What is a mind palace — and how do you use it?
You know those moments in pop culture that sticks — and stays with you. Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ll recognize some of these monumental pop cultural moments:
- When the narrator says, “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful” in Fight Club.
- The Alec Baldwin ABC speech in Glengarry Glen Ross.
- When Keanu Reeves as Neo realises that he is the one in The Matrix.
- When Matt Damon as Jason Bourne explains that he can run flat-out at “this altitude for two miles before my hands start shaking.”
- When Bruce Willis as Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction explains that, “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead.”
- When Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper is throwing rocks together with the Twin Peaks police department to increase the effectiveness of his deductions.
- The Al Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday.
Of course, these are some of the scenes that’ve stuck with me — you have your own.
But for me, one such moment in pop culture must be taken from Sherlock, the British TV show starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
In the series, both Sherlock Holmes and the villain Charles Augustus uses a memory technique called the mind palace to commit information to memory1. The concept of having a mind palace seemed so cool to me!
Is the mind palace really a technique that one can use?
And if so, how does it work?
The method of loci
As it turns out, the mind palace (or memory palace) isn’t just a television trick.
A mind palace is a mnemonic method used by ancient Greek and Roman scholars to commit large chunks of information to memory called the method of loci (loci = latin for location).
The practice is fairly straightforward:
Let’s say you want to memorise a deck of 52 cards. And for this, you could think of a house with 13 (52 divided by 4) different rooms, rooms in which you go through in a pre-decided order.
Let’s say that the first room is a hallway with a large antique mirror.
When you read the first card, let’s say an ace of spades, you mentally attach it to the mirror — and then you move on to the next room in your sequence.
You place 13 cards in thirteen rooms attached to 13 different pieces of furniture. And then you go around the same route three more times, attaching a new card to a new piece of furniture in these thirteen rooms.
Every room will now contain four pieces of furniture with one unique card attached to each and every one of them.
The groundwork here, of course, is to construct such a house in your mind beforehand. This means that you won’t have to struggle to remember which these rooms are or what pieces of furniture (in order) that can be found in them.
When it’s time to test how many of the 52 cards you can remember, you enter the first room (the hallway), you look at the first piece of furniture (the antique mirror) and you see — the ace of spades!
Our brain’s built-in GPS system
In 2014, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John O´Keefe from University College London and May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
The scientists found that cells in our brain constitute a positioning system. The researchers found that:
“… certain neurons in the hippocampus fired whenever a rat was in a certain place in the local environment, with neighboring neurons firing at different locations, such that the entire environment was represented by the activity of these cells throughout the hippocampus.”
Assigning memory neurons to fire at certain locations is a clever way of using and conserving mental energy.
The mind palace technique makes good use of this brain feature; by assigning an imaginary (enhanced with other sensory information like smell, sounds, temperature, lighting conditions etc.) location to a specific memory, recall becomes easier.
Amongst many other things, the savant Daniel Tammet is famous for memorising 22,514 digits of pi in just about five hours. Tammet have described how he experience different numbers in highly distinctive colours, characteristics, shapes etc.
I admit that I was playing around with the idea to create my own mind palace at this point, but I had no interest in learning how to perform what’s essentially a bunch of parlour tricks.
But what if mind palaces could be used for other things as well?
Controlling or altering emotional states
In an online memory forum, I found ongoing discussions of what other uses there could be for having a mind palace:
Lower your heart rate before a nerve-wracking speech.
Getting to sleep instead of counting sheep.
Preparing oneself for meditation by walking through and reinforcing your rooms.
To increase focus in distracting environments.
Building a palace with positive memories (emotional mind palace) to combat depression or increase confidence (see the study here).
So, there seems to be a case to be made for emotional-type uses for mind palaces. It seems like at least some people have been experimenting with altering their emotional states — with positive results.
To me, this sounds highly interesting and potentially very useful. Still, I want to know more:
Would it be possible to use a mind palace to enhance your mental performance besides from memorisation and controlling emotions?
Techniques to enhance cognitive functions
A few years ago, I came across a creativity researcher, Win Wenger.
Wenger’s basic hypothesis was outlandish yet freakishly cool:
Since our subconscious speaks to us visually and not verbally, we can enhance our cognitive performance by reinforcing our inner image-stream.
Here’s an interesting use case:
Imagine yourself sitting in a room with people that you look up to. For me that could be Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Stephen King. Discuss with them, ask them questions. Visualise them as they speak. Soon, these imaginary avatars might start to surprise you, or contradict you, or challenge you, even though their words, of course, comes from somewhere within yourself.
From this one example, we could imagine building a mind palace with several different rooms filled with different types of useful experts with one singular trait in common — they’re not you. Despite the fact that they are, of course.
On the one hand, this brings the power of visualization and the power of location together, suggesting a powerful combination.
On the other hand, we could start seeing a “room” in a mind palace as a separate cognitive tool to be used for other purposes than just commiting strings of information to memory.
Some mind palace “room” examples
Emotional control rooms. If you need to alter or control your emotional state, you could experiment with having designated rooms for this. For example:
- Confidence room.
- Positivity room.
- Motivational room.
- Gratitude room.
Genius boardrooms. You could experiment with having several rooms inhabited by different types of experts where you discuss important decisions or solutions.
Habit workshops. How about a room with goal visualisations for new habits you wish to reinforce?
Meditation spots. To strengthen the effects of your meditation practice, you could meditate in a specific location within (or outside) your mind palace.