Experience vs. Appearance in Using a Memory Palace

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We all know the human brain is capable of tremendous feats of information storage and processing. Nonetheless, most of us consider our brains as organic faculties rather than machines. Processing large mathematical equations or memorizing huge quantities of information with perfect accuracy seem like the actions of either savants or computers, not the ordinary mind.

This is where learning to use a large-scale memory system or memory palace is so amazing. It simultaneously harnesses our innate organic ability to navigate the natural world around us while organizing information into systems more akin to those stored on a hard drive. This creates a strange and powerful disconnect between the experience of using a memory palace and the experience of watching someone else use a memory palace.

Suppose I have stored a language using a memory palace. You ask me questions. How many patterns of strong verbs are there in German? What is the sixth example in the second pattern? How many endings indicate the masculine gender? All of these are easy questions to answer. To an observer unaware of how I have learned this information, the answers will seem technical, specific, and numerical in a way that does not seem possible. It looks like magic, or that I have a freakish brain.

On the other end of this equation is my own experience of the interaction. Ask me about patterns of strong verbs and I call up a courtyard in my mind and look around. Ask me what the sixth example in the second pattern is and I call up a painting, looking to the sixth location. In this process I may have looked past images of dragons, zebras, talking clocks, and all other bizarre and vibrant spectacles. The experience of recalling information from a memory palace is natural and organic, as simple as describing a place you've visited before or a house in which you used to live.

Teaching people to use memory palaces for language learning is a lot of fun precisely because of this disconnect between the appearance and the experience of using a memory palace. When most learners first start, they are both daunted and skeptical of the appearance — they don't think it's possible for them to learn the amount of information to the level of detail advertised. An hour later, they are amazed when they hear themselves describe something technically and in detail. In their minds, they are looking around at the vibrant scenes they have created, yet the vocalization is precise and systematic.

When getting started with memory systems, it's important not to get fooled by their appearance in use. The process is disarmingly natural, primarily because it is a powerful form of memory we use without effort. You should not mistake this organic process for something mechanical, nor should you try to make the process mechanical on the basis of watching a demonstration of memory feats. The feats will appear almost robotic outwardly, but feel playful and natural inwardly. Learn to embrace this fun and playfulness as a gift of our human nature, and something we can turn into a tremendous strength for learning.

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