Your Polymath Journey: Building your Mind Palace

As we work towards polymathy we come against the daunting challenge of data acquisition. Functionally different from skill acquisition this process requires the absorption and utilization of information that cannot be directly translated into skill. This information can be foundational to support the acquisition and understanding of needed to utilize a skill adequately. The challenge here is in rapid learning and subsequent recall that exceeds your past experiences of cramming with an all-nighter. For the polymath this information needs to be retained and used in order to build something truly remarkable.

For a quick reminder on what a mind palace is and where it came from you can check out my previous article here.

For this article we will focus on tips and tricks for building your mind palace. Filling the palace with data will be handled in a future post.

Lets start with a walk through your house, apartment, or dorm room. We’re going to physically walk through and look at everything. I will illustrate this with my current house. I am on the front porch looking at the red door, there is a fan shaped window at the top. The front door is protected by a metal, glass, and screen storm door attached to the house with a broken door closer that allows it to slam as opposed to close softly. To the right of the door is the small black mailbox, beaten and weathered with the number 71 in small fading stickers. Above the mailbox is the more visible number 71 made of dark tin and attached to the white plastic siding. To light the porch there is a lonely metal and glass lantern with a yellow bulb fixated above the mailbox. To the left and right of the porch are wooden railings and two pillars supporting the pitched roof. On the front of the porch roof is a faded plastic star approximately 12 inches in diameter. There are two broad steps painted the same gray-blue as the rest of the floor leading up to the landing.

You get the idea, right? From this description I have a bunch of loci, points to attach data, in a tight place. Here is the quick list. Steps up to the landing and landing(3); Railings (2); Pillars (2); Mailbox (1); Porch light (1); Roof/Ceiling (1); Star (1); Numbers (2); Screen door and broken door closer (2); Red door and fan window (2). From this description I have 17 loci points in which to place information. Continue this process for each room of your house.

Next make a map. You will need to know a pathway through your house/apartment/dorm that you will walk to retrieve the data you need. The map will direct you to each room in order. Following the pathway in a sequential order helps with recall in the early stages of data acquisition. For me the sequential order of Loci on the front porch are as follows. I start with the pitched roof, move on to the star, continue down the the first step, the second, the landing, the left pillar, left railing, screen door, broken door closer, red door, fan window, mailbox, numbers, lantern, right railing, right pillar. ( My preference is to move clockwise around a room, though this is not mandatory). From here I will move into the foyer and review the loci therein. I will then continue through the living room, kitchen/dining room, my office, my fiancĂ©e’s office, the bathroom, hallway, washroom/pantry. Since each room can have on average 20 loci, this gives me approximately 180 loci in the first level of the house. If I continue through the basement and second floor I can expect a total of about 400 loci. That is a lot of information.

Alright, so you have your first mind palace, now what? Now you find a nice cozy cushion and settle in for some self-guided meditation. I want you to sit quietly, perhaps put in some earbuds without music or sounds, and mentally walk through your palace. