Vertical Memory Palace

I’ve chosen as my next memory challenge to memorize the 83 counties of Michigan (where I live), along with their county seats and, perhaps, additional information in the future. I’ve read all of the “map” related threads and realized I still didn’t have a good handle on how best to do this, especially when almost all of the counties are, essentially, squares or small rectangles. There’s literally no differentiation in appearance to place them on a map. Since I do want to be able to have a general idea of where they are on a map, it occurred to me that the best approach might be to somehow work vertically rather than use a traditional memory palace or journey.

Michigan has a lower peninsula that looks like a giant mitten, as well as an upper peninsula. I’m envisioning standing the “mitten” up, so all of the box-like counties simply stack up on each other to create the state. “Walking” it might be more like scaling it like a rock wall or a window washer; I’m not sure.

Has anyone done this before—gone vertical rather than using a horizontal journey? Any advice?



Four colors is the very mininum for a flat map. (it’s a theorem) You surely could add more and perhaps enhance borders with snakes or scarves or traintracks?

Is this for a practical purpose? When I memorized a chess board, the most important thing was to develop an awareness of the web of connections to other squares. Sort of like the sense one might experience driving around one’s town being aware of how to get to other neighborhoods or streets.


Well…yes and no. I don’t really need this information, no. But my wife works for a company that provides services to counties throughout the state and often has to travel. I’m not a native Michigander, so I am constantly asking her where all these counties are. I thought it would be far less annoying for her if I could learn these for myself. :wink:

I’m still wrestling with the actual layout of these counties in my palace. I don’t need to know the exact location of these counties, but I would like to have a general idea. Because they fall into almost perfect horizontal rows, I’ve decided to “label” each row with a host person based on the people I’ve assigned to 00-99 with the Major system. I’m thinking that that host could also be linked to the number of counties in their row, just so I can better stay on track. So Row 1 (at the bottom of the map) would be Zooey Deschanel (01) holding a scythe (my number 7) and leading me past the county/county seat images.

I’m beginning to doubt the idea of a vertical memory palace, though. All of my memorizing has involved either a narrative journey or a traditional memory palace built on actual locations I know. I’m thinking that maybe I can still go with a traditional palace, since my host characters will help me to know approximately where I am in the map; I won’t need to “go vertical” to know whether a county is more toward the north or the south.

I appreciate your reference to colors—I know many people layer information in the same locations using different colors—but I’ve found it very challenging to limit my images to a single color or to alter colors in those images too much. (I might try to tell myself that a particular rose is blue, but probably 9 times out of 10 when I think “rose” I’m going to remember “red.”)

It’s interesting, though: I’ve never had to do this much pre-memorizing planning/thinking with other information I’ve memorized. So it’s already been a good mind-stretching exercise. I think I probably just need to dive in and see what works…without being afraid to go back and make adjustments.



I wonder if a city’s street map could be used as the journey, if it were viewed from the top. It would be vertical, but you could still walk or drive the route.



Another idea is to use a story method to link the counties together directly on top of the map of the counties itself.


I guess what I was asking was are you going to access this information to use - so yes :slight_smile: and that to some extent dictates how you should encode it. I find this a very interesting question.

Josh mentions a Journey approach. In fact this is what I used for the chess board. I would mentaly take a piece and “journey” the chess board. The knight is at tough one. At that time I did not have formal memory techniques and basically I was doing the same thing everyone does when they learn the streets of their town. You develop a mental map by travelling. For me that is part images. I can if I want, conjure up images of the streets and intersections but it’s partly abstract. I just know I’m connected in certain ways to other parts of the town. The physical experience of travelling is important. I’d walk around an imaginary chess board in the park. (Nobody wanted to make eye contact with me)

That capacity has mostly faded. My chess days are over. But were I to do it now, based on how it went last time, I would try to use the Journey method to memorize this web.

So here’s another thought. Take a map maker’s approach. A good map is not always an accurate description of the actual terrain. Maps are often heavily distorted, to suppress irrelevant detail and enhance the important relationships. Subway maps are often done like this and are much for useful for being so. Sometimes a fiction is more useful than the truth. Do you really need all that fine detail or do you just need to know who is next to whom?

