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The Mind Palace Project: How To Enhance Your Cognitive Abilities

The art of adding a dimension of physicality to your mind.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

What is a mind palace — and how do you use it?

In this art­icle, I’ll share my learn­ings and insights from con­struct­ing a mind palace for myself.

A mind palace is a men­tal con­struct of a meta­phys­ic­al build­ing with dif­fer­ent ima­gin­ary “rooms.”

By adding a dimen­sion of phys­ic­al­ity to your mind, the idea is that you’ll be able to use your mind palace not only for mem­or­isa­tion but also to con­trol your emo­tions and enhance your cog­nit­ive abilities.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

My Interest in Mind Palaces

Do you know those pop cul­ture moments that stick — and stay with you? Here are a few such examples from my mind:

  • The nar­rat­or says, “I just wanted to des­troy some­thing beau­ti­ful” in Fight Club (clip).
  • The Alec Baldwin ABC speech in Glengarry Glen Ross (clip).
  • As Neo, Keanu Reeves real­ises he is the one in The Matrix (clip).
  • Matt Damon, as Jason Bourne explains, that he can run flat-out at “this alti­tude for two miles before my hands start shak­ing” (clip).
  • As Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis explains, “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead” (clip).
  • Kyle MacLachlan, as Dale Cooper, is throw­ing rocks togeth­er with the Twin Peaks police depart­ment to increase the effect­ive­ness of his deduc­tions (clip).
  • The Al Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday (clip).

For me, such a sem­in­al moment is from Sherlock, the British TV show star­ring Benedict Cumberbatch:

In the series, Sherlock Holmes and the vil­lain Charles Augustus use a memory tech­nique called the mind palace to com­mit inform­a­tion to memory. 1The tele­vi­sion series Hannibal, star­ring Mads Mikkelsen as the geni­us psy­cho­path with a pecu­li­ar taste for human flesh, also men­tioned a mind palace. Weird eat­ing habits and, more import­antly, … Continue read­ing

The idea of hav­ing a mind palace appealed to me.

Is the mind palace a prop­er tech­nique that one can use?
And if so, how does it work?

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a mind palace of his own.
Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a mind palace of his own. Why not unlock your inner Sherlock?

The Method of Loci

As it turns out, a mind palace (or memory palace) isn’t just a tele­vi­sion trope. 

The mind palace is a mne­mon­ic meth­od used by ancient Greek and Roman schol­ars to com­mit large chunks of inform­a­tion to memory called the meth­od of loci (loci = Latin for location).

The prac­tice is straightforward:

Let’s say you want to mem­or­ise a deck of 52 cards. For this, you could think of a house with 13 (52 divided by 4) dif­fer­ent rooms, rooms you pass through in a pre-decided order. 

The first room is a hall­way with a large antique mirror. 

When you read the first card, let’s say an ace of hearts, you men­tally attach the card to the mir­ror — and then you move on to the next room in your sequence.

You place 13 cards in 13 rooms attached to 13 dif­fer­ent pieces of fur­niture. Then you take the same route three more times, secur­ing a new card for anoth­er piece of fur­niture in each room. 

Every room will now con­tain four pieces of fur­niture with one unique card attached.

The ground­work here is to con­struct such a “palace” in your mind before­hand. This means you won’t have to remem­ber rooms or fur­niture pieces. Or their order.

When you test how many of the 52 cards you remem­ber, you enter the first room (the hall­way), look at the first piece of fur­niture (the antique mir­ror), and see — the ace of hearts.

Some indi­vidu­als can take brute force mem­or­isa­tion to almost unbe­liev­able levels:

Amongst many oth­er things, the sav­ant Daniel Tammet is fam­ous for mem­or­ising 22,514 digits of pi in just about five hours. Tammet has described how he exper­i­ences dif­fer­ent num­bers in highly dis­tinct­ive col­ours, char­ac­ter­ist­ics, shapes etc.

It’s impress­ive. But I’m not look­ing to learn par­lour tricks.
What else is there?

Our Brain’s Built-In GPS System

In 2014, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awar­ded to John O’Keefe from University College London, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. 

Scientists found that cells in our brain con­sti­tute a pos­i­tion­ing sys­tem. The research­ers found:

… cer­tain neur­ons in the hip­po­cam­pus fired whenev­er a rat was in a cer­tain place in the loc­al envir­on­ment, with neigh­bour­ing neur­ons fir­ing at dif­fer­ent loc­a­tions, such that the entire envir­on­ment was rep­res­en­ted by the activ­ity of these cells through­out the hippocampus.”

Assigning memory neur­ons to fire at spe­cif­ic loc­a­tions is a clev­er way to con­serve men­tal energy. 

