Saturday, September 20, 2014

How to Build a Mind Palace

The pin said "how to think like Sherlock Holmes"; at that point I hadn’t read or watched any Holmes stories, but I knew his mind was famous for its grey cells. So I clicked on the pin and read the article it linked to, then several more. Eventually one used the term ‘mind palace.’ I didn’t know what it meant, but thought it sounded cool. So I looked it up. That was about a year ago.


ORIGIN OF THE ART OF MEMORY

There are two types of memory: Natural Memory and Artificial Memory. Natural memory is the memory we create, without any effort, of an event, thought, sensation, etc. Artificial memory is the memory we deliberately make a special effort to build or retain. Thus mnemonics, which aid or exemplify the memory, have to do with the artificial memory; a mind palace, the subject of this post, is a kind of mnemonic. Mind palaces are not so much for memorizing things as for remembering them.

The ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC) is the one usually credited with inventing the mnemonic sometimes called a mind palace. This art of memory was taught by the ancients through to medieval times as an easy and accurate way to remember things in times when not many knew how to write.

Simonides was invited to write a poem in honor of a nobleman of Thessaly, he did and recited it at a banquet held by the nobleman. In a section of his poem Simonides praised the twin demigods Castor and Pollux. This angered the nobleman, who proceeded to tell Simonides that, because the poem was only half in his praise, he would not pay its full price. He told Simonides that if he wished for his full payment he must request it of the two gods themselves. Later that night as the banquet continued, a servant came into the room with a message for Simonides telling him two men were outside who wished to speak with him. Simonides went outside looking for the  men, but found no one. As he stood outside, the roof of the banquet room collapsed, and the nobleman and everyone in the room were crushed and killed. So it was that the demigods Castor and Pollux paid for their share of the poem by drawing Simonides outside in time to save his life. After the accident when people came to retrieve the bodies for burial, the corpses were so mangled that they could not be recognized. However, Simonides was able to remember where each man at the table had been sitting in relation to the rest of the room and to the dinner table, and so was able to identify the remains. That is the story of how Simonides of Ceos discovered the principles of the art he is reputed to have created.

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, … .  (Cicero, De Oratore, II, lxxxvi – translation: Sutton & Rackham, 1942)

A mind palace is, quite simply, a building in which to store memories. The trick is that this building is not a memory but a place, and this place is contained within your mind. A mind palace for storing memories: it is, as Mycroft Holmes calls it, a memory palace.
In ancient Greece this art of memory was taught to students as a part of rhetoric. Were you to go back in time, you could watch a rhetoric student wander through a large and mostly empty building, memorizing the building until he could visualize it clearly with closed eyes. The building became a place in the student’s imagination to which he could go whenever he wished.
After making himself familiar with the building, a student would select different places in it such as an arch, the corner of a room, or a tabletop. These places are called loci (pronounced ‘loh-sigh,’ singular form locus). Then he would go, in his imagination, to a particular place in the building and put there an image of something that would remind him of whatever he wanted to remember. He could then walk through the building along a designated route, seeing the images he had put down as he went along and recalling as he saw them what they stood for.
There are two ways these images can be used: As a reminder of a particular word or as a reminder of a particular thing. However, images for words are much more complicated and time consuming than those used for things, and were not often used by the ancients except as a practice to strengthen the mind. The following notes and techniques for the building and use of a mind palace concern images for things only.

BUILDING A MIND PALACE
The palace is a place in a person’s mind where memories are stored. The first step in building a mind palace is to choose a building. A palace can be any type of building, real or fictitious. Learn your palace by heart so that you can walk through it with ease in your imagination, then choose a route to follow when moving through your palace.
Particular places in a mind palace are called loci. These places should have enough space between them that they don't become confused with each other, the distance needed is different for everyone. If the lighting around a locus is bad it may be difficult to see the images well, and if the room around a locus is very brightly colored or shiny it may be distracting. Designate loci throughout your mind palace. The more loci there are in your palace the more memories there are room for. The more the merrier.
Placed on loci are images, used to recall memories by the attachment of the image with the memory. An image can be of anything (friend, cupcake, etc.), but it must be associated in some way with what you want to remember. For example, the name of the object could rhyme with the name of what you want to remember. If you want to remember something a certain person said you could use an image of that person holding or doing something related to what they said. If you want to remember to get some eggs at the grocery store you could put a carton of eggs on the front porch of your palace. It might be added here that Whovians will have no problem finding images for numbers one through twelve. Images of people work well. The more memorable and unique an image is the better. Emotionally memorable qualities make an image easily remembered. A funny, beautiful, or grotesque image is much better than a banal one. A simple way to make an image more memorable is to mentally splash some red paint on it.  
Once you have established your mind palace and loci, create a route in your palace and make a habit of following it. A designated pathway is very useful for memorizing long lists, as it insures that you will visit each locus, and in the correct order. It is best that this route always be followed both on the way in, and the way out, of your palace.  



METHOD

To store a memory in your mind palace, attach or associate the memory with an image, then go into your palace and place that image on a locus. Some find it useful to store different categories of things to be remembered into their own rooms, e.g. a certain room for names and a certain room for math formulas.

When reviewing your memories, go into your palace and walk along your designated route, stopping as you go along at each locus and its image to recall its memory. The more often you walk through your palace reviewing your images and loci the stronger they will become, try to review your loci and images at least once a week, if not daily. How often you review them depends simply on how important it is to you to keep them. It’s surprising though how long they will stay without being reviewed; I’ve forgotten to review my own for months at a time, only to find when I enter my mind palace again that they have not faded, though they may have grown shabby and accumulated dust. But I should add that before that I had been reviewing them constantly.

To delete an image, go to the locus it is on and stare at the image until it disintegrates and eventually disappears; or simply pick up the image and carry it out of your palace. Different people prefer different methods, and there are more than are listed here.



TO END

Mnemonics (arts of memory) have been valued through the ages not only as an aid to memory but also as a moral control of the imagination, which the stoics believed to be an important part of ethics. I think it’s neat that in his earliest work on rhetoric, De invention, Cicero defines virtue as, “a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature,” and lists, as one of its four parts, Prudence, which he describes as “the knowledge of what is good, what is bad and what is neither good nor bad. Its parts are memory, intelligence, foresight. Memory is the faculty by which the mind recalls what has happened. ...” Cicero’s definition of the virtues played an important role in the formulation of the four cardinal virtues during the Middle Ages, at which time the artificial memory was thought of as part of the cardinal virtue Prudence.

When I built my mind palace I originally planned to use it to remember stuff. And I do, but not very often. More often I use it as sort of place to go to in my imagination to think. It's a place where I can go to to be alone. I’ve never told anyone what it’s like, when I imagine it I’m the only one who’s ever imagined it: I have its only key. My mind palace is a place where can go to be still and to think and for me that’s wonderful.


x x x

Most of the information here was found in the book The Art of Memory, by Francis A. Yates. Various Wikipedia pages were also informative, but especially this post: How to Build Your Own Mind Palace, from the blog another boy who lived. I'd love to hear what you all think of mind palaces - if any of you use one or are thinking of building one. xx

18 comments:

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    1. Thanks, Jollygirl - and thanks for commenting! :)

      xx

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  2. Wow. This is fascinating stuff. I've heard random explanations about memory palaces before, but none have ever made it seem so... possible. And easy.

    I use similar tricks to remember things when I want, which a lot of the time has to do with picturing or seeing things that are loosely connected in my mind to the thing I have to remember to do. Like, today, I was going to wash a load of clothes, but the machine was occupied, so I told myself that later that when I'm hungry and go looking in the fridge, I'll remember that there's peanut butter there, which is kept in the pantry, which is in the utility room, which is where my load of clothes is, and then I'll remember! (And then I'll probably wind up eating some peanut butter, and forgetting again. :P )

    Building a mind palace has always seemed daunting to me though. I think relating the things I want to remember to things I actually physically see works better for me somehow. Plus I don't really have anything to keep in it currently. I imagine it's a cool thing to have though. I'm definitely going to think about this, and maybe I'll build one one day. :)

    Really, really cool post, S!! :D

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    1. Thanks, Sarah. You saying that makes me really happy. :) It took a lot of editing and rewriting to make it clear - I'm so glad my description of building a mind palace came across as simple, because it really is.

      haha Yep, I've totally done that. :D

      In general I don't use my mind palace for remembering things, I just use the basic principle of it and attach what I want (or need :)) to remember to some physical object that I know I'll be seeing. Unless I want to remember whatever it is long term, then I do use my mind palace. :) It is definitely a fun, cool thing to have; I've really enjoyed mine. :) That would be cool if you built one sometime! :) Thanks so so much, Sarah! And thanks for your long comment! :D

      xx

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  3. This post is phenomenal! I've never heard anything with this much detail about mind palaces before! *mind blown* At some point I want to try this and see if it works for me! I wish I could come up with more to say but all I can think right now is WOW. Great job, SW!

    ~Jamie

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    1. That really means a lot, Jamie, thank you. <3 If you do try it out sometime I'd love to hear about!

      xx

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  4. Wow, I had never heard of anything like this before! I might have to try this ;) Great job explaining this, it sounds complicated!!

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    1. Tell me if you do! :) Thanks so much, Jessica. :D

      xx

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  5. Well done tackling this very complex subject, friend! Don't think I forgot your response to my post about rusty MPs and Ancient Greeks and Sherlockian Inspiration. I was influenced to further refine my {yet vast and uncharted} Kingdom of the Mind by what you said.

    Sherlock Holmes would be over the moon pleased with this lesson on building a MP. I myself am over the moon happy about it, too. Jolly good—now I need to go to my Mind Palace!

    x, Les

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    1. And I didn't forget that post! It's so fun you have/use a mp too, I don't know anyone else that does. We should form a club. ;)

      Thanks so much, Les. I'm so very glad you like it.

      xx

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  6. Oh my goodness... We recently started watching Sherlock.... Love at first episode! I might possibly be addicted.

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    1. I love 'em too. :) They're so well done, and I love all the references to the original stories. Have fun watching them, Emily! :)

      xx

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  7. I used to do this just naturally when i was little, and associate things with places ive been but i forgot everything when i was about 10 years old and i never seemed to be able to remember all the memories i put in their places...... it was sad, because there were years from when i was very little and i could still remember them.
    I was thinking of building my mind palace back up again, and this has really helped me, thanks!! :)

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    1. Hi I'm glad you liked this post, thanks for commenting!

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  8. This is an absolutely amazing blog. Thank you for sharing this information. I've always wanted to know if mind palaces existed and if they did, how they could be built. I think I came across your blog post at the right time.

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    1. You're so nice to say that, thank you. I'm glad this post was helpful to you. Mind palaces are really cool. :)

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  9. Wow. Its really fascinating. The given information seems solid and upon that the explanation was fantastic. Great job! I would very much appreciate if you could post something like this on how to store actual words thus to keep more information in the Mind Palace.

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    1. Hi, thank you very much. I haven't learned much about storing actual words. As I understand that's sort of a dividing place in types of mind palaces, simply because storing, say, a speech word for word would take much more time and loci and images then storing it paragraph by paragraph (where the image for each paragraph would be something reminding you of the general overall purpose/meaning of the paragraph). I learned a lot of what I know about Mind Palaces from a book called The Art of Memory and I seem to remember the author talking about one method of storing individual words having to do with the word's sound. Like if the pronunciation of a word is similar to the pronunciation of an object's name you could use that object for your image.

      I think basically though the concept is the same, it's just more time consuming (and takes up more loci in your palace). Thanks so much for the comment. I'd love to hear if you try it out. :)

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