Memory Palaces Can Boost Your Observation Skills

Building a “memory palace” may not be the best way to train your memory. But it might hone your observation.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how mnemonics are usually a distraction from serious learning. I spent a lot of time filling “memory palaces” with mnemonics that I ultimately didn’t need. But there’s a silver lining.

Memory palaces taught me how to look at an ordinary landscape.

(Side note: Sorry this site’s been offline a bit during the hurricane. It’s hosted in New York City.)

Normally, the average room or place is nearly invisible. After our subconscious does its magical split-second scan for attackers, aliens, and obvious treasure, we get the “all clear” and ignore where we are. We focus on the people we’re with, and/or our neverending internal stream of gripingness.

But what happens when you’re trying to make a memory palace? You look. Suddenly, all the “boring” objects stand out in sharp relief. They become real. You notice windows, corners, doors, fire hydrants, stairways, trees, flower pots, statues – all the actual nooks and things that make up a landscape.

Even the most industrial interior can have texture. That “Exit” sign is underneath a bizarre two-bulb lamp: a mnemonic could smash one of the bulbs. That door has a big, thick lintel where you could perch something. That hallway has a bizarre box jutting out with a defibrillator.

When you’re making a memory palace, every “spot” needs to be unique. Ancient writers warned against trying to store lots of mnemonics in the spots between columns. They all look alike.

So as you look around, you notice the details that make things different. What makes this desk or table or chair unique?

I always enjoyed “building” new memory palaces. (Unless I was trying to fit too much in a single room).

They reminded me of when I was a kid, taking my toys on adventures around the room. Remember when a sofa was a desert to cross, and if your toy fell on the carpet, it would drown in the ocean? The landscape would come alive.

Some people seem to be born observant. But I’m convinced that we can all learn to observe. It just takes practice – and enjoyment. If firefighters can hone their observation skills, so can we.

I’m not sure that memory palaces are the best way to do it. Drawing might be even better. Or even having “adventures” with my kids.

But memory palaces did get me looking at the landscape again as an adult. For that, I’m thankful.

What do you think? Have you tried to make memory palaces?