The mind palace tech­nique makes good use of this brain fea­ture; by assign­ing an ima­gin­ary (enhanced with oth­er sens­ory inform­a­tion like the smell, sounds, tem­per­at­ure, light­ing con­di­tions, etc.) to a spe­cif­ic memory, recall becomes more accessible.

Mind Palaces in the Media

Here are a few examples of the memory palace or sim­il­ar con­cepts being ref­er­enced in vari­ous forms of media:

  • Sherlock (TV Series, 2010 – 2017). The char­ac­ter Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, fre­quently uses his mind palace to recall details and solve cases. This mod­ern adapt­a­tion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stor­ies pop­ular­ised the term “mind palace.”
  • Hannibal (TV Series, 2013 – 2015). The char­ac­ter Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, employs a memory palace to store and organ­ise his exper­i­ences and memories.
  • Dreamcatcher (Film, 2003). Based on Stephen King’s nov­el of the same name, this film fea­tures a char­ac­ter named Jonesy who uses a memory ware­house to organ­ise his memories.
  • The Mentalist (TV Series, 2008 – 2015). The char­ac­ter Patrick Jane, played by Simon Baker, some­times uses the memory palace tech­nique to recall information.
  • Doctor Who (TV Series, 1963-Present). In the epis­ode “Heaven Sent” (Season 9, Episode 11), the char­ac­ter of the Twelfth Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, uses a men­tal con­struct sim­il­ar to a memory palace to work through a com­plex and dan­ger­ous situation.
  • Silence of the Lambs (Film, 1991). Dr Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, employs a memory palace in the movie, although it is not expli­citly called a “mind palace” as in the later TV series “Hannibal.”
  • Inception (Film, 2010). While not expli­citly called a memory palace, cre­at­ing and nav­ig­at­ing com­plex men­tal archi­tec­tures to store and retrieve memor­ies plays a cent­ral role in the film’s plot.

Mind Places in Literature

Several examples of the memory palace concept or sim­il­ar ideas appear in the lit­er­at­ure. Some not­able examples include:

  • The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers (Book, 1985). This col­lec­tion of essays by Henri Cartier-Bresson fea­tures a piece called “The Mind’s Eye,” in which he dis­cusses the idea of a men­tal stor­age place for memor­ies, akin to a memory palace.
  • The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play (Book, 1974). This self-help book, by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, intro­duces read­ers to memory tech­niques, includ­ing the memory palace, and provides examples and exer­cises to help improve memory skills.
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Book, 2011). Written by Joshua Foer, this non-fic­tion book delves into the world of memory cham­pi­on­ships and intro­duces read­ers to the concept of the memory palace, detail­ing how the tech­nique can be employed to remem­ber vast amounts of information
  • The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Book, 1984). Written by Jonathan D. Spence, this his­tor­ic­al account fol­lows the life of the 16th-cen­tury Jesuit mis­sion­ary Matteo Ricci, who taught the memory palace tech­nique to Chinese scholars.
  • Funes the Memorious (Short story, 1942). Written by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, this short story fea­tures a char­ac­ter named Ireneo Funes with an extraordin­ary memory. While not expli­citly referred to as a memory palace, the character’s abil­ity to recall inform­a­tion in great detail can be seen as related to the concept.
  • The Art of Memory (Book, 1966). Written by Frances A. Yates, this his­tor­ic­al study delves into the his­tory of memory tech­niques, includ­ing the memory palace, and their influ­ence on the intel­lec­tu­al cul­ture of the Renaissance.
  • The Glass Bead Game (Novel, 1943). Hermann Hesse’s nov­el fea­tures a game involving men­tal con­nec­tions between vari­ous fields of know­ledge. Although not expli­citly called a memory palace, the game shares sim­il­ar­it­ies with organ­ising inform­a­tion in one’s mind.
  • Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Book, 1964). This his­tor­ic­al study by Frances A. Yates explores the life and works of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-cen­tury philo­soph­er pro­ponent of the memory palace technique.

These examples from lit­er­at­ure illus­trate how the memory palace concept has been explored in vari­ous ways, both as a his­tor­ic­al prac­tice and as a nar­rat­ive device to explore the power and lim­its of human memory.

Altering Your Emotional States

In an online memory for­um, I found ongo­ing dis­cus­sions of what oth­er uses there could be for hav­ing a mind palace:

One for­um mem­ber used a mind palace to lower the heart rate before a nerve-wrack­ing speech.

One for­um mem­ber used a mind palace to sleep instead of count­ing sheep.

One for­um mem­ber used a mind palace to pre­pare for meditation.

