#15: How Travel Becomes Memory

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In this episode I will talk about my recent trip to Iceland, a trip to Costa Rica I took last year, and explain how you can use travel to build your memory palaces.

It’s the beginning of the summer, and many of you are planning to take a final trip before med school starts, a vacation or mission trip between M1 and M2 year, or travel to a summer wedding.  These are great opportunities to delve more into the cult of the memory palace.  In doing that, there are three essential tenets you need to follow.

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1 Explore with intent

When you are traveling, every new place you go is a potential new memory palace you can build.  In ancient Greece, the poets and orators who used the memory palace technique were always trying to explore new places.  When I started using this technique in med school, I was always asking my friends if I could see the rest of their apartments when I went over for a party.  If you are a student of the memory palace technique, you also need to be constantly exploring the world for new palaces, but you need to be careful.

Why do I say that?  Only some places are really conducive to a memory palace.  I’ll give you some examples of places that do and don’t work well, from my experience – to save you from making the mistakes I made in my palaces.

Two places I learned that don’t work well are restaurants and hotels.  Which is a shame, since those are two places you are in all the time when traveling.  The reason is that these locations are too anonymous. Every hotel room looks the same. Some have unique entry ways but this usually will only give you one or two locations so it’s not very worthwhile. In all of my memory palaces I have no hotels at all. I have a few restaurants- two that I waited tables in, so they were very hard wired in my memory. And one that I built before I realized that restaurants don’t work well.  I tried to build a few more but I had to throw them out.  This is because usually you don’t see the entirety of the restaurant, and the parts you see are pretty nondescript. I was at a restaurant in Costa Rica that had a treehouse theme, with a big treehouse right in the center, and I may use this for a small palace in the future but overall restaurants are too non-sticky for the memory palace technique. 

Museums also don’t work well unless they are extremely memorable and you plan to only use one museum in all of your palaces.  So when I was in Italy we saw the statue of David, and if you’ve seen it you know it’s kind of down a long hallway of Michelangelo’s unfinished pieces, and there’s a back room with other sculptures, it’s a little more memorable. Whereas we also went to the Sistine Chapel and you walk through like cattle herded through room after room of the most amazing art art, but you’d be hard pressed to remember how one room differed from the next.  So museums are on the do not use list. 

Parks and gardens are also too interchangeable so even though you went on the most beautiful and memorable hike, which I did when we were in Costa Rica, the loci are not sticky so don’t use it for a palace. 

What works very well is if you stay in an AirBNB type setting where the decor is more unique, there are many rooms and spaces, and you are there for a few days to become familiar with the layout.  When we were in Iceland we went to the Blue Lagoon, which is a geothermal bath. The spaces were very unique and I’ve never been anywhere like it. Also, I spent more than an hour there. I think that’s a good rule of thumb. I’m always tempted to use the car rental office or some place I kind of breezed through in the airport. I’d say stick to places you’ve physically spent time in for at least an hour. 

And finally, when offered a choice of two places to go on a day traveling, choose the one that will be more unique, with more distinct spaces within. This is good for keeping your brain young and also for memory palaces. 

2 Pay attention

Ok now you’re in a space that you can tell would work well for a memory palace. Tenet 2 is to pay attention. Joshua Foer who wrote Moonwalking with Einstein said after he won the national memory championship he would still forget where he parked his car. He realized part of a good memory is just paying better attention to the world around you. He says that after becoming a disciple of the memory palace gurus he felt that his life was enriched because he was more engaged with his surroundings.  When you are traveling, try to live that way too. Look around the house you are staying in. What colors are the walls?  What does each room smell like?  How is the furniture laid out?  What kind of art is on the walls?  It’s  actually pretty easy to make a place memorable just by noticing the little things about it.   And an added bonus?  It also enriches your life and your experience of new places. 

3 Document

No matter how much attention you pay, it is still good to follow my third tenet, which is to document your potential palaces. I keep a running list on my phone, and I photograph or video places I know I’ll want to use in the future. That’s because sometimes I get confused. I’m terrible with directions in general life and I get turned around easily, so sometimes I can’t remember if a closet was on the left or the right as you walked in or something like that. So I take pictures to help solidify the places in my mind. It’s also okay if you don’t quite remember. I fabricate locations in some of my palaces. In my bacteria palace in my grandmas house I needed another space so I gave her a laundry chute on the second floor. I gave my drummer Albert a walk-in closet because I had an extra immune deficiency that didn’t fit anywhere. Once you get used to building palaces, it’s okay to create extra mental spaces as long as you can remember them. 

In my online course I have my students brainstorm a list of palaces and keep a list. Start keeping a list on your phone, that way when you need to build a palace you’ll have a ton of choices at your disposal and can choose the one that fits best. 

See you next time!

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