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How to learn anatomy with a memory palace

Palace of Versailles
Palace of Versailles

“The apple door vaults are my mind palace. It’s all about knowledge, everything is. Knowing is owning.” - Charles Augustus Magnussen

These were the words of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis as he sat in a black chair inside an office-sized, empty room. He baited the protagonist to this place to show him his secret weapon - his library of knowledge. However, instead of presenting him with shelves full of old and dusty books, Charles revealed that everything was inside his head. He called this weapon, his mind palace.

A memory, or mind palace, is a powerful method of memorization which combines visualizations with spatial memory. It is also known as the method of loci and it is the oldest technique ever created to remember any piece of information, dating back to ancient Rome and Greece. This article will explain the reasons for building one, how to do it, and the challenges you need to watch out for. In other words, it will teach you to build your very own Versailles.

  1. What is a memory palace?
  2. Why rule a memory palace?
  3. How to build your palace?
  4. Challenges of ruling
  5. Highlights
  6. Sources
+ Show all

What is a memory palace?

A memory palace is exactly as the name implies. It is a mental space or location that is extremely familiar to you and which has various pieces of knowledge scattered throughout. However, information does not float randomly like a memory you can’t remember clearly, but is rather precisely linked to various objects or entities located within the space itself. The potential magnitude and number of your palaces are infinite. Why is this the case? Their limit is your imagination and as you know, imagination has no bounds. The palace can be either real or a concoction of your own imagination, as long as you know it like the back of your hand.

One of the principles behind a memory palace is visualization.

The principles behind a memory palace are visualization and spatial memory. Visualization, also known as mental imagery, involves mentally seeing representations of objects, scenes or events. These representations are accompanied by sensory information in the absence of a direct and related external stimuli. Essentially, it is ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’. Spatial memory involves the way the brain stores information about the environment around you. These two principles make the perfect couple, each contributing their part for the creation of your memory palace. Essentially, they allow you to mentally retrace your steps every time you lose your keys, and rats to navigate inside a maze to find food or safety.

Why rule a memory palace?

When faced with anatomical lists, your initial strategy would probably be to create a mnemonic out of them. This tactic will certainly yield good results, but why not aim for great results? Mnemonics are encoded through rehearsal. However, you can take your learning to the next level by using memory palaces, especially if the teaching in your anatomy department is regional based. Below are several additional and attractive features of mind palaces:

  1. Perfect for anatomy - Anatomy revolves around drilling the information into your brain. All those arterial and nervous branches, trajectories, and muscle facts require minimal understanding but maximum memorization. On top of that, many aspects need to be learned in a specific order. Luckily, memory palaces are perfectly suited for this type of learning, so they will certainly help you with this subject!
  2. They work! - A body of scientific work has shown the power and advantages of the method of loci. At least 85% of students who participated in the studies felt this learning strategy is extremely helpful and they agreed to use it in the future. Their long-term retention was also significantly improved compared to mnemonics or methods involving rehearsal.
  3. Meditative - Learning anatomy is stressful, there’s no doubt about that. Not to mention the pre-exam anxiety or the psychological strains of everyday living! Surprisingly, memory palaces can help you deal with such problems. Scientific studies have shown that people suffering from depression can cope better with their condition by building an emotional memory palace. Instead of filling it with anatomical knowledge, they fill it with happy thoughts, feelings, and past experiences that put a smile on their faces. You can also build such a palace to relax and improve your mood. It’s the perfect method to get rid of all those pre-exams jitters!
  4. Infinitely creative - A memory palace doesn’t necessarily have to be a real place. It can be the fruit of your imagination, as long as you know it by heart. Therefore, just let your imagination run wild and build it however you like, especially the images and associations. The funnier and more ridiculous they are, the easier your brain remembers them.
  5. Easy and fun
Navigating your mind palace.

How to build your palace?

In order to survive all the daily interferences and constant mental encoding, your memory palace needs to have a firm foundation and a crystal clear design. Getting lost inside it during those few hours of your anatomy exam is certainly the last thing you need! Here are the steps you need to follow to create a masterpiece to rival Versailles:

Step 1: Make a list of the pieces of information you need to remember. For example, let’s say the menu for today is Kenhub’s article on the axillary artery and its branches.

