Returning to the Palace of Memory

Just before Thanksgiving break, my students and one of my colleagues organized a little playful program for our seventh grade.  Now, our whole seventh grade is in fact about the size of some of my colleagues’ individual sections in a public school.  And we only went around once — so no kid had to memorize more than one thing per person.

You’ve played this game before, or a variant of it: So each kid was going to a Thanksgiving dinner, and each was going to bring… 

A – apple sauce; B – butternut squash; C – cheese; D – dry ice;
E – eggplant parmesan; F – feta cheese; G – ____ ;
H – Hillshire Farms meats; I – ice; J – juice ; K – kangaroo;
L – lemons; M – macaroni and cheese ; N – Neapolitan ice cream;
O – ostrich; P – partridge ; Q – quail; R – roadkill ; S – stuffing ;
T – Turkey; U – uncooked Turkey; V – vegetables; W – water;
X – xylophone-themed cupcakes; Y – yams; and Z – zebra.

OK.  Two months later, I can remember all but one item on this particular list.  You can see that I missed the item in letter G. I can remember who said feta cheese, too, and who said “hillshire farms meats”… but not who was sitting between them.

There’s a hiccup here… and it’s because the palace of memory here was awkwardly constructed, on the fly, using the combination of letters, and the people’s names.  I can tell you who said most of the items in this list, and yet there are TWO people sitting between F and H in the circle — one who opted out of the game, who I can remember, and one whom I can’t remember.  (I also know that my own memories of Thanksgiving are trying to intrude on the list — ‘gourds’ wants to fill that place, and so does ‘garnish’, but neither of those is right, of course).

This is not bad, if the goal is memory improvement.  If the goal is to retain useful and important data, though, it’s not so useful.  But it turns out that most of us carry around the ability to make an alphabetical list, as a result of all those alphabet books we read as kids.  Is there a way to adapt this to children, to teach them how to use a Palace of Memory from a very young age?  And then how do we teach them to expand the palace as they get older, to include more complex concepts like number and timeline and locations on the globe?

The ancients used a system which Frances Yates tried to reconstruct in her book, The Palace of Memory, which I’m reading and enjoying (although it’s rather dry).  And Jonathan Spence in his book, the Palace of Memory of Matteo Ricci, also tried to reconstruct what it would be like to walk around in the palace of an 16th century Jesuit priest in China.  I’ve also just learned of this book, Memorize the Faith, which use the outline of the memory palace of Thomas Aquinas to teach the Christian gospels.

It seems to me that although my library chamber is a useful place to begin to create the places and things necessary to an effective memory palace, the real value of the system has to come from having an overarching theme of framework for the structure of the memories to be held.  This suggests short scripts or training podcasts, that guide you around small sections of the room(s) at first, and then gradually fill in various details.

One thing the ancients worried about, which I think we don’t have to worry about, is imagining spaces to be static and unchanging, with nothing closer together than thirty feet or so.  I think we can closely cram things together, and we can also have movies or tape loops playing in various places in our minds…

More on this after my plane flight today, or perhaps tomorrow.  It’s on my mind how to teach kids to build an effective memory palace, and my first efforts were good, but inadequate.  Read more, research more, practice more memory-building techniques.  Of course.

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  1. Hi, I’m trying to introduce this Memory Palace concept to my 2nd grader and wondering if you have any thing ( a blue print of small scale palace) that a 2nd grader can use and build upon as kid proceeds to different level.

    • Sure. I’d use your kitchen. Have them memorize a list of words (relevant and age-appropriate words, not necessarily the first 200 SAT words, you understand?) while moving from spot to spot in the kitchen. I’d hang cards with 20 words around the kitchen, and let the kid move card to card trying to remember them. Then move them to the living room, and have them write down the list of words with the door to the kitchen closed. When they claim they’re stuck, ask them to walk around the kitchen in their imaginations.

  2. I read The Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci last year and enjoyed most of it. The concept of the memory palace has interested me for a long time, but I’m the sort of person who tends to be surprised by the contents of certain wings of my Memory Palace. I think lots of children would benefit from this framework being used in education – I was first exposed to it in elementary school and it was something I kept in mind all through my education. I hope you’re able to continue working on this project.

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