What is a mind palace—and how do you use it?
In this article, I’ll share my learnings and insights from constructing a mind palace for myself.
A mind palace is a mental construct of a metaphysical building with different imaginary “rooms.”
By adding a dimension of physicality to your mind, the idea is that you’ll be able to use your mind palace not only for memorisation but also to control your emotions and enhance your cognitive abilities.
Here we go:
My Interest in Mind Palaces
Do you know those pop culture moments that stick—and stay with you?
Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ll recognise some of these moments:
For me, a seminal such moment is from Sherlock, the British TV show starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
In the series, Sherlock Holmes and the villain Charles Augustus use a memory technique called the mind palace to commit information to memory.
The television series Hannibal also mentioned a mind palace in the series Hannibal starring Mads Mikkelsen as the genius psychopath with a peculiar taste for human flesh. Weird eating habits, fantastic memory technique.
The idea of having a mind palace appealed to me.
Is the mind palace a proper technique that one can use?
And if so, how does it work?
The Method of Loci
As it turns out, a mind palace (or memory palace) isn’t just a television trope.
The 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 straightforward:
Let’s say you want to memorise a deck of 52 cards. For this, you could think of a house with 13 (52 divided by 4) different rooms, rooms you pass 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 hearts, you mentally attach the card to the mirror—and then you move on to the next room in your sequence.
You place 13 cards in 13 rooms attached to 13 different pieces of furniture. Then you take the same route three more times, securing a new card to another piece of furniture in each room.
Every room will now contain four pieces of furniture with one unique card attached to each one.
The groundwork here, of course, is to construct such a “palace” in your mind beforehand. This means that you won’t have to struggle to remember rooms or pieces of furniture. Or their order.
When you test how many of the 52 cards you remember, you enter the first room (the hallway), look at the first piece of furniture (the antique mirror), and see—the ace of hearts.
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 neighbouring 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 specific locations is clever to use and conserve mental energy.
The mind palace technique makes good use of this brain feature; by assigning an imaginary (enhanced with other sensory information like the smell, sounds, temperature, lighting conditions, etc.) to a specific memory, recall becomes more accessible.
Amongst many other things, the savant Daniel Tammet is famous for memorising 22,514 digits of pi in just about five hours. Tammet has described how he experiences different numbers in highly distinctive colours, characteristics, shapes etc.
I admit that such hardcore memorisation feats somewhat put me off; I had no interest in learning an advanced parlour trick.
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).
There seem to be emotional-type use cases for mind palaces. Some people have been experimenting with altering their emotional states—with positive results.
To me, this sounds interesting and potentially useful.
Would it be possible to use a mind palace to enhance your mental performance besides raw memorisation?
Techniques To Enhance Cognitive Abilities
A few years ago, I came across the creativity researcher, Win Wenger.
Wenger’s primary hypothesis was outlandish yet freakishly fantastic:
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, your “avatar friends” might start to surprise you, contradict you, or even challenge you. Despite that, their words come from somewhere within yourself, of course.
From this one example, we could imagine building a mind palace with several different rooms filled with different types of valuable experts with one singular trait in common—they’re not you even though they are, of course.
The practice could bring the power of visualisation and location together, suggesting a powerful combination.
We could start seeing a “room” in a mind palace as a separate cognitive tool for other purposes than just committing 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 spaces for this. For example:
Genius boardrooms. You could experiment with having several rooms inhabited by different experts to discuss essential 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.
My Minecraft Mind Palace
For me, constructing the mind palace has been somewhat challenging. It requires a great deal of concentration.
I found that building my mind palace in Minecraft helped a lot.
As with Lego, I never forget a build. By replicating the mind palace in Minecraft, I’ve been able to reinforce the metastructure in my mind.
A side effect is that my existing mind palace now looks a bit like a Minecraft building inside of my mind. I prefer a more industrial look, so I imagine rendering an enhanced graphics skin once I’ve entered a particular room.
This Minecraft trick has given my mental structure a form of stability.
I’m looking forward to VR and AR software dedicated to these forms of use cases. I’d make good use of having a Metaverse mind palace, for sure.