Mebbe just to see, draw them as a web. Like a Mind Map diagram, with the counties as nodes and lines to adjacent nodes?


@RMBittner, I have drawn the map my way to remember. Maybe it will help you.


I don’t know that I’ll incorporate colors like this, but I really like how you treated the “mitten” of Michigan as if it had three colored fingers and a thumb.

All this planning and conceptualizing about how, exactly, to memorize this information is really unusual to me. I didn’t expect that. I figured it would be like memorizing everything else I’ve done. But it feels like the lack of order threw me (everything else I’ve memorized has had a built-in order to it, chronological/alphabetical/by size), meaning I could start/end anywhere. And the need to come up with a technique for the relative geography has also been more of a challenge than I’d expected.

Then I came across this quote last night when reading Lynne Kelly’s Memory Craft:

“All the while you are thinking about your plan, you are becoming more engaged with the specific knowledge. The process is as important as the final product, if not more so.”

She’s writing here about creating a mandala as a memory aid. But I think the statements apply just as easily to any memory challenge or technique that encourages you to think and work differently.

Thanks for some great advice, everyone!



Any colors you want, it would be great if you have any order for them too.
You’ve got it right, there are 3 fingers and a thumb, and also a bird, let’s say a gull, has eaten a pinky finger :slight_smile:
Now you can even remember the counties on the “mitten” by touching your fingers.
…Oh, I just have found some images for this, some people had used it before.


I use the resistor band colors for the digits. I already had that from electronics work but I think it’s a good selection. Resistors are manufactured in Asia as cheaply as possible. The bands are often crudely printed but the colors are good choice of contrast IMO. I use 10 based storage structure a lot. If I find a cabinet or chest of drawers in a room, I know it has ten drawers, color coded. I don’t even need to see the whole cabinet, just pull open the orange drawer.

It has been a great thread! I think I will try my own idea, see if I can learn the States of Mexico. Been lazy about that. As an ex European, I tend to ignore S America. If I do like what I get, I’ll post a picture of map.

Yes, engagement. I was out on a hike yesterday and decide to “harvest” locii. At each point I do something with what I find. Make a little tower out seven stones at the 7th locus etc. Pick a flower or weed and examine it closely. It really slowed things down but it’s an investment.


Hi, Bob. Have you chosen your approach yet?
I’m thinking a spiral, beginning at your home. That way, as you move through your route, you get further from home, so there’s personal meaning in the placement of loci…
Good luck!

As you suggest, I do think that an actual journey might fit the information better than a traditional memory palace. But my local area is not really walkable, so I’ve decided to go the traditional route for now. I started actually memorizing last night, using my current house as a traditional memory palace.

At this point, I’m planning to stick with my original concept of simply working across the state in layers/levels, marking each one so I have a rough sense of where I am in terms of North/South (since the order of the counties across each level will give me a rough sense of West/East). I’m still considering whether I’ll try to add any kind of a color element, but I’m not sure color would contribute any useful information.

Now, my concern—and it’s only a concern because I seem to love to worry about things in the future!—is that I’m not sure my approach will be…robust enough to accommodate more and more detail in the future. I love the idea of building up layers of information over time, like continually adding new pages to a file folder, but I’ve never done that before. Part of me feels like maybe you need a certain type of image to make that possible.

For example: Berrien County, with St. Joseph as the county seat, is represented by an image of a person “burying” a giant statue of St. Joseph. That’s perfectly functional. But I do wonder how much more information I can add to an image like that. I can see it handling a population number, but what about other notable cities/towns, famous people born there, main sources of income, etc., etc.? I don’t know if I’m clearly communicating what I mean, but… someone burying something feels like a complete image on its own; do I just toss all of this other information into the hole with St. Joseph, weave a new story, do something else?

Of course, I also tell myself that you never know if something will work until you try it. But I’d love to hear exactly how others here have gone back and, over time, added additional layers of detail to existing memorized information.

And, again: I really appreciate all of the great advice in this thread!


