Should I Reserve Special Memory Palaces Like My Home?

Here’s a question that’s popped up a few times recently:

Should some places (like your home) be reserved for more important topics? I ask this because I have been reluctant to use my home as a location since I feel some of the topics I am trying to remember right now are not important enough for major locations in my life.

As is hopefully familiar, our methodology for long-term learning looks like this: choose a palace, sparingly select loci and images as you learn the material, continually review using spaced retrieval practice, occasionally update with additional loci containing new pertinent information, but do not reuse the original loci for other topics. Essentially, it’s one-and-done. Therefore, I do think it's reasonable to save your best-known palaces. Personally, I use my most familiar locations (eg, childhood home, college apartments, current home) for short-term tasks—palaces I will fill with information, forget, then overwrite with new information. I selected the loci for these palaces a priori, in contrast to our choose-loci-as-you-learn approach to long-term memory.

Having learned about memory techniques via memory competitions, it may not be surprising that I reserve my most familiar locations for competitive memory events. For example, I use my childhood home of 80 total loci for speed cards (memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of 52 cards), speed numbers (memorizing as many digits as possible in 5 minutes), or images (memorizing the order of 30 random images). My college apartments and current home are reserved for similar purposes.

Additionally, I use these same locations for short-term projects—speeches, to-do lists, quick facts I’d like to encode using a palace, etc. For instance, when Cathy and I gave a short speech at our medical school’s Match Day this past year, I used the same childhood home, taking the first 20-30 loci to encode the key ideas or phrases as images. I’ve since forgotten that speech, and that’s fine. Those loci are always available when I need them. These are the palaces I return to again and again, and it’s comforting to re-inhabit the places that have positively defined my life.

So, I’d recommend choosing a few of your favorite palaces and selecting the loci a priori. For a typical house or apartment, I’d recommend selecting only ~5 loci per room in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion. Play around with these palaces. Try your hand at memorizing a list of random words as in our 20 Word Challenge. Memorize your shopping list. Mentally sit inside a palace and meditate. If you feel inclined, throw together a one-image-per-card system and memorize a deck of cards.

Outside of these exceptionally familiar palaces, however, I wouldn’t feel too stingy about using well-known locations (eg, college campus spots, restaurants, town centers). First, your bank of potential options for memory palaces is probably much larger than you think—check out “How to Find Memory Palaces” (Video 1 of our Step Up series) if you haven’t already. On initially using the brainstorming sheet, I was able to generate hundreds of palace ideas in less than half an hour. I now have a weekly reminder to add new places I’ve been to this sheet. Second, if you end up using a well-known location for material you rarely if ever return to, the images will fade. You can always re-appropriate that palace for a more pressing topic. Use spaced retrieval practice to hammer in those new images, and the palace should feel good as new.

Hopefully this provides some clarifying detail about how I personally employ palaces for short- and long-term purposes. If you’ve got an alternative approach, let us know in the comments below!