The Memory Palace

Further Scripts: [East Wall, Left Bookshelf] •  [East Wall, Right Bookshelf] • 

I started teaching a group of kids how to use the Palace of Memory today in my American history class. If you’re interested in doing this with your own students, here’s a little bit of a guideline of how this technique works. This is (more or less) the script that I followed in helping them develop a ‘filing system’ for storing facts and figures and information.

Start off by closing your eyes, putting your feet flat on the floor, and holding your body up straight.

Now imagine yourself in a room. The room is fairly large, and square. The floor underneath is a grid of white grout between dark green tiles about the size of your palm. When you look straight ahead of you, you are facing east in this room, toward a yellow wall. The yellow wall has a door in the middle of the wall. On either side of the door is a yellow bookshelf, one on the left and one on the right.

Turn to the right, right in the middle of the room. You’re now facing the south wall. This wall is painted red, but otherwise looks like the east wall. There is a door in the middle of the wall, and a bookshelf to the left of the door, and a bookshelf to the right of the door. Out of the corner of your eye you can see that the wall to your left is painted yellow.

Turn to the right again. You’re now facing the west wall. This wall is painted blue, but otherwise looks like the east and south walls. There is a door in the middle of the wall, and a bookshelf on either side of the door, on the left and on the right. Out of the corner of your eye you can see that the wall to your left is painted red. If you look over your shoulder, you can see the wall behind you is painted yellow.

Turn to the right again. You’re now facing the north wall in your imagination. This wall is painted a bright green, and there’s a door in the middle of the wall. There’s a bookshelf on either side of the door. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see that the wall on your left is blue, and the wall on your right is yellow. If you look over your shoulder, the wall behind you is red.

Turn to the right again, so you’re facing the east wall, the yellow one. Look at the top of bookshelf on the left. There’s a sculpture-bust made of white marble up there, labeled with the name “Herodotus”. He was the first historian whose name we know, so everything you learn about history, will go in that bookshelf. Look at the top of the bookshelf on the right. Up there is a similar marble sculpture, but this one is of William Shakespeare. Everything you know or are going to learn about the English language, and maybe all languages you ever learn, is going to go on these shelves.

Take a step forward, maybe two steps, in your imagination. Behind you now is a globe, one of those big fancy globes in a big fancy wooden frame. The surface of the globe is bumpy and painted to show mountains and rivers and valleys, and there are lines showing the countries of the world. It’s right in the center of the room, directly underneath the center of the ceiling.

Look up. The ceiling isn’t flat. It’s a dome. The surface of the dome is dark blue, and there are all sorts of little twinkling lights set in it — the planets and stars, shown exactly where they are right now. You may not know the names of any of them right now, but one day this ceiling may be labeled, and you’ll be able to know where the stars and planets are, and the constellations.

Go over to the east wall, the yellow wall, and look at the top shelf. Reach into your pockets in your imagination, and pull out a few labels, and a pen. Put a label on the top shelf here, on the left side of the door, just under Herodotus. Write on the label, “Native America.” Paste it right onto the shelf where it’s obvious. Then, look at the first few titles on the bookshelf. Do you see the first one? It’s called “OLMECS”, and just looking at that book, you know it contains everything you know about the Olmec people. The next book is called “THE MAYA”, and it holds everything you know about the Maya people, who lived in the same place as the Olmecs, but hundreds of years later. The next two books are called “The Aztecs” and “The Inca.” Do you see them there on the shelf? Next to these first few books is a very special encyclopedia. You can see twenty-six volumes all in a row, and it’s called “The Encyclopedia of Native Americans.”

Pull out the H volume… Flip it open to the Hohokam entry, which is probably about half-way through the book. Do you see it there? There’s a picture on the page, and the story from our textbooks about them, and a little map on the page that shows where in southern Arizona and northern Mexico their civilization flourished, and a little timeline that shows when. And you know, all the other tribes and clans and societies about Native America are somewhere in this encyclopedia. You can look them up any time.

Put the H book back on the shelf, and turn around. Walk over to the globe. Spin the globe until you’re looking at the southwestern part of the United States, by Arizona, and New Mexico, and even the northern parts of the Republic of Mexico. Take the right pen out of your pocket, and draw a little blob on the globe, and write “Hohokam” in the right place on the surface of the globe.

Stand in your imaginary library now, and face east. The yellow wall is in front of you, the shelf of history books is to the left, and everything you know about Native America is in a very specific place on the top shelf. The various peoples and tribes are written on the globe behind you, and you can store other information in other places in this room, for your other classes. You’ve got this information locked away in your brain now, in lots of different ways, and you can find it again if you forget it.

