Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch – Part 1

Posted by Barry Flanagan on Jun 18th, 2008
Jun 18

One of the most common reasons I hear from technical speaker’s for relying on powerpoint as a crutch is it "is impossible to remember everything I need to say". Many powerpoint users say this of course, but technical speakers take this excuse to the new level because they have have very detailed info on many of the slides because "This is a technical presentation!"


I learned a technique several years ago to help me quickly memorize the key points and examples of a presentation and remove the need to fill my powerpoint slides with text and data. That technique is commonly called a memory palace or memory journey.


My first exposure to this technique came from a very popular source for books on technology, not memory – O’Reilly Publishing. The book was called - "Mind Performance Hacks:Tips and Tools for Overclocking Your Brain" by Ron Hale Evans. I have long had a fascination with memory, so this the combination of memory and a technology term like "overclocking" was impossible to resist. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and learned many useful techniques. The memory palace technique is explained in Chapter 1.



Making mental journeys (also known as "memory palaces") is a useful way to remember sequential information. If you have several familiar short journeys handy, you can be ready to remember whatever you need to, at any time. Here’s how to start with the layout of your own house or apartment.

An even older mnemonic technique, perhaps the oldest, uses places as memory pegs. By places, I mean ordinary, concrete places, such as the rooms of your house or apartment. If you mentally organize these places into a sequence that is the same every time, you will be able to walk through the places in your mind and retrieve the information you have stored there.1

The Renaissance practitioners of the ancient ars memorativa (art of memory) referred to such journeys as memory palaces. Orators in classical times would prepare their speeches by stashing complex images that represented the things they wanted to talk about in the loci (places) of a remembered or imagined building, such as a palace. In fact, this practice is said to be the origin of today’s expressions "in the first place," "in the second place," and so on.


(Read more on Hale Evans book at his Mentat Wiki)


After reading of this I was determined to learn as much as I could about this technique. The memory chapter of the Mind Performance Hacks book includes numerous reference to the Dominic System and the book "How to Develop a Perfect Memory" by Dominic O’Brien, O’Brien is an eight time world memory champion. He uses the memory palace technique extensively (he calls it a memory journey).


Chapter Eight of this book is devoted to memorizing speeches. In this chapter (on page 47), O’Brien writes "Much like a mental diary, a speech file can help you remember a talk in its entrety without any notes. Key points are translated into key images, and placed along a simple journey".  In the introduction (page 8), he writes "my method has many similarities with the classical art of memory. The Greeks,and later the Romans, possessed some of the most awesome memories the world has ever seen."


In Part II of this series, I will review the origin of the memory palace technique.


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5 Responses

  1. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch - Part II Says:

    [...] Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch – Part 1 [...]

  2. terry brown Says:

    Good history of the field by the way in your blog. I am a 53 year old with over 30 years experience using mnemonics. I am a physician and would like to be an attorney too. I feel memorizing is simply fun, and mnemonics made it that way. Over the years I have not found the actual loci method that easy to use. I guess I sometimes have virtual loci. That is images of a story and actions, but not confined to a certain building or place other than the one I imagine. I would also like to point out that acrostic mnemonics that a lot of the medical students use are the least effective type. What I call the “paired-associate” technique is the best in my opinion. One thinks of a word that the stimulus word sounds like, and associates this word image with the defintion or response word image. THis is they one I use most frequently. For example a Spanish word for wall is “pared” Pronounced like (Pa RED). To me this word sounds like the english word “parade,” so I simply visualize a parade going up and down my wall in my office (a bit of loci here). Suffice it to say that the technque can be used for any Stimulus-response, and there are data from Pavio that the mnemonic associations like this are more reversable than traditional ways of learning. That is one is more like to remember the stimulus as well as the resonse even if the order is switched to Response-stimulus. I do some of the number memorizing that Domnic does, though not quite at his level, just for sport. It has more limited practical use, but does have some. For example using the Major system the year that we converted to the Gregorian calender was (1)752. Turns out using the major system 752 can be turned into the word “calendar.”

  3. Barry Flanagan Says:


    Thanks for the feedback.

    The method you use reminds me of the LinkWord Languages product ( They use a visualization that includes a picture of the meaning of the foreign word and what it sounds like in your native language. For instance, the image for the spanish word arroz (rice) is a bunch of arrows flying into a plate of rice (I add in the sound of the arrows rushing through the air and the thud as they hit the plate). It is very effective. The image for cama (bed) is a camel lying in bed. To lock this in even further, when I create these images I use a memory journey of my home.

    I first heard of the major system when I listened to the old Mega Memory series many years ago. I had a lot of trouble with that system. Once I learned of Dominic O’Brien’s method, it seemed to fit my learning style much better. I committed to spending 5-10 minutes every day creating the list and locking in the system. That took about a month or so. They key for me was to customize the 00-99 list with people who really stuck in my mind, and make the actions very vivid and often outrageous. Once I had the entire system locked in, I wanted to test myself. I used pi memorization, since that kind of pure number recall is very difficult.

    I was able to remember the first 40 digits of pi in about 30 minutes. Adding the next 80 digits took another 30 minutes or so. The highest I have been able to go is 200 digits, though that was a stretch. I can get to 120 digits pretty easily most of the time now, and 160 if I do a quick review.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  4. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch - Part III Says:

    [...] Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch – Part 1 [...]

  5. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch - Part IV Says:

    [...] Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch – Part 1 [...]

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