How to Memorize and Retrieve Better Using the Memory Palace Technique

memory palace
Taken from the Braz-Tesol MBE SIG page on Facebook
In our second MBE blog post, we are going to discuss how our memories can be trained and become better with practice allied with memorization techniques that have been used for millennia. If you missed our first post about spaced repetition, you can find it here.
Think for a moment. Try to go back in time using your memory and remember what you had for lunch yesterday. Got it? What about two days ago? A little harder? And three days ago? What about four? Five? How about ten days ago? Well, I’ll take a chance and say you probably had a lot of difficulty remembering your lunch after you passed the 2-day threshold, am I right? Now imagine you’re teaching that group of 10, 15, 20 students that you have. Close your eyes and try to remember where everyone is seated. I’ll bet that was a lot easier, right?
I know what you’re thinking: “My lunch is different every day (or most days) and my students always sit in the same place”. You’re right! That’s one of the reasons why you can remember their positions more easily. Another reason is the fact that humans have excellent spatial memory and not that great declarative memory (explicit memory), which is the conscious part of our memory in charge of storing concepts, experiences, and facts (Ullman, 2004). This probably developed to help early humans better protect themselves against predators, retrieve the location of safe havens and find animals to hunt and food in their territory (Foer, 2011). Be it as it may, our spatial capabilities could be put to better use when it comes to memorizing other types of information.
If we look into the original story of Simonides of Ceo, a Greek poet hired to entertain the guests of the banquet in a palace, we can understand how reliable our spatial memory is. After entertaining the guests and leaving the premises, the palace collapsed and killed everyone beyond recognition. Simonides, having taken a good look at everyone, was able to remember where the guests were and helped identify them to the families by simply taking them to their deceased loved ones (Yates, 1966).
Knowing that our spatial memory is quite good, how can we use it to help us remember the content of a test, the sequence of our presentations or even a doctor’s appointment? The idea is quite simple actually. All we have to do is to imagine a building, a house or an apartment for instance. It helps if it’s our own house since we’re very familiar with the different rooms. Now, in every room of this house, place the information you want to retrieve. The trick is to create bizarre, strong, nonsensical images that you can easily go back to when needed.
Let’s say your students are learning Modals for Speculating. They could imagine they’re entering their house and right on the floor of their living room there’s a crime scene and a giraffe or a gorilla detective. A robbery or a murder perhaps. They can see some evidence and they need to think of a possible answer to that crime before they answer the detective’s interrogation.: “The criminal must have entered through the window, no signs of breaking on the door. The criminal might have picked the lock. The criminal can’t have copied my key”. Now imagine your students need to retrieve Professions (vocabulary). They could see in their kitchen a lawyer who happens to be a zombie being operated on by a vampire surgeon while stick people journalists take photos and a cat wearing a chef’s hat prepares a delicious meal.
A well-established concept that explains why the memory palace can be of great help to our memory is the Elaborative Encoding Theory (Karpicke & Smith, 2012). It claims that for better memorization and retrieval, the information needs to be encoded in a series of different ways rather than just one. Instead of only listening to a new phone number, the elaborative encoding theory proposes that we listen to it, write it down, associated its digits with something we already know, as well as place it in a different room of our house, for example. This theory goes hand in hand with Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory, which claims that we need to use verbal and non-verbal processing to better consolidate and retrieve information from our memory (Paivio, 1986).
I realize you might be feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of creating bizarre images so that you can better retrieve information. It may even sound silly to imagine a murder scene in your living room or to think Paris is in your kitchen. But journalist Joshua Foer, a guy with an average memory, used the memory palace technique and became the 2006 USA Memory Championship winner! He even wrote a book, entitled Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, teaching us how to improve our memories. It’s worth a shot, don’t you think? (Foer, 2011)
If you’re still reluctant, here are a couple of rules to help you get started and to teach your students:

1) If you can, teach different topics (grammar structures or vocabulary) in different areas of your classroom. Move every time you change the content subject. Another way you can do this is by moving your students. Wrapped up Modals for Speculating? Tell everyone to change seats and start teaching the vocabulary;

2) Use colors to assign different areas of the classroom different meanings, such as grammar and vocabulary. Each corner can have a different color. If you want to take the next step, each corner can be a different country on a different continent. You can even set up visual aids to help them imagine (a photo of the Great Wall of China here, the Eiffel Tower there, etc);

3) Tell your students to study different subjects in different rooms in their house and use the cues in their surroundings (furniture, windows, colors, shapes, etc) to help them access that memory later. They could use the same rooms they imagined in their memory palace: study the modals in the living room and vocabulary in the kitchen;

4) Reserve a couple of minutes of each class for the creation of the memory palace. Ask everyone to draw or write their images and then practice with them: tell everyone to close their eyes and visualize what they created. You can even have a gallery of memory palaces displayed in the classroom;

5) Don’t be afraid to look silly. The crazier the image, the better!

Embrace the memory palace concept and help your students and yourself to become memory champions. Don’t forget to watch Joshua Foer’s TED talk on this topic and like our Braz-Tesol MBE SIG page for more practical tips on the Mind, Brain, and Education science!

References

Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Press
Karpicke, J. D. & Smith, M. A. (2012). Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding. Journal of Memory and Language. 67 (1): 17–29
O’Keefe, J., Nadel, L. (December 7, 1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Paivio, A. (1986). Mental Representations. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ullman, MT (2004). “Contributions of memory circuits to language: the declarative/procedural model”. Cognition. 92: 231–70.
Yates, F. (1966). The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago

Extension

Joshua Foer – Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do TED
How to Create a Memory Palace – WikiHow

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