About this page: Here I will explain how to create and optimize a few memory palaces that you can end up using over and over for training and/or for short-term goals. The page is long because I give plenty of examples and mention some alternative strategies, but the gist of it is quite simple. If you don’t want to read everything, you can stop right before the additional explanations and examples section.
What’s the difference between creating a memory palace for training and a memory palace for long-term retention?
The process can end up being very similar if you want to, but it doesn’t have to be. For me at least, the ways I will approach those two tasks will vary a lot. It’s almost like I’m building two completely different types of memory palaces. I haven’t seen any commonly used word or expression establishing a clear distinction, so I’ve decided to call them “storage palaces” and “training palaces”.
Storage palaces: memory palaces for long-term retention
I will build what I call storage palaces for what I want to remember for weeks or months or years or forever. While memorizing something in a storage palace, I’m usually not trying to go as fast as I can. I will take my time to create memorable images and I’ll review them as often as I want. In those conditions, it doesn’t really matter if the storage palace isn’t as well designed as it can possibly be. Often I won’t even bother pre-planning the path I’ll use. I can just pick a starting place somewhere (say, that particular room at that restaurant I used to work at more than a decade ago) and start placing images around that place in a semi-improvised way. Using this method can save you a lot of time in the long run. Once your starting place has been chosen and you know what you want to remember, you can start memorizing right away.
Another important difference is that I will generally avoid reusing the same storage palace for different purposes. If there’s just one set of stories and images to remember in that restaurant, it makes the memorization process easier and it reduces the risk of confusion. It’s definitely possible to use the same memory palace for two or more completely different and parallel set of images. At some point in the future I’ll talk about how this recycling process can work. However, I think this is an often risky and usually unnecessary strategy. If your kitchen table has images related to elements of the periodic table as well as some historic dates and german vocaculary, it might lead to some confusion during recall.
When I want to remember something new, I’ll either build some new storage palaces or expand the size of those I already have. If the additions are minors, I can also just modify some already existing images or add some surrounding elements.
Training palaces: memory palaces designed for practice or for short-term uses
I will build what I call training palaces and use them mostly to practice my skills and try to improve. Occasionnally, I will also use them to remember something only for a few hours or a few days or weeks. Once a training palace has been prepared, you can use and reuse it over and over infinitely without any problem. In fact the more you use a specific palace, the more familiar you become with its configuration and the more efficient it becomes. When you’re done practicing or when you don’t need the info anymore, you only need to stop reviewing its content for a little while and let the images slowly fade away.
It’s possible to train while using some completely improvised memory palaces. However, when one is trying to go fast, I think it’s useful to have a few places like your apartment where you know in advance exactly where you will place the first 2 images, where you’ll place the next 2 and so on. In the long run, having that part taken care of in advance will save you time and mental energy.
Even if you don’t care about becoming fast and you don’t really want to practice “memory sports”, I still think you should take the time to prepare at least one or two “training palaces”. They will be useful at least temporarily while you’re learning the basics of memory techniques. And you’ll have a few well-prepared and always accessible memory palaces always available whenever you want to memorize something quickly and efficiently. When you’ll be memorizing in those palaces, you’ll never have to use any time or energy thinking “what was the next location again?”.
Since you can “recycle” or reuse those places an infinite number of times, at least for some people it makes sense to be a little more careful while organizing them at the beginning. Explaining how to design some particularly efficient, memorable and fun to use training palaces will be the main goal of the rest of this page.
What should you use as a training palace?
Almost anything can work, but some places will be easier to use than others. Converting a place you already know relatively well into a training palace is usually quite simple and straightforward. If you’re instead using a restaurant you’ve only been to once or twice, the process might take longer. An initially less-than-optimal memory palace can ultimately end up working just as well as the house you grew up in, but you’ll probably need to practice it for a while first. Your memory of the place doesn’t have to be perfect.
Personally, I like to keep the majority of my best-known places (apartments and workplaces and so on) for training and/or for short-term uses. For long-term memorization, optimizing speed and efficiency don’t matter nearly as much and I’ll use just about anything. The place can be real or it can be partly imaginary. It can be a place I’ve visited a thousand times or just once or twice while traveling years ago. Google street view or Matterport or almost any random photo or artwork can provide a practically infinite amount of potential new palaces.
A common fear among beginners is to assume that they will quickly run out of possible memory palaces. I can assure you that this fear is unfounded. Once you stop limiting yourself to those first few places that quickly pop to your mind, it’s not that hard to find more viable memory palaces that you could possibly need.
How many memory palaces should you plan for training?
Hardcore “memory athletes” will build many huge palaces just for competition and for training, but beginners and casual memorizers don’t need nearly that much. At first you can choose to use nothing but your apartment. That’s fine at least for the first few days. I even know people who managed to become quite good without ever using anything else. But if you’re not too busy or too lazy, I think you shouldn’t waste much time before coming up with at least a second and third memory palaces. That way you can cycle through those 3 places without accidentally remembering some image that you came up with the day before and that you don’t need anymore. Those 3 places don’t have to be big. I think the equivalent of 3 small apartments would be more or less fine for most people. Although you can of course choose to build many more if you want. An alternative option would be to build some much larger memory palaces and use different sections of those places each time.
How to plan and organize your training palaces?
There are many different possible ways to organize your palaces and you can choose to experiment with different methods. I’ll briefly discuss some alternatives later, but for now I’ll just explain the method that I and many others use.
1- Choose your starting point and begin planning your itinerary
Start by roughly choosing the path you’ll take.* Just choose a path that allows you to visit most of the interesting sections of that place. You don’t have to bother going through every room and exploring every corner. Just use the sections that seem memorable to you and ignore most of the rest. If it makes navigating all the interesting parts of a memory palace any easier (and eliminate the need to walk twice on the same path), I will burst through a few walls or ceilings and use one or two strategically placed portals to teleport myself from one place to the next in some convenient way.
* It is possible, though not ideal, to skip that first step, simply choose a starting point and improvise the rest of the route.
2- Choose your specific “locations” and organize them by “zones”
You will divide your itinerary into a series of “zones” and choose 5 specific “loci”* or “locations” for each of those zones. A “location” is any specific place where you will later position your images. A “zone” is just a way to mentally group your locations together, classify them in order and make sure you don’t accidentally forget something. For your very first training palace, 3 to 6 zones with a total of 15 to 30 locations would be more than enough. That might sound confusing, but it will become clearer with a few more examples and explanations.
* “Loci” is the plural form of “locus”, a Latin word often used by memory palace users. It simply means a specific location or place. I won’t be using this word very often, but you’ll encounter it frequently if you venture beyond this website.
What is a “location”: So as I just said, a “location” is some specific point where you will later position your mnemonic images. If your kitchen is a part of your memory palace, you could decide to use the table as the first location, the fridge as the second, the oven as the third, the sink as the fourth and the trash can as the fifth. Pre-planning that path will save you time and mental energy later on, especially if you’re hoping to go fast.
What is a “zone”: It’s just an arbitrarily defined area that seems large and interesting enough for you to place 5 “locations”. You decide how large or how small you want your “zones” to be. There are no strict rules that you need to follow here.* One zone could encompass 2 or 3 or 5 rooms. Or it could be just 1 room or even half a room. The image you’ve seen at the beginning of this page was an example of two relatively small zones, but this model isn’t necessarily the norm. We’ll soon see more examples that you can choose to emulate.
* It is also possible to choose to completely ignore the concept of “zone”. You could simply choose a series of locations in order in your apartment, without dividing them by different zone. I think that this division process is useful, that it simplifies the process and makes it less likely that you’ll forget any specific location, but it’s not absolutely indispensable.
How large or small should your “zones” be? And how close to one another should you place your “locations”?
Depends on your personal preferences, how familiar you are with the place and how comfortable you are with your images being close to one another. If it feels too small or too confusing or too uninteresting to choose 5 locations in any given zone, don’t hesitate to redefine its size and make it bigger. Make each of your zones as large as they need to be for you to feel comfortable using them.
Some general guidelines:
- If your memory palace is based on an interesting place that you know well enough, how large or small you want your zones to be is completely up to you.
- If your memory palace is based on a place that seems less interesting – or if your memory of the area is vague – you should probably use larger zones and have your locations be (on average) farther apart from one another. Again, don’t hesitate to only utilize those sections that seem more memorable to you and ignore most of the rest.
- If your locations are too far apart, your images won’t often be interacting with one another. And you’ll need some very large memory palaces.
- If your zones are too small and your locations are too close, in some cases it might make the memorization and recall process more confusing.
- Doors, walls, fences, natural demarcations and other landmarks can be useful as a way to clearly indicate the limits of any given zone. However, there’s no law forcing you to rely solely on those. If it makes sense to do so for some reason, you can just as well decide that a given zone will start right in the middle of the kitchen, keep going through the window and stop on the other side of the street.
