time with the material, half of your images will be useless. They'll be encoding information you now find intuitive and easy-to-remember on your own. I try to ask myself: in a few weeks, when I've gotten a better handle on the material, which images will still be valuable to me? From the get-go, those are the only images I want to make. Put another way, I might ask myself: Can I reason out this particular fact based on what I know? If not, assuming this fact is high-yield and worth remembering, it may be a good candidate for a mnemonic. Restricting myself to the highest-yield information is essential. Creating tons of images for every random lecture or reading is a recipe for trouble. For some topics, I only create memory palace images when I've actually missed a practice question and the missed material is ideal for memory palaces (eg, hard-to-remember lists which are acronym-unfriendly). A final way to say this is that I "memorize" as little as possible. In this way, I minimize my reliance on memorization to the detriment of my problem-solving ability. The bottom line is that effective learning requires critical thinking about the concepts at play. If you're spending loads of time creating images and "memorizing" everything without critical thinking, it should come as no surprise that learning suffers.

For a more in-depth discussion: Should I try to encode or memorize everything with memory techniques?


2. Choose loci as you learn & use the palace to help you structure the material: A common grievance about memory palaces is that they take too long to make. Why spend time crafting a palace when you could be learning and practicing? When using memory palaces to learn (unlike for competitions), I don't create my palaces beforehand. I keep a running worksheet of potential palaces (eg, college gym, college cafeteria, restaurant x, store y, etc.), but I don't choose the individual loci within those palaces until I'm actually in the process of learning. Bottom line: It doesn't amount to much extra time at all. For example, let's say I'm learning about antibiotics, and at the start of the chapter I decide to use my elementary school as my palace. As I learn, I follow 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. This approach allows me to choose rooms/areas/loci that most appropriately match the material. Alternatively, if I come across an out-of-context list I want to encode (eg, while working practice questions), I might choose the first space that springs to mind (eg, list of insulin upregulators → Turk and JD's apartment from the TV show Scrubs, since Turk has diabetes). In these ways, I don't spend time beforehand plotting out routes and selecting loci with no visible goal. The as-needed creation of palaces fits quite seamlessly with my own analysis of what's worth memorizing and how I should structure it, so I find it actually fosters critical thinking about the material. 

For more depth: "Doesn't it take too much time to make all these memory palaces?" and 3 Reasons You Should Be Using Memory Palaces (And Not Just Standalone Images)


3. Use spaced repetition & practice testing: There are definitely tricks for making stronger images (eg, I shoot for ≤3 images per locus), but fading images are 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. To do this, I use spaced repetition via Anki, a flashcard-based spaced repetition software (SRS). I write concise descriptions of my mnemonics into a "mnemonics" field on the SRS flashcards (again, I'd estimate about 1/4 of all my cards have associated mnemonics). After about 2-3 active reviews, the info tends to stick well. The cognitive psychology literature is clear that spaced repetition is a key component of building lasting retention. Learning research is also clear that active, effortful recall of material is always best for long-term retention (ie, don't just passively reread through Anki flashcards; actively trying to answer the question yourself is critical for lasting recall). I may do targeted rereading when I've failed to recall a particular fact, but I try not to simply reread blindly. I also work in as many vignette-based practice questions (from Qbanks like UWorld, etc.) as I can. There's no substitute for that. You have to practice how you perform, and for medicine, the important exams (USMLEs) are all vignette-based. Proper question interpretation is often as important as knowledge. I devote the bulk of my overall study time to these vignette-based Qbanks (~4:1 Qbank:Anki once I've made an initial pass through the material). I generally make flashcards for high-yield material I've missed doing practice questions. While daily reviews aren't always fun, I believe an optimal learning strategy contains not just book learning/review, not just practical experience, but a mix of the two. If I had to choose between mnemonics and spaced repetition/practice testing, I'd choose spaced repetition/practice testing every time. But that's the beautiful thing—you don't have to pick. Use them synergistically, and as several studies show, their combined benefits are all the greater.

For more depth: Check out First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, the most popular USMLE Step 1 review book for medical students. Cathy and I wrote a section for the book entitled "Learning Strategies," which overviews which learning strategies are supported by research (eg, spaced repetition, practice testing) and which aren’t (eg, rereading, highlighting).

Hopefully this all makes some sense. My key realization was definitely #1, and I think that it solved for me the issue that you seem to be running into, while still allowing memory techniques to "work their magic." I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

- Alex

If you haven't already, I encourage you to check out our Study Hacks, where we delve into lots of these types of issues. If you'd like to see a practical example, our Tetracyclines video encapsulates all three ideas discussed above in under 20 minutes.  You can find more real-life examples (from topics like medicine, anatomy, pharmacology, and languages) on our Home page.

Questions or frustrations about using memory techniques and memory palaces for learning? Drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts.