Memory Palaces for Medical Students

by | Nov 11, 2018 | All, Learning Resources, Study Skills & Memory

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Memory Palaces for Medical Students

I left you on a bit of a cliff-hanger in Accelerated Learning for Medical School. I know, such a cruel thing to do! But you will see that we require a bit of time to explain this in words. It’s much better to show you how to create Memory Palaces for Medical Students.

One recommendation I have is for World Champion and Medical Professional-created Mullen Memory, or the also popular MedSchoolInsiders videos on the subject. You can also find the occasional blog post about medical memory palaces, such as from the Art of Memory, Master of Memory, or StudentDoctorNetwork. The problem with these last sources is that many of the people asking questions have no experience in the techniques, and offer little help.

Though material such as Picmonic and Sketchy Medicine exist, all memory champions say it is much better to create your own material: which these don’t teach you how to do. They also make imagery that may be arbitrary to you, which is a big hindrance to long-term memory.

I’m NOT criticizing these sources. They are unique, and praised by thousands of students. However, if you want the next step you need to learn the techniques yourself. This may help you through your career, relationships, and life in general! So buckle in, and let’s see if we can get some of the basics down.

Where to Begin

A “memory palace” is just a location. It doesn’t even need to be a building. Any place you can visualize can work. It is difficult for some students (including myself) when starting to choose a location. So just pick a place, anyplace. Use this as a practice round.

If you went to a coffee shop recently, or even entered a gas station that will work fine. As long as you can close your eyes and visualize the layout, it’ll work. You may want to start making a list on your phone or somewhere you can add to easily as more potential palaces come to mind.

When starting off, I wanted to pick places that I didn’t care about, and save my sentimental locations for more important information down the line. This is fine to begin with, but the more personal a location the better the long-term retention is thought to be. This may be overcome with more frequent spaced-repetitions.

The better you can visualize, such as a place you have been to many times, the stronger the imagery will be and the longer the memory palace will last. Or at the least, it should be more difficult to mix up locations within the palace. We will use the homes of friends, relatives, and our own later when more comfortable.

Don’t forget schools, workplaces, libraries, sports arenas, casinos, amusement parks, and any other place can work as a memory palace. Some people use video game environments they are familiar with, or create one with MindCraft. I have even used a fictional setting that I used for certain meditation practices over the years.

Creating a Pathway

Now that we have a location picked, we need to set up checkpoints. There are entire courses on for setting up optimal pathways for different scenarios. These are just a few key points to get you started.

I recommend setting the number of stations for your Memory Palace. If my textbook has 14 chapters, or course has 14 lectures, than I have a good number to use. These stations may be furniture, wall or ceiling fixtures, or any other memorable object.

You can always set up an extra locations in case more information is added later. Though not likely if trying to remember a book, courses and other materials can have unexpected scheduling changes. However, I particularly like the Magnetic Memory Method way of handling these unexpected circumstances: start from the inside out.

If you are using your home, for instance, start in your bedroom or other endpoint of the building. Then you can work your way through the house towards the front (or rear) door. If need be, you can go outside and continue on your path endlessly.

If you are an avid runner or biker, you may be more adept at setting up outside pathways, and even connecting one house to another. One other way, though it has more intrinsic problems, is to open up a “portal” from one location to another for longer strings of memory.

No matter the location or destination, it’s easiest to have a pathway chosen that will accommodate the amount of material, or “stations”, you will be using for this palace. Make sure to add extra stations, or have an ability to move to another location. And try to always go one way, such as clockwise. This helps to prevent crossing your path, which may lead to mixing up stations.

Creating Visual Mnemonics for Medicine

Again, this short post will not do this section justice. But if you have watched the videos above than you may have an idea already. Markers are any visual aid that you have created to help remember a topic.

Perhaps a play on words, or association with a past friend. Maybe a video game or song reminds me of a topic. Anything that can be used to create a personal association is great. Here’s an example:

Picture Lt. Watson from Sherlock Holmes stories (I best visualize Martin Freeman from the BBC Sherlock Series). He has a cricket on his shoulder. Now, he is petting this cricket with a hooked hand. Suddenly, a bat swoops in and takes the cricket away, leaving a splattering of blood on Watson’s shoulder.

This is a pretty strange combination of objects and events, wouldn’t you say? But, at least for me, it is quite vivid. I’m a fan of this actor, especially from Hitchhiker’s Guide, so it is easy to visualize him. And a cricket sitting on his shoulder like a pet parrot is strange, which makes it memorable. Not to mention wondering why Watson has a hook for a hand, and the chances of a daring bat swooping in to pick off the unsuspecting cricket! Let’s decipher what this scene means.

When dealing with large amounts of information (or dozens of visual markers), you may easily forget one and not even notice. How do we keep this all in order? By placing them in our memory palace. Now, if you go to a station within your palace and can’t think of the marker, you know there is a topic to review. It is a way of assessing that you haven’t forgotten anything.

What Does That Gibberish Mean?

This is a simple visual aid to note that the scientists Watson and Crick discovered the genome in 1953. How? Well, Watson (Lt. Watson) and Crick (the cricket) give the persons involved. The number five is denoted by using the peg-system, which some use a hook for 5. I remember a bat for the number 3 as drawing a simple bat looks like the number 3 laying on its side. Lastly, the blood on Watson’s shoulder can mean the genome as blood tests are often used for a variety of tests.

Sure, you can get genetic material from hair or saliva, but the horror of the poor crickets untimely demise is more memorable to me. There are many ways to alter this scene to better suit you. But it is recommended that you create your own markers from scratch. With a little practice, this skill can become much more rapid.

The method of loci (memory palace) has been shown to benefit medical studies in endocrinology. Some other medical resources are beginning to acknowledge the importance of these tactics, and recommend them for clinical practice as well.

Spaced Repetition & Memory Palaces

No matter what you are trying to remember, spaced-repetition is a topic of concern. Memory experiments from decades ago realized the importance of this phenomenon. You will often hear of the “forgetting curve”, which is the rapidity in which we forget new information. But with spaced-repetition this mental wear can be combated.

There are many theories about the time you should space out each repetition, though I’m not sure if any are backed by strong science. It also may vary depending on what you are trying to remember. Images are the easiest to remember, for most, so theoretically should require the least number.

The greatest decrease in the forgetting curve is in the first hour. It seems intuitive, than, that you should do at least one recall before this mark. After that, perhaps at 24 hours, day 3, day 7, and day 30. That’s one I see commonly, though maybe due to ease of remembering the schedule

When you build several Memory Palaces, you may want to start with recalling them all in order. Once you have that down with no or few mistakes, try mixing up the order. WITHIN the palace, some still recommend you keep the same pathway to not mix up stations.

This is a good time to note, you may also have a written note or checklist for comparison. A Mind Map or some other manner can be used to double check your palace. After a few rehearsals have been complete, you may not need this form of self-assessment.

Simple Tricks to Practice Your Skills

One way I use this technique for short term, yet beneficial, use is when meditating. Without fail, every time I get comfortable and into my meditation something pops up that I want to remember. If it’s something minor, I’ll do what you are supposed to: push it aside and get back into the meditation.

Sometimes, however, it is something that I really don’t want to forget. If it’s important enough that it is going to distract me from the meditation, than I might as well write it down. But that basically means I have to start all over as well. Instead, I implement the Memory Palace.

I’ll quickly create a marker or two, set it (visually) on a piece of furniture in the room I’m in, and continue the meditation. Since I neither moved nor expelled significant mental energy to create the marker, I don’t distract my meditation. And the anxiety of forgetting is now gone as well.

I may repeat it once to hold onto the memory until I am finished. Without regular spaced-repetitions the marker usually fades in a day or two. This way I can keep reusing the space I am in, without worry of “ghosting” or “bleeding” old markers.

This can be used in the car when it may be too dangerous to write. I’ve even used it when spacing off during a boring conversation! Even when you CAN use other methods, such as phone voice recorder, it’s a better practice to train your brain.

Are You Convinced?

These are powerful mnemonic techniques, and deserve your consideration. Honestly, I think they should be mandated in the next education reform! And I really wish I had known about them to a greater degree before attempting several advanced degrees.

If this is your first introduction to the material, it may seem a bit overwhelming. I know it was for me. If you decide to dedicate just a few minutes a day to learning about and practicing these skills, you can develop a very robust and creative memory.

Remember, the memory champions are no different than you or I. It all comes down to practicing the skills and finding what works best for you!