So what should you do exactly? Well, the precise answer to that question really is up to you. You could decide that each of the main rooms of the apartment or building you’re using will be a different zone. So the five-room apartment where you live would have five zones and 25 locations. That’s how world champion Alex Mullen builds most of his memory palaces. It’s what is recommended in this Ron White video tutorial. It’s also what I used to do myself and suggest to people.
However, many people prefer to keep much more space in between each location. For example, the currently undisputed Canadian memory champion – my friend Braden Adams from British Columbia – will use much larger memory palaces with only 1 or 2 locations per room. I’m not sure that everyone should do the same, but this method certainly seems to work extremely well for him and many others.
Because of the influence of Braden and others, I recently started adjusting the configuration of my training palaces and changing my default recommendation to people. I’m now experimenting with zones that are generally about the size of two regular rooms. With this new method, the image on top of this page would be just 1 zone or even just half a zone instead of 2. I still think there’s nothing wrong with placing 5 different locations in a given room if it doesn’t seem confusing to you and if speed isn’t your top priority. But if you want to maximize your potential speed and ease of recall, for many people it might be wise to use more space. On the other hand, at least some people – including world champion Alex Mullen – seem to have no problem breaking world records using much smaller zones.
* To be clear, if you’re building a memory palace for long-term retention and you’re not trying to go as fast as possible, you don’t have to overthink the process and try to optimize everything. Using sub-optimal memory palaces, semi-improvised choice of locations and smaller images that are relatively close to one another will still end up working very well.
We’re now going to look at various examples of memory palaces designed for training. Remember that each of the paths presented could have been completely different, depending mostly on your personal preferences. Just to show you some of the countless different possibilities and strategies available, a few more examples will later be provided on another page.
Training palace example nº1: A studio apartment
Here let’s pretend that this studio apartment is a real place and that you wanted to use it as a training palace. We’ll look at three different ways you could choose to organize your zones and locations. The zones will be indicated in white while the precise locations will be numbered in red.
I think those 3 options are all perfectly fine. Option 1 is what former world champion Alex Mullen uses. Other highly skilled “memory athletes” that I could name use something more like Option 3. I was using Option 1 until recently. I’m now experimenting with Option 2, or even something vaguely in between Option 2 and 3.
Again, that’s up to you to choose some method that you will be comfortable with. If you’re not sure, try something like Option 2 at first. You can always change your mind later if you prefer.
Option 1: With smaller zones
[Personnally, for slightly easier mental navigation from the end of Zone 2 to the beginning of Zone 3, in that case I would also add a fictional hole that leads directly from the bath to the closet.]
Option 2: With medium-sized zones
Option 3: With larger zones
How to expand the size of a memory palace
If you want to add more zones to a similar palace, you don’t have to be limited by the size of the building. The next zone – or the next few zones – could appear around one of the neighboring buildings or areas. Yet another could be at the small convenience store 2 blocks away. Some more zones could then be added at the supermarket 5 blocks away (you don’t have to bother using every single building and street corner along the way). Right behind the section of the supermarket where they sell fish, a teleportation portal could lead you to that university building you know relatively well. Or else to some section of that particularly memorable Call of Duty level? Or to that youth hostel in Mexico where you’ve spent a week a few years ago? Or maybe the youth hostel could be relocated inside the Call of Duty level? The possibilities are endless. Do whatever you want. Just don’t spend too much time for now preparing a ridiculously large memory palace that you will rarely if ever use.
Warning: The examples above were provided just to help you understand the process of choosing a path and choosing specific locations. But of course you shouldn’t try to use that particular “memory palace”. It’s just a plan and it wouldn’t be memorable enough. If you want an already complete and usable memory palace, try the next example instead.
Training palace example nº2: An indoor playground
Clicking here will lead you to a webpage where you can explore every small corner of a crazy-looking indoor playground for kids. And if you click here, you can view and possibly download a complete plan for a training palace based on that place. While the first example on that page was just a plan, this one is a real place that you can choose to visit virtually if you want. Virtually visiting a site is more confusing and harder to remember well than visiting it in person. However, with a little more time and focus, it’s possible to build a mental model of the place in your head that will be just as memorable as any other memory palace.
How to remember the path of a training palace and the order of all its locations?
It’s easier than you might think, especially with places you already know well. Focus. Close your eyes and imagine yourself going through the whole path. Count 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 for each location in each zone.
(Zone 1): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
(Zone 2): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
And so on until the end.
