Memory Palace and Mental Models

I had a sheet of paper containing a list of 10 items which I wanted to purchase. The list is given below.

  1. A pair of socks
  2. Kindle eReading device
  3. Up movie DVD
  4. Poor Charlie’s Almanack book
  5. One pillow cover
  6. Tennis racket
  7. One electric cooker
  8. Dairy Milk chocolate bar
  9. One 60-watt incandescent light bulb
  10. One trash can

My elder son looked at the list and told me, I can memorize the list and recite back in the same order. In less than 10 minutes, he was able to do that. He was able to achieve this by repeating the list over and over until it got registered in his brain. This technique is called as rote-memorization.

I told him that this is great. But rote-memorization is very unnatural for the brain and we can achieve the same result by another way which is easy and effective. I gave a visual tour around our house and asked him to close his eyes and visualize what I was telling. The visualization is given below.

You are about to enter our house. On the entrance door you see a pair of socks hanging. You open the door and you see a shoe stand on the left side. On the shoe stand there is a shining Kindle lying on top of a dirty shoe. You turn right and on the TV stand you find the Up movie DVD. You watch the movie sitting on the sofa. Next to you Charlie Munger is sitting and reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack. How strange he is reading his own book! After enjoying the movie you turn right and go to our dinning table. The dinning table is covered entirely with a pillow cover. On the pillow cover you find a beautiful Wilson tennis racket. From the dinning table you turn left and go to our kitchen. In the kitchen you see an electric cooker cooking a Dairy Milk chocolate bar. All of a sudden there was a power cut. You are in the dark for 10 minutes and when the power came back the 60-watt incandescent light bulb glow brightly like Sun. After eating the dairy milk you threw the cover in the trash can. To your surprise the trash can is made out of gold!

After visualizing the story few times he was able to remember the list easily and it stayed in his memory for a longer duration. Also this process was enjoyable compared to rote-memorization.The name of this technique is called memory palace. I came across this technique in the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Why is this technique powerful?

Our brain is associative in nature. We remember new things faster if we hang it on top of what we already know. My son already knew the layout of our house and the items inside it. All I did was created a story by weaving the new items on top of what he already knew. Also our brain remembers things that are vivid in nature. That is why in the story I introduced Charlie Munger, golden trash can, and socks hanging on the door. Also our brain is good in remembering stories than statistics. In short if you want to remember something you need to create stories that are vivid in nature and connect to things that you already know.

We need not use this technique for remembering list of items to buy as iPhone can do this job effectively. But we can apply the insight we got from this technique. Replace the house and its contents with big ideas from multiple disciplines. These big ideas are your mental models. Relate all your learnings and experiences with these big ideas which you already know. The result is (1) faster and deeper learning (2) stays with you for a long time (3) process is enjoyable. In one of the talks Munger beautifully explained this.

I could see that I was not going to cope as well as I wished with life unless I could acquire a better theory-structure on which to hang my observations and experiences. By then, my craving for more theory had a long history. Partly, I had always loved theory as an aid in puzzle solving and as a means of satisfying my monkey-like-curiosity. And, partly, I had found that theory-structure was a superpower in helping one get what one wanted. As I had early discovered in school wherein I had excelled without labor, guided by theory, while many others, without mastery of theory failed despite monstrous effort. Better theory I thought had always worked for me and, if now available could make me acquire capital and independence faster and better assist everything I loved.


7 thoughts on “Memory Palace and Mental Models

  1. I really enjoyed Moonwalking with Einstein. As I child I learned mnemonics (because I was into magic and read books about mentalism, where mnemonic techniques were explained). I never really used them much, but I was aware of the importance of image association for the brain. As I grew older, I read more about learning techniques and they always emphasize the importance of imagery association, meaning, exageration… as aids to retention.

    I also knew about the Method of Loci (from the ancient greeks), but it wasn’t unitl I read Moonwalking with Einstein that I really understood what an amazing spatial memory we have (which the Loci method takes advantage of). The Memory Palace is not just about sequence and image association, it’s about our incredible capacity to recall spaces.

    If you think about it, I’m sure you have a sense of the distribution of houses that you’ver perhaps been in once in your lifetime, many years ago. You can probably recall where the bathroom was, or have a clear sense of the size of the house. I have such memories, as I’m sure many have. I have a good sense of orientation, but I’m sure it’s not much above average (if at all). That I can recall spaces I’ve only seen briefly many years ago is truly remarkable, considering that I can’t remember what I had for lunch last week!

    • Andres,

      Several years back I read a lot of books written by Tony Buzan and it helped me to recognize the amazing power of our brain. Yes even today I can recollect the layout of the house which I lived 20 years back. I came across the course “Learning How to Learn” and it triggered my thoughts about memory palaces and mental models and made me to write this post. Our brain is associative with one thought leading to another…


  2. Dear Janav

    I regularly read you posts.Your posts always brings out something new.Well about the memory palace..I used it in my way…while giving speeches I have always used the topics head and also created a story around some important points that would link up the whole link on what I was going to speak,in this way I did not need the chits or any jot downs to carry on the speech and I could carry on eloquently for the next 15 to 20 minutes and delivering the whole lecture and thereby conveying the audience what I needed to tell,with a minor difference in use of synonym words.

    Anyways I would like to thank you for your posts,its a great temple of learning,your posts have added some more into me.I had earlier tried to comment on some posts,but I found Some Technical difficulties for that.

    Good Writing…..

    Thanks and Regards
    Reni George

  3. Very interesting post Jana. Thanks for writing. You have a knack for collating ideas in a very simple language.

    The human ability to remember a story is a two edged sword. On on hand it enables us to remember things and recall the information accurately when required, on the other hand it’s also the reason behind well known psychological bias “Narrative Fallacy”. The habit of concocting a story around unrelated facts/information and coming up with false patterns and incorrect conclusions.

    The more I study and understand psychological biases the more I realize that how true Charlie is when he says that there is never a single mental model at play. You always find multiple mental models operating and creating a lollapaloozian effect !

  4. Hi Janav
    Been following you and am quite impressed.
    On this subject, “The book Metaphors We Live By” [ George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is published by University of Chicago Press] could be a good companion.
    All the best

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