Hi, Bob. I wonder if the concept of “memory wheels” would help here. I think Llull and Bruno would build to more details by adding another circle to a set of concentric circles.
I’ve thought about using colors - you could use the colors of the rainbow or add intermediate colors to get a set of 12 colors. Then you could consider the color add-on and let that prompt you to the deeper information you want to remember. For example, the county + red could be associated with famous people. The county + green with main sources of income, and so forth.
I think the more firmly you have something in your memory, the more easily you can build on it. Don’t you think so?
Maybe when you get to that juncture you will find it’s easier than you expect.
Good luck!

I understand that you want a scalable solution. You can add more information as much as you can to remember it, because any image can be represented as a folder.

You’re probably right, in that I really just need to jump in and try different approaches to see what works best for me.

I’ve only dabbled very lightly with using colors to distinguish information in the past, and my initial impression was that color isn’t “sticky” enough for me—and it tends to weaken the memorability of my overall image. For instance, when I picture St. Joseph being buried, I picture him in blue and white robes with thick brown hair. If I, say, make the scene red, then he ceases to look like how I’ve pictured St. Joseph. He becomes a different character, which breaks the association. Make sense? And color by itself seems disconnected from actual information, making it difficult for me to draw any associations between a specific color and a specific layer of information.

I need to imagine things, and color isn’t a thing; it’s an attribute of a thing. If I were going to pursue color layers, I think I’d have to have a strong image to associate with that color.

I couldn’t say, “Okay, now everything’s red, which means all of the images are related to agriculture.” “Red” wouldn’t connect to “Agriculture” in any meaningful way for me. (Unless a rose or tomato farm is involved.) However, if I chose an image of something that happened to be red—and wasn’t in conflict with any of my other images/techniques—then I think that might work. So maybe I would have a series of images where St. Joseph gets buried in a hole (my “constant” image or, if you want, my main “folder”), but one time the hole is filled with molten lava (red), one time it’s filled with lush grass (green), one time crystal-blue water, etc., etc. Each of those different fillings could lead to a different string of associated details. And they bring the potential advantage of invoking other senses (heat/burning, scent/texture, coolness/wetness) which could, I think, create some strong associations with the information that follows.

The challenge, then, would be how to keep each county’s color information distinct from one another. If every county has a “molten lava” element, how do you ensure that you’re keeping them all straight? (The alternative,I guess, would be to use a different red/green/blue/whatever element for each county…but coming up with a list of 83 different things that are red/blue/etc. sounds like an incredible waste of time!)


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Map colors are pretty crude. If you combine color with texture and patterns you get a lot of variety. Black velvet vs a piece of obsidian are distinct enough in my head not to be confused. Black leather studded with brass rivets is yet another thing.

I have journeys where there is an object at each location, whether a bird or teapot or a statue. I “festoon” them with anything I can attach, a neclace, a monkey climbing up the side, a hat… Like little charms. In this way I can add another ‘dimension’ to the structure. I find the basic structure has to be solid before it get’s too heavily loaded.


Very interesting challenge indeed!

I wrote a bit on my general way of memorizing geography here:

Basically I like to use the shape of the countries/counties as the image.
In this case, as you already pointed out, this seems impossible since all the counties look very similar on the map.

I faced a similar challenge some time ago when I wanted to memorise all the counties of Romania. There I solved it by grouping the counties together into clusters that looked like something. There was for example a group of adjacent counties that looked sort of like a knight when seen all together, so I decided that they were a knight and then added images for the county names on the corresponding parts of the knight image.

I have drawn an example of how I would remember the upper peninsula (which admittedly seems to be the easiest part of this) in the Michigan example.

The overall shape is to me very similar to that of a rat:

Once you see it as a rat it is very easy to associate images for the county names with different parts of it:

I also made a colored version to make the boundaries more clear:


My version:

(Please excuse the crudity of these models. :stuck_out_tongue: )

I believe that it would be possible to use the same approach for the lower peninsula too, although that would have to be divided into subclusters of counties. That is probably the route I would take since it gives you such a clear image of where everything is, i. e. you don’t have to extract/convert it somehow from a memory journey.


Are you joking? :slight_smile:
That’s great!

I see a dog and a shark on the tail.
Oh, and even a crocodile .)


Actually it’s too bad you left out the crude parts on a very memorable, playful drawing!. :slight_smile:
What fun!