What is a memory palace anyway? [POLL]

I thought I knew what a memory palace was. But then I read a good article @josh linked from the forum that described it differently.

Several terms are floating around, method of loci, palace, journey, and Roman room, that describe a structure, possibly all different, but maybe overlapping, or even the same. I have my ideas but I want to see if a consensus if possible so here’s a poll.

An example of each of the associations to be made is below if you want more detail. Also, if you want to stick a name on each one of these examples in a post, that would be even better. Your answer should be based on experience or training rather than what you think should be the definition. If I missed one, let me know. You can choose as many as you want.

The best description(s) of an example of a memory palace using only the ones below is (are):

  • • 1. A room has various locations. Images are stored in any location and retrieved by wandering around.
  • • 2. A room has specific locations with a traversing order. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 3. A room has specific locations with a specific physical path. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 4. A room has various objects. Images are stored by interacting with any object and retrieved by wandering around.
  • • 5. A room has specific objects with a traversing order. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 6. A room has specific objects with a specific physical path. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 7. A house has various rooms. Images are stored in any room and retrieved by wandering around.
  • • 8. A house has specific rooms with a traversing order. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 9. A house has specific rooms with a specific physical path. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 10. A house has various rooms containing various objects. Images are stored by interacting with any object in any room and retrieved by wandering around.
  • • 11. A house with specific rooms has specific objects with a traversing order. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.
  • • 12. A house with specific rooms has specific objects with a specific physical path. Images are stored and retrieved in that order.

0 voters

Here are the examples of all the structures and Major system keywords or people I store there.
  1. Family room. Front window and President Bush. East wall and nothing. Hallway and Frank Sinatra.

  2. Family room. North exit and Sarah Palin. Northeast hallway exit and Frank Sinatra. East … (clockwise)

  3. Family room. Entrance and Jimmy Buffett. Middle of room and Harry Truman. Exit and Sarah Palin (passing through).

  4. Family room. Couch and President Biden. Large mirror and nothing. Television and John Wayne.

  5. Family room. East couch and President Biden. Southeast keys and Jimmy Buffett. South… (clockwise).

  6. Family room. Entrance door and Jimmy Buffett. Large rug and Harry Truman. Room divider and Sarah Palin (passing through).

  7. Family room and face. Office and nothing. Patio and apple.

  8. Family room and face. Office and fool. Bathroom and bus. Patio and apple (Major system, alphabetic).

  9. Bedroom and mouse. Bathroom and bus. Kitchen and eagle. Garage and kiss (getting ready for work).

  10. Family room couch and vote, bedroom pillow and nothing, laundry room washer and the Hulk.

  11. Family room fireplace and foam, family room popcorn bowl and ivory, office chair and fool (Major system, alphabetic).

  12. Wine room wine glass and honeybee, bedroom clothes hangers and maze, bedroom alarm clock and mud, bedroom bed and money (going to bed).

Not necessarily a room or a house because it can be any spacial location (open field, sky, river etc.) Also locus can be either in a space or an object but it’s a lot more memorable to use an object because a space is empty and has a weak connection.

Anyway the primary purpose behind a memory palace is to take abstract information then turn that information into a memorable and tangible object then bind that image to a object or location (otherwise known as a locus.) Fundamentally all of this is based around the idea that remembering images is easier than remember words because you can observe an image with more of your 5 senses which is very hard to do with words.

All memory techniques (that I have come across) follow this principle so they usually don’t vary that much but if I had to think about how all of the methods differ from each other this is what I would say:

1. How do you link your objects together?

  • Do you link them by number? (Normal Method)
  • Do you have one image effect the next? (Linking Method)
  • Do you have a central story that your images follow? (Journey Method)

2. What type of memory palace are you using?

  • Artificial palace that you made up
  • Something you have seen in real life (Memory Palace)

3. How do you associate your images?

  • The shape of the information reminds me of the word (shaper system)
  • I use premade pictures to memorize redudant information like numbers/cards (PAO)
  • I come up with unique pictures to remind me of words/ideas (normal)

@Grimba, did you not agree that any of the poll options were a memory palace? Those were based on my own house. If you could give me an example of your palace that would help.

For general use stuff that I want to remember for a little while but don’t care that much about I like to take whatever the topic is and make an artificial memory palace of it. So if we were talking about a court case in school I might picture a court hearing and then I would add images that would remind me of the information within that court room.

For stuff that I do care about remembering I like to take whatever that information is and make a crazy story out of it and then I make images that relate to the story and put them in a memory palace. So if my story was about pirates and I wanted to remember mitochondria I could imagine myself finding a taser somewhere that I would use to kill some important character.

It’s important to note that the first method requires no preparation while the second requires a decent amount of effort/planning.

Now as far as what is and isn’t a memory palace I don’t think it matters that much. There’s really no clear definition and you could argue that any of your examples are a memory palace so it’s more of a semantic question then a practical one


Yes, houses are (or at least ‘can be’) memory palaces, but not all memory palaces are houses.

Pretty much sums it up.


2, 3, 8 and 9. MP can also be outdoor spaces and so on, indeed, but a room or a house does the job. I like to see the loci as spaces, not only objects, that can be a window, a place on the pavement, on the floor, etc. And yeah, as I’m learning pi digits, I have to retrieve it in order. The order is also important to make sure that no loci (and thus information) is being forgotten.

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@petitgugus, thank you for your reply. I have been reading your journal with interest as you take on the very difficult challenge of memorizing pi. Your palaces are very extensive and I applaud your attempt to break the national record in France. Bonne chance à toi!

I could have provided outdoor options for every choice but I wanted to keep it simple easy to compare. And I think the author of Rhetorica ad Herennium would agree with you that loci are spaces as the Latin translation of locus is background and not location used by the translator in the Loeb Classical Library. I personally use terrain so it fits my acronym of SEA-IT for types of images.

I noticed that you ran into a difficulty which was covered in the Rhetorica: “… backgrounds differing in form and nature must be secured, so that, thus distinguished, they may be clearly visible…” But I think because we have not been disciplined enough to follow and teach these early principles, we’ve lost some great advice. I want to bring some clarity as a teacher if I can.

But first, I try to follow the advice of Solomon ibn Gabirol who said " In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth, teaching others.

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Could you elaborate please… locus is what texts in Latin used in place of the Greek topos. I don’t understand how that is a matter of background versus location when translating to English. Either seems equally inaccurate if you consider the meaning of Greek topoi.

Sure @bjoern.gumboldt. Harry Caplan was the translator of the text for the prestigious Loeb Classical Library found here: Rhetorica ad Herennium Passages on Memory. Check his translation. No Greek was harmed in the translation of that text.

@bjoern.gumboldt, this is a good thought that I will remember though. Because the Rhetorica was penned by Roman author describing the Greek art of rhetoric, I think there’s quite a bit of meaning that was wrapped up in the practice. It could be that the Romans also improved a little on the techniques.

I agree that topos is not really a background as a rhetorical concept, but I believe it was more about the information to be stored in the background of the locus. Don’t we still use phrases like “position papers” and “take a position” when referring to our arguments in essays and thesis papers?

And this isn’t really about a palace but the method of loci, so we may have to break this off into another topic if you want.

Well… first all all, the Latin translations I’m familiar with (reading and writing) take up less than half a page and the rest is dedicated to footnotes to clarify the aforementioned translations. On the other hand, I don’t want to tell you what translations you should like… that is of course entirely up to you; however…

…I think the “wax tablet” makes “background” a really bad choice given the context. You see, a whiteboard is a background and nothing more. A wax tablet on the other hand is not a background but something that you’d engrave the information in (not so much on).

So ultimately, the white of the board serves as the backdrop to the black of the ink; on the other hand, the wax tablet after it’s been worked is the final product. Maybe more obvious when you compare a painting and a sculpture… the former has a canvas as a background to hold the paint(ing), the latter will become the finished product after it’s been worked. I hope that makes some sort of sense… if not, let me know and I try for a better example.

