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How to use the 'Memory Palace' method to remember long lists

By Boyd25 March 2014


Improve your memory with this simple technique

One of the bigger weaknesses of the human brain is that it is really quite poor when it comes to remembering lists. So how to improve the ability to remember lists?

Although the human brain is indeed a powerful and incredible organ, it does have a number of weaknesses. We normally experience and see these weaknesses in cases of glitches, such as a déjà vu. Of course, it does not help that so much of our information is organized in list format. How often do you go to the supermarket to get milk and get a dozen things, get home, then realize you forgot the milk?


Yes, I forget lists too! What can I do?

Lijstjes onthouden memory palaceSo what kind of cognitive training can you use to boost your brain and meanwhile help your memory to remember lists better? One of the more popular methods to help your list-based memory is a brain exercise called the ‘Memory Palace’, also known more formally as the ‘method of loci’. Given that our brain can remember so many other things with absolutely no problem, it is really strange that we are so bad at lists. For example, you most likely can remember the locations of a hundred different places around town, even if you do not know the exact addresses as well as the locations of a thousand items around your house. So, can we use this seemingly magical ability and combine it with our weakness when it comes to lists? Yes, we can, and that’s where the ‘Memory Palace’ comes in!


All about the Memory Palace

The Memory Palace or method of loci is an old mnemonic device (brain memory trick) that dates back to the Ancient Romans and Greeks. The method of loci or ‘Memory Palace’ brain trick was popularized by Thomas Harris in his 1999 novel Hannibal and in which Dr Hannibal Lecter is described as mentally walking through an elaborate memory palace to remember facts, as well as on television more recently. In fact, the US TV show ‘The Mentalist’ used the memory help method of the Memory Palace in several episodes in which mentalist Patrick Jane aids colleagues and witnesses in remembering things such as playing card locations in a deck or information and names of guests at a party. Across the Atlantic, the BBC series ‘Sherlock’ also depicts Holmes using his so-called "mind palace" to seek important facts and associations in his memory which are relevant to the case at hand.

To give a more clear idea about the memory palace, you can see the explanation of the Mentalist in the video below:

How do I use the Memory Palace brain trick?

You are able to navigate the world because a lot of your brain’s computing power is devoted to spatial memory, learning the layout of your environment. Using this as a ‘hack’ to learn lists becomes logical here. To create your own memory palace, start by picking a familiar place that you know well and can imagine without problems, for example, the inside of your house or the layout of your neighbourhood. Then imagine yourself walking along a specific route in that place and associate an item on your list with each location.

Let’s assume that you are attempting to remember a grocery list and you have chosen your neighbourhood to mentally visualize it. The first item on the list is milk, so you imagine that your front garden is covered in milk and not rain. Second on the list is wine, so you imagine your neighbour drunk in their front garden. Next on the list is bread, so imagine that all the windows in your street are made out of bread. Keep going down the street and keep adding more items, as many as you need. It doesn’t matter if the item is ridiculous. In fact, the more ridiculous it is, the better the mental palace brain trick will work. Seriously, you are not likely to forget windows made out of bread now, are you?


Why does the Memory Palace brain trick work?

As above, this basic brain hack works because it ‘hacks’ into the spatial memory part of your brain and makes it help out with memory. And it does actually work too, without needing much brain training or constant repetition. In fact, you could try it today and you are likely to remember much more using the memory palace brain trick than without, even if it is your first time using it.

Remember more with memory palace

And this is not just anecdotal evidence saying it works; it truly does. A 1968 study Ross & Lawrence asked students to memorize long lists of items, each about 40 items long, using the method of loci and using 40 locations on the college campus. Not only were the students able to memorize an average of 38 of the 40 items, but the next day they were able to name 34 of the original list. 

So go out and try this simple, easy brain trick next to your regular brain training with our brain games. Remember lists much better and revel in the knowledge that you’re training your brain and finding new ways to improve your memory using a simple, efficient method.