Take a few deep breaths now, and open your eyes, in this real world, in this classroom. You have a Palace of Memory now. It will take you a few weeks of practice to learn how to use it, and build on it, but you can go back to it again, and again. The more you use it, the stronger and more realistic it will become.

There were a few questions at this point from the students.

Can we go through the doors?
No, you shouldn’t go through any of the doors yet. There’s plenty of space in this one room to store everything you’re likely to need to know for school, and for a lot of other things besides. Later on, you may choose to expand your working memory beyond this single room, and then you’ll go through the same construction process that I just went through for you, for this one. Room by room by room. Don’t get fancy yet. Stick to one room for now. In fact, eventually your brain will tell you it’s time to add another room, because you’ll go to this room and one of the doors will be open and waiting for you to add on some extra space.

Can we label other shelves?
Sure. In fact, feel free to label the shelves with the information you need. Put books on them that hold information you need to remember. Just remember where they are, and where to find them.

Can we learn as much as you?
Yes. Any time you learn something new, try to think where in the room it would be, and the new things will start to store themselves automatically. Any time you try to remember something you learned a while ago, try to think where it will be in the room, and you will be able to call it to mind from that place. Just remember to label shelves, and remember the titles of books. Keep titles simple, and where you can, put little statues of people or things next to them, so you have reference points to find them again quickly.

Eventually, I will help them finish constructing the “filing system for the room”, which goes something like this. You’re welcome to use your own, or to develop your own version of these filing systems. These sorts of systems grow stronger with practice, so it’s helpful (particularly at the beginning) if you try to become expert at this system yourself by using it. You’ll find that you remember more, and remember more clearly, by using it.

Turn to face the south, red wall. Look at the top of the left shelf. Up on top of that shelf is a statue of Hephaestus, the blacksmith god. See him there with his anvil and his hammer? All the things you’re going to need to know and remember about technology are going to go into these shelves. Up on top of the right shelf is Leonardo DaVinci. He’s got long flowing hair, and he’s bald on top, and he’s got one of those oval painter’s palettes in hand. You’re going to learn a lot about art and music, and information about them can be stored here.

Turn to face the west, blue wall. Look at the top of the left shelf. There’s an older gentleman here, with a long white beard, bald head, and a monkey skull in his hand. That’s Charles Darwin. In this blue shelf, to the left of the door on the west wall, you can store all the information you learn about the life sciences, and biology. Look at the figure on the top of the right-hand shelf. Do you see him? It looks like Albert Einstein. Can you guess what information gets stored here? That’s right, information about physics and chemistry.

Turn to face the north wall, the bright green wall. At the top of the left-hand shelf is a sculpture of your mom, standing in front of a stove and cooking dinner. In this shelf you’re going to store everything you know about cooking, good food, healthy eating and taking care of your health. Whenever you learn something new about your health, or about keeping yourself in good health, you’ll store it on the right shelf here. On top of the right shelf is a sculpture of your grandmother or grandfather — or someone else that you respect a lot in your own family. On the shelves under this person, I want you to store all of the information about your family’s history that you learn — who your parents and grandparents were, stories about their lives, events and occasions that matter to them, birthdays and anniversaries. Down near the bottom of these shelves are all of your own memories in big photo albums, with lots of pictures from when you were a baby up until now. The upper shelves are your family history, and every family member you know of has their own shelf, and a framed photo of that relative is on that shelf.

Update: I realized on the drive home that I forgot to include a special place for mathematics and related arts in this schema, and that Stephen Downes and others would rightly take me to task for it. Math is one of my blind spots, so it was easy for me to forget about it. I’m going to try to rectify that in the next bit of script, though…

Now…. Turn your attention to the space between the globe at the center of the room, and the South wall. That’s the red wall, and so the east wall – the yellow one – is on your left. The west wall – the blue one – is on your right. In this space, I want you now to see a table, a very nice wooden table, five or six feet long and maybe four feet wide. The long side is parallel to the south wall. This table is like a pool or billiards table, except instead of being covered in green felt, it is filled with very fine, slightly damp sand. On the edge of the table is a long ruler, and a long steel needle for drawing lines in the sand, and a geometry compass. On this surface you can visualize any geometry problem you’ve ever learned how to do. If you look under the table, you will see that the table has shelves built underneath it. As you walk around the table, you can see that on the side facing the globe are all the books with all the information about algebra. On the short side facing the east wall are all the arithmetic and accounting problems. On the long side facing the south wall are all the geometry problems and solutions. On the short side facing the west wall are books with information about statistics, calculus, trigonometry and other types of very complex mathematics. Above the table is a hanging lamp that can be turned on to project a grid or a number line down onto the sand, and there are fine threads to hang data points on, when you want to work in three dimensions.