Compare this to:

  • a 821 / 148 image in front of a library
  • a 821 / 148 image in front of a school

…if you use library and school only as backgrounds, there is nothing that really “attaches” the image and makes the backgrounds harder to distinguish… like writing on a whiteboard or a blackboard is really not a big difference. To me, creating a “Fanta Fountain,” is much more like using a wax tablet by comparison.

No worries… pretty sure the Romans took care of that already. :wink:

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I’m impressed with your memorization of pi, @bjoern.gumboldt, like I was with @petitgugus. I have no interest in that myself though. Have you kept it up?

But as to the method, I wouldn’t select any other background but the Jardin area and the main fountain as one of the loci because I want relevant backgrounds The story you drop there of the Fanta Truffle flavor seems perfectly natural to me. Isn’t it odd that Fanta and fountain are the same number? Was that on purpose? I might have chosen to add an elaboration to the Fanta fountain of a waterfall (148) to keep the imagery simpler though.

Backgrounds are just the backdrop or scenery I use for adding my memory images to each locus I find or put there. I think the impressionable wax tablet or erasable whiteboard are both just metaphors for our artificial memory to inscribe with mnemonic imagery.

And I spent most of today looking up first term usage on palace and pegs. I’m convinced that the memory palace isn’t a structure in its origin but a way to talk about our artificial memory that contains all these wonderful memory structures. (Thank you Seth Long.) So my original goal of understanding the palace is met.

Your conversation and my research was enough for me to be satisfied but left me with a need to alter my educational documents drastically yet one more time. Not that I’m compaining. But yes, I am complaining because I would have liked for someone just to hand me what I’ve written and am writing.

And wax tablets weren’t that permanent, right? The stylus did have an “eraser” end.

So, thanks again. I’m shutting down the poll. It’s done it’s duty. It is interesting to see that the four voters have seven completely different views about what they call a memory palace though.

Not sure that you mean by “eraser”… it’s wax… you scratch your notes into it. Your so-called eraser would have to put wax back for that to work. What you’d do to reuse the tablet, was to heat it up a little to flatten the wax out again. Is that maybe what you mean? A little “scraper” that allows you to smooth out the tablet’s wax surface when warmed up?

In terms of “how permanent”… let’s say you shouldn’t leave it out in the sun over lunch break, that’s for sure. Similarly, you shouldn’t leave your ink-on-paper out in the rain either. Anyways, it’s a different thing compared to an eraser. Think ice cube molds if we were living in sub-zero environments. You’d scrape the information into the ice and once done, you’d heat it up until it melts and then re-freeze it do get a nice and even surface again.

I didn’t even notice that about Fanta and fountain, you’re right. Well, I don’t pick my images based on where I am, it’s just one fixed image for 821, so I don’t read numbers into other words. Even if I did, I wouldn’t choose the image to be the same as the locus; how would you know if you not just forgot the image that went with the locus if they’re both the same?

I’m not sure I understand why you’d want to go for “simpler imagery” with the waterfall either. Does it make more sense logically, for sure… but why would you want that. It’s just gonna make you wonder if another property about the object that is your locus is somehow part of your image.

If I didn’t have set images already and would make them up based on location, I’d probably choose fondue and dwarf… probably have some generic (so that I know it’s not important for the image) giant dip a few dwarfs in the cheese fondue fountain… actually, make that chocolate fondue because there the fountain is more common… makes for better tasting dwarfs as well.

…and now imagine you tell someone about your fountain / waterfall that is very logical and nothing out of the ordinary and I tell someone about the dwarf fondue… who of the two is more likely to remember what we talked about tomorrow at that location? I.e., which image is more memorable…

Do you mean “first time usage?” Or something like the first term as in primary usage of the word… like how cold could refer to temperature or you being sick? Assuming it’s a typo:

Middle English palace: from Old French paleis , from Latin Palatium , the name of the Palatine hill in Rome, where the house of the emperor was situated. (Oxford’s English dictionaries)

More specifically, Emperor Augustus, so it (i.e., “palatium”) wasn’t a thing yet while Cicero was still alive, who died shortly after Julius Cesar (who in turn preceded Augustus) was assassinated in 44 BC.

