According to the Roman historian Cicero, memory palaces have a pretty morbid origin: A Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, was at a banquet when the roof caved in, killing everyone except him. He later found that he could recall the faces of the deceased by remembering where they were seated.
Thankfully, you can do a lot more with the method of loci (the formal name for memory palaces) than memorise the faces of dead people.
Pop culture has turned the mnemonic device into a bit of a superhero trope, used by fictitious geniuses ranging the 12th Doctor in Dr Who to BBC’s Sherlock Holmes.
That’s not saying that it isn’t a fundamentally powerful tool in its own right: It’s regularly used by World Memory Champions to perform feats like memorising 1040 random digits in half an hour, or to memorise pi to 65,536 numbers.
It’s not a mystical technique that will turn you into Sherlock Holmes overnight. Rather, it’d be more useful to think of it as a tool that’s easy to pick up but takes hard work to master.
With all the hazards and possible mishaps that may came with constant travelling, it may be a good idea to occasionally rely on good old-fashioned memory – instead of your smartphone – for remembering important details.
CHOOSE A FAMILIAR SETTING
For a start, choose a place that’s familiar to you: Your apartment is a good choice, but other alternatives could include a route you’ve walked in your city or (if you’re morbid) your previous office. You want an area that you’ve visited on numerous occasions, so that you’ll be able to mentally retrace the steps around your memory palace with ease.
Alternatively, if you have a vivid imagination, you can try constructing a memory palace from scratch, with a simple, two-dimensional map that’ll help you remember the layout of the way the rooms are structured in your mind.
Now you want to walk your brain through your memory palace: Practice this until you’re comfortable visualising how each room looks and where the furniture is (this last bit is important for the next step).
COMPARTMENTALISE YOUR KNOWLEDGE
The next thing you want to do is start hooking random bits of information to their relevant rooms. For example: recipes and grocery lists in the kitchen; important login details and phone numbers on your work desk; random facts that you’ll need to remember in your library. This helps your brain associate the mental place with the function.
USE DETAIL AND ABSURDITY
Humans are innately visual animals, which is why it’s harder to remember reams of hard facts, rather than visual images. Try to always use vivid imagery to remember the facts in your memory palace. For example, to remember a 5 digit pin, try to imagine them on a number pad, and your fingers tracing out a pattern.
Another technique you can use is to employ surreal imagery. Your brain remembers vivid images, so employ association. For example, if you need to remember a date like December 5, it’s easier to remember 5 snowflakes on one of the window panes of your memory palace’s rooms to help you anchor the association.