If you forget something, pay attention to the nature of your mistake and then start again. Pay attention to the appearance of each location and sometimes to the emotions and/or memories they might trigger. You don’t need to remember every detail of every corner of every room. You only need to remember all your locations in the correct order.
Once you can go through the whole path, do the whole thing again one more time, but slightly faster. If you go through that process once a while with all your training palaces, you will notice that it will feel easier and faster each time. Becoming more familiar with your training palaces is one way for you to improve your scores and your speed. If you don’t have to expend any mental energy remembering your path, you can focus 100% of your efforts on just the mental images you’re improvising.
* Once a while, just as an exercise, you can also go through the whole path in reverse. Start at the very end of your palace. Go 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Continue until you’ve reached the beginning. Then go from start to finish in normal order.
How many images should you place per location?
In most contexts, at least when they are practicing and trying to go fast, I think the majority of experienced memorizers will place 2 interacting images per location. While other methods can also work very well, 2 images per location seem to strike a good balance between efficiency and memorability. Many people will experiment with 3 or more for a while before sooner or later realizing that 2 leads to better results overall*.
If you choose to use that method, that means you will place 10 images in each zone (5 locations per zone, 2 images per location). A memory palace with at least 5 zones (like some of our examples above) will therefore be able to easily hold a list of 50 words. With a classic 2-digit system, those same palaces could each hold 100 digits. Or a full deck of cards if you find one last corner for the very last 2 cards. Or if you’re using a PAO system, 25 locations is enough for you to place either 150 digits or 75 cards.
*It’s very tempting to assume that using more images per location will be better or more efficient. It’s true that you will need less place, but I nevertheless believe that the costs usually aren’t worth it**. The process will still work, but it will slow you down and it will increase the possibility that you will forget something. At least for training and short-term uses, I think it’s better to just create new memory palaces and/or to increase the size of the ones you already have.
** It is of course possible that you should ignore what I wrote above and experiment with different methods. Although this doesn’t seem to be the case for most people, maybe putting 3 or 4 images per location will be the best choice for you.
If you place two images in the same location, how will you know which one is first and which one is second?*
It could be the way you position your images. The first image could be above the second. Or the first could be on the left while the second is on the right. You could also play around with image size by having the first image be bigger and the second smaller. However, most of the time, I think it’s best to focus on the ways the 2 images are interacting. Image 1 will be doing something to image 2.
More explanations and examples on how to deal with this particular problem are in this short article.
How long should you wait before reusing the same memory palace?
There’s no mandatory minimum. I’ve seen people take part in a memory competition while reusing just one single very small memory palace over and over for every discipline. It must have been more difficult and confusing, but it still ended up working well enough. It’s up to you really, but here are a few things to consider:
- There’s something that is sometimes called “ghost images”. Suppose that you’re memorizing a list of words in your kitchen on Monday morning and another list of words during the afternoon. If during the afternoon recall you’re accidentally remembering words from the morning list, you’ve been the victim of a “ghost image”. It’s no big deal or you will survive, but it can happen.
- I think it’s perfectly fine to use the same memory palace once a day for different things. I also think it’s slightly better overall to use a few more places and cycle through them. That way each memory palace will feel more “fresh” every time you use them.
- In the great book Moonwalking with Einstein, you may have heard about people actively mentally “cleaning up” their memory palace before reusing them. They will imagine themselves walking from one room to the other while erasing everything they previously memorized. Or something like that… I don’t know anyone who actually uses that method. You usually can’t force yourself to forget something. Seems like a weird and useless and probably counter-productive strategy to me. Simply waiting a while works at least as well.
- The more time you spend reviewing and recalling your images, the stickier those images will be in your mind. So if you’re reviewing a lot to make sure you don’t forget anything, you might want to wait a little longer before reusing the very same memory palace.
Ready to start?
Right below you will find a link to another page with more examples and more explanations, but you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. I think you’re already quite ready to start building and using a memory palace today.
- Step 1: Plan a memory palace with at least 2 zones, preferably more. And choose 5 specific locations per zone.
- Step 2: Spend a few minutes making sure you can go through every location in your head quickly enough, using some of the strategies we’ve explained before.
- Step 3: Start using it to practice memorizing a list of random words. Or images if you prefer. Or numbers or cards if you have a system to memorize them.
Other relevant articles:
- How to memorize a list of words
- How to create more memorable images, deal with difficulties and improve your skills
[New articles about related subjects will be added soon.]