So clearly, Cicero never used the term “Memory Palace” seeing how the word palace didn’t exist yet. Also, much like people in Hong Kong don’t call the wonton soup you can get there Chinese food; being a Roman, he’d have hardly called it “Roman Room” either.

That first sentence sounds a bit odd… I thought the Latin locus is supposed to mean background in English? Generally, Greek topos and Latin locus are translated as place or location. The Latin scaena would more accurately describe something like background or scenery in a theater stage kind of way; and there is a reason that it’s locus instead of scaena.

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The second to last paragraph here Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 – Bryn Mawr Classical Review might interest you…

MC’s knowledge of classics and classical antiquity could be stronger. She retains the misleading translation of Harry Caplan of the Auctor ad Herennium, published in the Loeb Classical Library in 1954, where ” locus ” is rendered as “background” rather than “place,” which leads to major misconceptions as to how the system works.

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@bjoern.gumboldt, the eraser was the scraper end of the stylus which would have roughly smoothed over the surface of the wax when the wax was malleable enough. The scraped wax feels like my mind after several days of not reviewing my pegs with images starting to lose detail but still somewhat recognizable. I never really lose a mnemonic impression entirely like when a tablet is melted, and I hope that I never do. Too many good episodic memories would melt along with my artificial ones.

I tend to prefer less associations in my imagery so that it takes less time to store and retrieve. So, if I can reduce three or four actions into elaborations and items that do the same thing, I’ll use those. And psychology tells me to use more relevant imagery to stick better so I’ve been working towards that goal. But you gotta love your chocolate dwarf fondue. Can I get an order of 82148 please?

And considering the “first term usage”, I think I was conflating the two concepts and would have been more correct as “first time usage.” An unconscious typo for sure. I wish I had been offered more Latin in my education but having been raised in a non-Catholic school, I had to accept French or German as second language choices. My choice of French did me well while travelling there and I picked up enough German while living near Munich to cringe over your rant explaining the gender star. I finally married a wonderful Brazilian wife who said she was a Latin American but, as I found out later, doesn’t seem to know a word of Latin. Seriously? Ad Astra per Aspera? Not a clue.

Following the palace back in time beyond the actual root of our English word palace, the type of construction of lavishly decorated guarded living quarters extends back most famously to King Solomon. But because we’re interested in more of the Greek and Roman worlds, didn’t the Greek use the word Latin loanword praetorium as a privileged dwelling for the life-guard of the Caesars which gets distilled down to a fairy tale palace in translation? Paul wasn’t feeling especially princely in that palace while he was chained up to one of the guards. He probably had to stay in the rough barracks area out of sight anyway.

Then there’s the auli… Whether it’s on the eponymous hill or in the city, it don’t matter. It’s the concept and not the word that conjures up an elaborately decorated artificial structure of the mind that was important to me. Your discussion was useful.

I reverted to locus as location and not background which seems now more appropriate. But what term do we use to describe a set of loci within a related area that have a theme? I like background, but I think the common usage is more about a palace or a journey. Setting is good too. My plan now is to avoid those overused terms in order not to confuse people since it wasn’t clear to the voters and it’s like you and @Grimba said, just a matter of opinion that doesn’t matter much. But a practical aspect of my inquiry is to develop training materials that can identify the elements of peg systems and build up a progressive set of explanations and exercises.

You’re such a spoilsport. I naively believed that Mr. Caplan was the final word on Latin translations and that the internet just provided you with something to support your confirmation bias that he wasn’t. But the book review was brilliant and enlightening and shot down some fundamental concepts I picked up from Carruthers. Total respect for Prof. Small as I was an art history major myself. Now you’ve put another tantalizing book in my view. But $126 is pricey. I’m trying to borrow it. Prof. Small reiterates her disdain for the “background” solecism once again in the introduction, this time calling it the worst example of trying to impart a modern flavor to classical texts.

My intent is to provide some practical clarity for educational purposes and draw from the field of psychology and the forum participants. As Prof. Small says “I consider the jargon used in each field as equally abstruse and obfuscatory. As a result, I have tried to keep both jargons to a minimum. I have tried to define alien terms, many of which may not seem to need definition at all to someone accustomed to the terminology.” She’s a gem.