On the other side of the room, between the globe and the north wall, is a similar table, but this one is filled with sand and rock and water. You can arrange these materials in the tabletop to be a model of any place or any time on earth. In the shelves under the table are models of buildings and people, armies and cities, fortresses and palaces and even countries. You can take these models out and put them on the table, and watch battles and historical events in three dimensions, as if you were there. The right model is always where you need it to be, when you need it, and it is easy to lift them onto the table and place them correctly.

As you learn things about mathematics and other subjects, store them away, each in their proper place, until these pieces of information naturally flow to where they belong, and you can recall them with ease from the same place.

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  1. Thank you very much for this blog post! I have been using a mental journey system to memorise temporary lists of things for a couple of years now and am working on constructing a memory palace to help learn and store long term memories. This blog post is exactly what I was looking for!

    In the system I currently use, I associate large and striking objects with things I wish to remember and place these objects at key points along a route in my mind. It is easy to recall the objects later because I can “see” them vividly in my mind when I mentally traverse the route.

    As I understand it from reading your blog post, to memorise something new and add it the memory palace, I need to imagine a new mental image (which is associated with the thing to remember) in the correct book on the correct shelf of the palace. It seems to me that this would cause the memories to be much more difficult to recall later since, unlike the journey system, the mental images are not immediately obvious when walking through the palace/route. If this is the correct method, do you have any tips on making the mental images easier to recall? If not, would you mind correcting me?

    Thanks for any help; this post along with your other blog posts on memory have been fantastic!

  2. I gotta ask: how effective are memory palaces in professional work? In let’s say a job that has changing priorities like government, how effective are they?

    • A properly set-up Palace of Memory is useful in any field, I think. While a government worker or a bureaucrat might use the presidents or the articles of the Constitution, really… A Palace needs only three things:

      1. A set of imaginary rooms
      2. A set of locations within those rooms, marked by startling or unusual imagery (Lincoln reading the Gettysburg Address in a tutu and conical party hat)
      3. A path joining those locations in those rooms in a set order and sequence.

      If you work in a field where knowing key ideas regardless of shifting political priorities is important, then a Palace of Memory is useful. The building of that palace is often less complicated than deciding what to put into it, though.

  3. Wow. I found this through JMG’s site, and I am impressed. I teach middle school English as a Second Language, and I am going to find ways to help my students build palaces of their own. I’m very excited!

    • Jonathan Spence’s book on Matteo Ricci’s memory palace, and its use in China, suggests strongly that the Jesuit order used a memory palace based around images from the life of Christ. One of the powers this gave them was that since they all stored information according the same framework, they could prompt and support one another.

      As I’ve suggested elsewhere, using this system with me and my students will actually make it easier for all our students to use it. The more students and adults who use it, the easier it will be for them to prompt and support one another.

      To that end, if I can help you sort and categorize what you want them to remember, I’ll design scripts to show them where. then my students and yours will have similar frames of reference and can help each other out.

  4. Excellent. Coming from an era and country (Ireland) where memory learning was still in vogue when I was at school, I would have loved to have had this safe room in which to store information. Alas, I’m getting older and rote memory isn’t working so much for me anymore, but maybe this room is just what I need. I’m calling it the annex. It will be the first bit of building work that I’ve done in years that will be really worthwhile, though I might just change the colour scheme a bit – lol.

    I don’t know about the mating rituals in modern society, but when I first went to New York City I had a neat wee trick. It was customary to exchange phone numbers between interested parties. I would look into the distance and visual the phone number when I got the rare chance to exchange a number with someone – no writing it down. Often the person would come back an hour or more later, believing no one would remember the number, and I’d rattle of the number despite the bevvies. It always impressed, though I’m not too sure your students should be motivated by such exercises!

    I came over from Greer’s sight. Your post struck a cord. I’m using the first part of his “handbook” for my meditation/contemplation regimes and do so secretly. I’m not motivated to go the entire way but the general tone of Druidism is something I’ve instinctively followed anyway. It’s been very useful in so many ways, but I’m not going to advertise it (said laughingly).

    Best of luck with your endeavours. Those students who can muster the discipline to follow your method will prosper by it. Of this, I’ve no doubt.


    • You’re welcome to change the color the color scheme, of course…. but I’m finding that working around the traditional colors of the four directions in traditional hermeticism actually makes the work go a little faster of knowing how and when to store data.

  5. Incidentally, if someone does a translation of this exercise into any language other than English, please leave me a comment. I’d love to know a) that it’s being used, and b) I’d love to link other people’s versions of the exercise to this one, particularly if they’re in other languages.

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