One for­um mem­ber used a mind palace to increase focus in dis­tract­ing environments.

One for­um mem­ber used a mind palace to rein­force pos­it­ive memor­ies to com­bat depres­sion and increase confidence.

Ergo: Some people have been using their mind palaces to alter or con­trol their emo­tion­al states — with pos­it­ive results. 

To me, this sounds inter­est­ing and poten­tially useful. 

Would it be pos­sible to use a mind palace to improve cog­nit­ive con­trol instead of prac­tising raw mem­or­isa­tion techniques?

Techniques To Enhance Cognitive Abilities

A few years ago, I came across the cre­ativ­ity research­er Win Wenger.

Wenger’s primary hypo­thes­is was out­land­ish yet freak­ishly fantastic: 

Since our sub­con­scious speaks to us visu­ally and not verbally, we can enhance our cog­nit­ive per­form­ance by rein­for­cing our inner image stream.

Here’s an inter­est­ing use case:

Imagine your­self sit­ting in a room with people that you look up to. I could be Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Stephen King. Discuss with them, and ask them ques­tions. Visualise them as they speak.

Soon, your “avatar friends” might start to sur­prise you, con­tra­dict you, or even chal­lenge you. Despite that, their words come from some­where with­in your­self, of course.

From this example, we could ima­gine build­ing a mind palace with sev­er­al rooms filled with dif­fer­ent types of valu­able experts with one sin­gu­lar trait in com­mon — they’re not you, even though they are.

The prac­tice could bring the power of visu­al­isa­tion and loc­a­tion togeth­er, sug­gest­ing a power­ful combination. 

We could start see­ing a “room” in a mind palace as a sep­ar­ate cog­nit­ive tool for pur­poses oth­er than just com­mit­ting inform­a­tion strings to memory.

A boardroom with Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius - Mind Palace
AI art. Prompt: “A board­room with Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius.”

Genius board­rooms. You could exper­i­ment with hav­ing ima­gined board­rooms inhab­ited by geni­uses on standby for dis­cuss­ing decisions and solutions.

Mind Palace “Room” Examples

Of course, you can have rooms you like in your mind palace. Here are a few examples of rooms that I fre­quently use:

A magical meditation room - Mind Palace
AI art. Prompt: “A magic­al med­it­a­tion room.”

Meditation spots. Your mind palace could have rooms designed to strengthen the effects of your med­it­a­tion practice.

A relaxing room onboard a futuristic space station - Mind Palace
AI art. Prompt: “A relax­ing room onboard a futur­ist­ic space station.”

Rehearsal rooms. Before giv­ing a key­note or speech, I like to rehearse them men­tally. I find that it helps me to rehearse my talks in a famil­i­ar space without distractions.

A gothic library study hall - Mind Palace
AI art. Prompt: “A goth­ic lib­rary study hall.”

Memory lib­rary. I ima­gine a lib­rary where everything I ever learnt resides. Searching for the right book helps me retrieve lost memor­ies. To com­mit some­thing to memory, I think of going to the study hall and writ­ing the inform­a­tion down in a book, then pla­cing it some­where spe­cif­ic in the library.

A relaxing Japanese garden under a dome on Mars - Mind Palace
AI art. Prompt: “A relax­ing Japanese garden under a dome on Mars.”

Gardens for walk­ing and think­ing. I think bet­ter when I’m walk­ing. But if I can’t go for a walk, I can always go for a men­tal walk through one of many mind palace gardens.

Building a Mind Palace in Minecraft

For me, con­struct­ing the mind palace has been some­what chal­len­ging. It requires focus and con­cen­tra­tion for long peri­ods. And life tends to get in the way.

Building a rep­lica of my mind palace in Minecraft is help­ing rein­force my memor­ies of its layout.

As with Lego, I nev­er for­get a build. By build­ing the mind palace in Minecraft, I’ve rein­forced the meta­struc­ture in my mind.

This Minecraft trick has giv­en my men­tal struc­ture a form of sta­bil­ity. 2 I’m look­ing for­ward to VR and AR soft­ware ded­ic­ated to the use cases. I wouldn’t mind hav­ing Metaverse mind palace!

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

More Creative Projects

1 The tele­vi­sion series Hannibal, star­ring Mads Mikkelsen as the geni­us psy­cho­path with a pecu­li­ar taste for human flesh, also men­tioned a mind palace. Weird eat­ing habits and, more import­antly, fant­ast­ic memory techniques.
2 I’m look­ing for­ward to VR and AR soft­ware ded­ic­ated to the use cases. I wouldn’t mind hav­ing Metaverse mind palace!
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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