Designing a memory palace for training – Some additional examples and explanations

About this page: This is an optional complement to the How to build a memory palace for training page. If you haven’t done so already, you should read this other page first. It explains everything or almost everything you needed to know about this topic. You can read this complementary page after you’re done, but this isn’t absolutely necessary.

Some alternative methods to organize your training palaces:

What I’ve recommended so far is similar to what I and many other “experts” use, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s the only possible efficient technique.

  • You can choose to keep even more space in between each location. Especially when you’re using a place you’re not very familiar with, or that you don’t care much about, or that you’ve walked past by but never even visited. It’s not illegal to use a whole apartment or building as no more than 1 or 2 locations. And if the street or the neighborhood is your memory palace, you can choose to ignore most buildings and most streets and pick no more than a few scattered landmarks.
  • Others prefer to go the opposite way, placing 10 locations in any small or medium-sized room. This is how neuroscientist and memory champion Boris Konrad is usually proceeding. It works great at least for him! I happen to think this is a fine method when one is memorizing something long-term, but a difficult one to use for most people when you’re trying to go fast.
  • Another method that is slowly growing in popularity is to have different characters positioned in advance in each location and use them to make whatever you’re trying to remember more memorable. This method requires more work up front while you’re designing and learning your memory palaces. I don’t recommend it to most people in most situations, but it does often allow for some improvements with your scores, at least with random words. Although others have come up with the same idea independently, memory champion Katie Kermode was apparently the first person to talk about it publicly. We’ll explain that method on another page soon.
  • Some competitors will design their memory palaces differently depending on the discipline. They’ll have some training palaces solely for cards, others solely for images and so on.
  • I often like to build large training palaces and use different sections of those palaces each time I’m practicing. The path will remain the same, but the starting and finishing points will vary very often. Others prefer to build many small palaces designed to hold no more than 1 deck of cards or say 50 words. When they want to memorize more, they’ll use many of those small palaces and link them together.
  • Sometimes I’ll just pick a new place and improvise a completely new path while I’m memorizing. Or I’ll just start where I happen to be and start placing images around. I never do that if I’m trying to break a personal record, but I do think it can be a fun and useful exercise.

You’re of course very welcome to experiment with different methods and see what works best for you. Friendly warning: when it comes to identifying what works best, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Just because one technique seems to work well in some situations doesn’t mean it will deliver the best average results the rest of the time. Or alternatively, just because a new method seems hard to use at first doesn’t mean you should abandon it right away. It’s very easy to be confused or mistaken about all that. All that being said, if you aren’t trying to break some new world records, it doesn’t matter that much whether or not you end up picking the very best possible method. If something works and you enjoy the process, that’s more than good enough.

How to choose your specific locations?

It’s up to you and your personal preferences. It’s generally better to avoid having your locations be too close to one another or too similar. I personnally like to keep them close enough to avoid uselessly wasting space and to facilitate some kind of interaction between images from different locations.* And as long as you don’t go overboard, it’s ok to use more than one window, more than one couch and more than one door as locations in the same memory palace. If you conceptualize them differently depending on their locations and appearance, you should be able to avoid confusing them.

* An image from one location can interact with an image from another location through direct contact (if they’re close enough) or by moving from one place to the next. But they can also interact from a distance. An image can be saying or yelling something or simply noticing what’s happening over there and having some kind of emotional reaction to it. I think that such interactions will often help to make sure you don’t forget anything. More details on that process will soon be added to another page.

Many people will order their locations the same way every time, always going clockwise or from the top to the bottom. Personally, I’ll use whatever path I feel like using depending on the context and my in-the-moment mood. I might go clockwise in a predictable way in one room, and then choose to start on the roof, “fall” down to the table, go underneath the table, jump back to some other piece of furniture and finally end up on a particular window. The path I’ll use will always somewhat make sense to me, but it could easily seem completely absurd to someone else.

Some more examples of memory palaces for training:

For those examples, I usually won’t bother listing the specific locations. The point will be mostly to examine some less ordinary examples and show some possible paths as well as some possible choices of zones.

Training palace example nº3: A parc

If you were to visit Parc Jarry near my apartment in Montreal, here are 5 zones that you might choose to use and combine to create a new memory palace.

  • Zone 1: Around the police station
  • Zone 2: The playground
  • Zone 3: The skatepark
  • Zone 4: In and around the pool
  • Zone 5: In and around the lake and the small island

You might notice that some zones are smaller or bigger than others. That’s mostly just a matter of personal preference. Zone 5 might be larger because you preferred to use only some clearly noticeable locations. If the playground was well known to you because you frequently visit it with your kids, you might have chosen to divide it into 2 zones and 10 locations.  

You might also notice that zone 4 is quite far from zone 3. This doesn’t have to be a problem. If the leap from zone 3 to zone 4 somehow makes sense to you, your mind is perfectly capable of instantly jumping from one point to another with little or no delay, no matter the distance. You’ll be fine as long as the path you’re using isn’t absurdly nonsensical and hard to remember. 

Training palace example nº4: A commercial street

Below are 2 photos of rue Cartier in Quebec City. I haven’t been there in a while, but I took those 2 pictures just a moment ago using Google Street View to navigate and the Snipping Tool for the screen captures. I added 8 hypothetical zones one might choose to use.

For this hypothetical example, let’s suppose that you’re quite familiar with the small mall at the beginning of the street and the bar nearby, but you don’t know the rest of the street that well. 

  • Zone 1, 2 and 3: Different parts of the small mall
  • Zone 4 and 5: That bar you’ve been to a bunch of times.

For the rest of the street, you decide to ignore most of the different stores and only focus on a limited number of places.

  • Zone 6: Location 1: You go inside the library and leave while breaking the side window. Location 2: You end up in the alleyway. Location 3: You walk in front of that restaurant-bar. Locations 4 and 5: In front and inside the Subway restaurant.
  • Zone 7: Location 1 and 2: In that restaurant. Location 3: Inside an imaginary tunnel leading to the back of the grocery store. Location 4 and 5: Inside and then in front of the grocery store.
  • Zone 8: Inside and around the small cinema found 2 blocks away. You can’t see it in that picture, but you don’t need to because you remember it well enough.

Some noteworthy details:

  • In zones 6 and 7, you broke a window and added an imaginary tunnel just because you felt like it. That’s ok, there’s no need to feel guilty. Imaginary crimes aren’t like real crimes.
  • You need to backtrack a little bit to go from the last location of zone 6 to the first location of zone 7. You then need to walk much further away to reach zone 8. That’s ok, exercise is good for you.

* Both rue Cartier and parc Jarry – the last 2 examples – are perfectly capable of accomodating a much larger number of zones and locations. I just wanted to keep things simple and explain how you might proceed with places you don’t know that well.

Building a semi-fictional memory palace

I have a memory palace loosely based on the Montreal casino. I only visited the place twice. The first time was almost 2 decades ago. The second time was around 2017. I recently looked at some pictures of the place and I combined them with imaginary elements to create a new and largely fictional training palace. I don’t remember the real configuration of the place very well and I don’t care. I have no need or desire to try to make this particular memory palace more realistic. Here are some of the fun things I experimented with:

  • I chose the different sections that I wanted to use and I ignored the rest. I ordered those different sections in a way that sort of made sense in my mind, but that would be impossible in real life. At one point I dive into a fountain and appear at the end of a store. There’s one slot machine that gets me to teleport directly to another section when I activate it.
  • I added plenty of imaginary elements, including a pool, a maze, a bingo room, a waterslide and a giant magnifying glass. There’s also a huge jumping ramp used by buses leaving the place.
  • I also added some largely useless imaginary characters in some places. Wolverine is drunk at the bar. This Japanese rock band is playing at some point. There’s a bunch of zombies in one of the escalators. Near the exit, mister Garrison from South Park is saying goodbye to everyone leaving. Those characters aren’t there to help me memorize anything specific. Their only function is to make some parts of the casino feel more memorable, more entertaining, and more distinct from otherwise similar sections. 
  • I decided that this boat would be parked outside waiting for me to use it as an extension of this memory palace.

I don’t usually add that many fictional elements to a memory palace, but here I went overboard. All of those changes are unnecessary. Some may help a little bit, while others may be completely useless. Some may even be counterproductive*. Who cares? I like it better that way ( : 

* Becoming fast and efficient with this particular palace probably took slightly longer than it would have with a more realistic palace. It remains an open question whether or not those fictional elements will be helpful in the long run or if they will slow me down or have no effect one way or the other.

A few more comments about semi-fictional memory palaces

Nobody is forcing you to choose between 100% complete realism or omnipresent impossible absurdities (like my casino palace). In some sense, all memory palaces will always be at least partly fictional. They may be inspired by reality, but the mental representation that you have in your mind will never be completely accurate. This isn’t a problem at all. It can even be an asset.

It’s up to you whether or not you want to let your imagination run wild or if you prefer to aim for much more realistic and accurate mental representations.

Here’s how I usually like to proceed. I use reality as a starting point and as a suggestion. My default preference will usually go toward realism. However, I won’t hesitate to twist or bend it if I think it will help. Or if I just feel like it. As I said I can often choose to mentally burst through a wall or a ceiling. Teleportation portals can help me instantly jump from one interesting place to the next. I can choose to mentally visit some house I’ve never been in and imagine that there’s a bowling alley on the second floor and an underground nightclub on the first. Also if one particular room or area seems worth using but also kind of boring, I can decide to add a fictitious waterslide and place 2 or 3 locations on it. Or if there is no obvious choice for a fifth location in some particular zone, I can choose to add some tunnel, some hole in the ground, some hidden safe or whatever.  

And finally, yet a few more precisions and comments and options for you to consider or ignore:

  • As I said you don’t have to use every single room or every single section of a place. I might choose to use 95% of the house I grew up in, but only 50% of some other apartment, 25% of a park and 3% of a mall. The choice depends partly on how well I know the place and how interesting it seems to me, but in the end it’s mostly just an arbitrary decision. If I’m building a large memory palace that starts in my apartment and stops 3 km away, I certainly won’t use every single building along the way. I’ll only use those particular places that seem interesting to me and I won’t hesitate to “jump” from one place to the next while ignoring most of what I see.
  • If I’m physically visiting a place that I’m using as a memory palace and I realize that my mental model of the place is largely inaccurate or that changes have been made, I’ll probably choose to stick with the version I first made up. If the owner chooses to renovate or move things around or if a tornado destroys everything, it doesn’t matter to me.
  • It’s true that it’s worth taking some time to build some memory palaces that you will enjoy using and reusing. On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t bother overthinking the process. As I said, almost anything will work really. If days or weeks or months from now you decide you want to change things up, it will still be possible.
  • And one last time: you don’t have to listen to me! I could be wrong. And it’s not that important whether or not you end up making the perfect choices. For people who aren’t trying to break personal records, optimizing speed and efficiency doesn’t matter all that much. Memory techniques will help a lot in many different situations, whether or not you’re using them “perfectly”.