Step 2: Think of a well known location that you could describe in your sleep, for example your bedroom. Spend a few minutes and picture every aspect about it in as much detail as possible. Pick a direction, for example clockwise, and mentally describe every object that is present going around the bedroom. Concentrate on the details like colours, designs, size, texture, smells, emotions evoked, etc. If you have run out of known locations, create one and make it well known!

Think of a well known location that you could describe in your sleep, for example your bedroom.

Step 3: This step is all about the principle of visualization. Take all your items on your list and try to create an image out of each of them. A lot of anatomical words are very abstract, so practice this process because you will use it almost every single time. In this case, you can image the superior thoracic artery, the first branch on the list, as a flying thoracic cage dressed in Superman’s costume. Alternatively, you can imagine the fictional character of Thor drinking a huge bowl of soup. Make your images as exaggerated and comical as possible and you will certainly not forget them in a hurry! Also, good instructors are aware of the power of imagery and associations. If you start hearing funny stories and comparisons during your anatomy lessons, be grateful - your instructor is onto something!

Thor and Superman

Step 4: At this point, you are ready to marry visualizations with spatial memory. Think back to your chosen location and visualize the first item in it with all the corresponding details. In this case, let’s say this is the door to your bedroom. Now, you somehow need to mentally connect the image of the superior thoracic artery with the door. You can image the thoracic cage dressed in the Superman costume to be the door handle, which is flying chaotically over the door and makes it difficult for you to grab it and enter. The other option is to image Thor, which is drinking the big bowl of soup, to physically occupy the entire door frame, making you crawl in order to get inside your bedroom. Continue associating each image on your list with the next item inside your bedroom, going in your chosen, clockwise direction, until you reach the end.

Step 5: Keep revising by regularly going through your memory palace. However, don’t do it randomly, especially at the beginning. Instead, keep taking the same steps, visualizing the same items and going in the same direction. After a while, it will be so deeply ingrained that you will be able to recall the information upside-down and back-to-front!

Despite the endless possibilities (rooms, houses, schools, journeys, towns, objects, etc.), you might simply exhaust all your well known locations or lack the inspiration to create one. What do you do? You certainly don’t give up! Instead, you can start using ‘nested locations’. This is similar to zooming in onto a particular item or location within your chosen space. For instance, if your memory palace is your favourite art museum with fifty pictures exposed in it, focus on the details and items illustrated within each picture, creating ‘nests’ of information. As you can see, you have just multiplied the possible associations from just fifty to literally hundreds or even thousands. You can even divide a big space into many smaller and detailed ones, creating many palaces from a single idea.

Anatomy quizzes are another excellent way to learn anatomy fast and effectively. They're the best way to practice for your upcoming exams.

Challenges of ruling

Although owning a palace full of anatomical knowledge is an attractive idea, it’s important to balance the benefits against the challenges. As you know, nothing in this world is perfect and as much as you believe you crafted your memory palace to perfection, it undoubtedly has some rough edges.

Balance the benefits against the challenges.

Here are some aspects you should take into account about this learning strategy:

  1. Potential for confusion and disorientation - What do you think will happen if you exaggerate your creativity? That’s right, you will be confused by all the minutiae. In contrast, what is the result of underusing your imagination? You guessed it, you won’t be able to clearly distinguish the items because they are almost identical and bland. Neither situation helps you. This learning strategy doesn’t work on either extreme, so you need to keep practicing it until you strike the perfect balance.
  2. Takes time - All those images and associations are a lot of fun, but it can take some time to create them, especially at the beginning. Once again, it will get easier with practice!
  3. Purely for storage - The biggest advantage of memory palaces is also the chink in their armor. This strategy is perfect for memorizing and storage. Unfortunately, this is where its power stops. It offers no room for further exploration, analysis or expansion of ideas. Yet again, do you not want a strategy that excels in one aspect, rather than be moderately good in a few?

Therefore, becoming the ruler of your own memory palace comes with both advantages and drawbacks. Creating a palace involves following a series of well defined steps, but building an impressive and useful one for your anatomy learning takes practice and time. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day, but after it was finished, it became one of the greatest capitals. This is the potential of your very own memory palace, so don’t be afraid to try it out. Your favourite Kenhub articles and videos won’t know what hit them!

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