Why Palace of Memory works?

Last night I had a group of friends over, and we were discussing brain science, and what we know about it.  One of my guests is thinking very seriously about brain science, because he’s building a toy that reads information from a basic EKG sensor on the forehead, and translates that data to a series of servo motors.  If one wears this toy, and focuses one’s attention, the EKG reads the basic data and transfers the information to the motors, and the toy moves.  Basically, it’s a simple set-up for making a machine that only moves if you focus your attention on it.

This friend, Josh, was saying that our brain doesn’t work the way we think it does. All of our conscious minds are rather like Maggie the infant in the opening sequence of The Simpsons — we’re grabbing a toy wheel, and beeping the horn, but it doesn’t have much actual effect on the body.

Instead, our conscious minds do the learning of complex tasks.  The example that Josh gave was of the key in the lock of your front door.  You’ve walked up to your door hundreds of times, unlocked the door and gone in, without really thinking about it.  Then, imagine that you come home and the doorknob is four inches off where it used to be. Suddenly, you’re awake and aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it in a way that you’ve never been before, because something is wrong.

Your body and your unconscious mind knows how to unlock the door.  It’s all automatic responses — a zombie or robot doing the work, while your conscious mind leisurely assumes it’s in control.  But in reality, if your conscious mind tried to intervene in the process of unlocking the door in a new or different way, your brain would experience a momentary disconnect, as you tried to do the task in a way other than its programming had advised.

The portions of our brain that do spatial recognition and visual memory can easily be wired into this robotic response, too.  So maybe Palace of Memory technique works because you’re training your brain to set up robotic links between the unconscious visual and spatial recognition systems, and the memory patterns that you consciously build.  When they’re robotic or zombie-powered responses, BOOM. Your brain can do them automatically, because they’re trained responses — just like opening your front door, or driving to work, or eating an entire pint of ice cream in a sitting in front of the TV.  When you train your brain to respond according to new robotic patterns, new responses emerge.

Josh said that when he trained his hands to the Dvorak keyboard, it took him six to eight weeks to see results. Yet when he did so, he became absolutely hopeless on a QWERTY keyboard for another three months after that, because his conscious and unconscious brain were fighting with each other over the correct position of each letter.  Then one day, he woke up and his brain could easily switch between one keyboard layout and another. Both processes had resolved themselves, and he could do both as easily as he could open the front door.

This is the goal of Palace of Memory technique, of course: to train the brain to store visual and textual imagery in a conscious and organized system, so that it can be recalled automatically.  You learn to turn the key in the lock of that Palace’s front door, and then you surrender the conscious process of remembering information to the parts of the brain that really know how to do it.

I’m not sure this theory is correct.  But I’d argue it with some friends over dinner, and now I present the same thought process to you, my readers. What do you think?

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  1. Hello Andrew, my name is Alan Kwan and I’m an independent researcher and artist who has a strong interest in spatial cognition and memory. First of all Thanks so much for doing this great blog and I definitely have learnt a lot from it. I’m currently experimenting with the idea of making an educational software that expands on the memory palace technique. A beta version is just finished and I would be very happy if I can have your feedback on it. Can we talk? Thanks!


    • Yes of course (and we already have!). Second, you posted a link privately to me. Can I write a blog post about your software?

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