Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mind Palace - Putting it Into Practice

Previously, we've discussed the basic structure of a mind palace and what it's used for. Today, I'm going to discuss some basic encoding methods, and the building blocks for creating your own.

But first, a little history...

The practice of using a person's visual/spatial memory to organize non-visual non-spatial data has been around since the ancient Greeks. In its simplest terms, a Mind Palace utilizes images to organize and store information for later retrieval. The ancient Greeks and Romans used this system, also called the method of loci (meaning places/locations), for remembering anything from names of soldiers to important speeches. In fact, the expression "in the first place" refers to the technique of placing talking points in a mind palace (First thing you want to say goes in the first place in your mind palace). The method of loci was also used very often for everyday knowledge - something that, today, you could simply look up in a book. The first "books" were more like very lengthy scrolls with no chapter headings, page numbers, and little to no spacing or punctuation. This meant that in order to efficiently use a book as a reference, much of the organizational data would have to be stored in one's own head. Today, there is less of a need for a mind palace, but it can still be a useful technique for reliably internalizing everything from a list of names to a phone number to a shuffled pack of playing cards. A detective today using a mind palace filled with crime solving information would be able to have infinitely more data at his fingertips without the dependance on technological devices to access the information he needed.

Now for encoding....

The first thing you need to remember about encoding data into a mind palace is that it's not an exact science by any means. There are an infinite number of ways to encode information, and very little information can be coded verbatim. Mind palaces are most useful when the data can be easily broken down, only the general idea is important, or you're working with small, simple data to begin with. Rest assured, any data can be encoded, but not all data can be encoded quickly. As there is no one-hundred-percent right way to encode data for use in a mind palace, I'm just going to give you a few rules of thumb which have served me (and several unnamed international memory champions) quite well.

  •  Make it Simple:
    • Most of the time, a person who uses a mind palace won't be remembering anything much more complicated than a shopping list. It's important to remember that less really is more. There's no point in telling yourself a long story to remember every single thing - you might as well just memorize the list by reading it over and over again. A good rule of thumb is that whenever you're trying to remember a list of distinct objects, simply place comically large versions of the objects in various loci in your mind palace (Ex: eggs, cheese, and fruit can code to a giant egg on your porch, a huge wheel of cheese on your couch, and a massive fruit basket on your bed).
  • Use Relationships:
    • Sometimes, you'll be at loss for what images to place in your mind. My advice to you is to quickly think about things which are related to the item you wish to memorize, and use those instead. As an example, let's say your girlfriend gives you a list of things to pick up - one of these things is hummus. You don't know how to visualize hummus - but you know that it falls into the category of Greek food. Instead of trying in vain to place hummus in your mind palace, you place a Greek temple filled with food in there instead. This will remind you that you are looking for a Greek food item, which will send you back to hummus.
  • Homophones are Your Friends
    • In a pinch, words that sound similar may also be substituted quite easily, leading to quicker and easier memory storage. A great way to think about this technique is to imagine trying to memorize a list of names of people you've never met. Let's say one of the names on that list is "Kanasha". If you're like me, this doesn't evoke any useful images right off the bat. What I would do in this situation is visualize a few old people sitting around a table playing Canasta (if you don't know what that is either, then you may want to find a different image), and use that.
  • More than Just Your Eyes
    • In the case that you find yourself working with kind of a vague image, remember - YOU HAVE 5 USEABLE SENSES. You're not limited to just your eyes. You can also use touch, taste, smell, and hearing to enhance the images you've placed. Let's say you don't have a very specific idea about what a tuna looks like. You know it's a fish, but beyond that, you're lost. You do, however, know what canned tuna smells like. Why not imagine a sort of generic fish, then add in the idea that it smells like a tuna sandwich? Bingo.
  • Make it Weird
    • Nothing hurts a mind palace more than banality. If you want to remember things, for the love of all things cold and rational MAKE THEM MEMORABLE. Think of it as if you were telling yourself a story as you walk through your mind palace. It'll be much easier to recall if you know that it's Darth Vader is waiting for you down the hall as and not your old boss from the previous year (unless you had a really exciting boss). As a general rule, make your images as large, crazy, wacky, lewd, crude, or otherwise weird as you can. You're brain is hardwired to remember those things BETTER, LONGER, and EASIER.

If you're interested in continuing your education in the area of mind palaces and tricks involved, I highly recommend reading Josh Foer's book Moonwalking with Einstein. It's an excellent read and is invaluable in  expanding one's knowledge of the mind's potential (not to mention, it's where I learned much of what I know about these techniques).

As always, I appreciate your input. Your feedback is incredibly valuable to me. If there's ever a topic you don't understand, something you need clarified, or you'd like to suggest an idea for a post - send in a comment or drop me a message and I'll do my very best to help. Happy memorizing!