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.

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. 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 in the moment 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. For many 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, acronym-unfriendly lists). Another 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.

(Also see: "Should I try to encode or memorize everything with memory techniques?" on our Tips page)

2. Choose loci as you learn & use the palace to help you structure the material: 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, etc.), 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. This approach allows me to choose rooms/areas/loci that most appropriately match the material. 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 I find in fact that it aids in my critical thinking about the material. It also cuts down time spent on "palace building."

(Also see: "Doesn't it take too much time to make all these memory palaces?" on our Tips page)

3. Use spaced repetition & practice testing: There are definitely tricks for making stronger images (e.g. I shoot for ≤3 images per locus, which helps me), 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 using Anki (a flashcard-based spaced repetition software, or SRS). After about 2-3 reviews, the info tends to stick well. The learning literature is clear that spaced repetition is a key component of building lasting retention. Learning science is also clear that active, effortful recall of material is always best for long-term retention. I do targeted rereading when I've failed to recall a particular fact, but I never 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 like you play, and for medicine, the important exams (USMLEs) are all vignette-based. I devote the bulk of my overall study time to these vignette-based Qbanks. I generally make flashcards for high-yield material I've missed doing practice questions, and I prioritize these in my Anki reviews. 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.

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.


If you haven't already, I encourage you to check out our Study Hacks page, 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/palaces for learning? Drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts.