My Mind Palace… For Real

If you’ve watched Sherlock – and you should – you’ve seen the world’s most prolific sleuth retreat into his mind palace to retrieve something of the copious reams of information he stores there. I laughed out loud the first time I saw one of these scenes. I thought it was creative genius, pure and simple. I immediately wondered if this was true to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original texts (kind of… he calls it a brain attic), but it did not ever occur to me that this might really be a thing… for real.

I am ecstatic to report that indeed, the mind palace is a thing, and a very powerful thing at that. Again, the MOOC has blown my mind. Not only does the concept of a mind palace exist, it has for a very long time. The great orator Cicero himself presumably used the mind palace technique, or Loci Method, to memorize his orations. He even orated about using the trick to orate.

So, what is it?  Well, first of all, it is helpful to remember that our brains are very good at spatial relationships. Even those of us in the crowd that have a heck of a time visualizing things in space – which way is North, and how to translate the information on the map into the real world – still have spatial minds. We can navigate our house in the dark.  We can find our way to the Ben & Jerry’s isle, every time. We can easily think about where that little silver pen should be: in the house, back of the office, third shelf up, right of the piano, clear plastic box, often balancing precariously on a bag of craft supplies. It may not actually be there, but we are very good at navigating the mind map of our own homes to see where things are supposed to be. We are spatial creatures.

The mind palace idea is an inventive method of using our very spatial brains to help us memorize things. It combines spatial mind maps with which we are familiar with creative, ridiculous symbolic images completely out of place, and takes advantage of all the idiosyncrasies of the brain.

Take a place you know well – your home maybe – this is your mind palace. Set a route through your home and walk it in your mind, making note of all the places and spaces that you generally take for granted. Visualize it all, preferably in a set order that you will utilize every time you ‘go to your mind palace.’

Now, it is Monday, and you are starting to accumulate more of a grocery list for Friday than you’ll possibly be able to remember. Instead of rushing off to the trusty list, give your brain a spin.2005_1106BV

You need milk… enter your mind palace and put the milk somewhere. Not a normal gallon of milk.  Make it big, or give it the legs and spots of a cow. Hang a bell around its neck for all I care, but make it not fit. And don’t put it in your refrigerator, for goodness sake. The milk is always there… that will never jump out at your as your searching your palace from the grocery store isle. Stick that chewing, mooing carton in your bed. Perfect.

You need some corn flakes, too. March yourself right into your living room and plop that giant rooster in your fireplace. Let him crow. It’ll help. Might loosen the soot in the chimney while he’s there.

Oranges. Let’s put one the size of Texas in the middle of the couch, sagging that thing to the ground. Stick a straw in it. Smell the zest that just misted in your eye? Good. Introduce your orange to the rooster. It can keep him company. Maybe they can have a few beers.

Beers. Sure. I’m sure you can make the orange a little drunk to bring attention to the neon pink beer in his hand.

Just keep going. I kid you not. Every time you need to add something to your list, take a little trip to your palace. Tour it (every tour you take solidifies your list), saying hello to all the circus freaks already there, and stash your next transformed item in a special place.  When it’s time to recall everything, just go back and take that tour again. Everything you need will be waving at you, belching at you, mooing at you, generally having a great time in your digs while you’re at the store.

If you’re like me and you like to have your list organized according to where in the store the items are, thus reducing the total mileage put on the old pedometer stalking through the Walmart, you can develop some neat and tidy ways to order your list. Remember how you’re always walking through your palace over the same route? Well, maybe the first room on your tour corresponds to the first section of the store you usually shop. If you hit the produce first thing, then the mudroom is where you stash all the ornery produce in your palace. If bakery is next, that bathroom has just become home to the most welcoming smells on earth.

You’ve just dabbled in the oldest, most effective method of memory enhancement. Congratulations. Equally exciting, you’ve just hit upon an excellent technique for self-entertainment. Say hi to the cow in your bed for me.

A chronological listing of the posts in this series:


8 thoughts on “My Mind Palace… For Real

Add yours

  1. Almost didn’t read it. ADHD. Glad I did. The mind palace now seems sexy, and I understand it much better. Barb, take note. A little confusing at the end, but I’ll give myself a break.

    Thank you


      1. I blew out here to blogland from MOOCsville, which itself was a brief landing. Sometimes it helps to get out of the car .. anyway, what a find!

        Paragraph near the end discussing reduced-mileage mind palace was new to me. I haven’t even charted a course through the grand floor, and I completed LHTL in May.

        But wow, what a writing style! I recently submitted my Learning How To Learn supplementary, which led me here. Impression I got here was one of architecture. From your last name and photo I was thinking Danish, but I see you are from the states.

        Bend, OR here!

        (nothing to do with shoes)


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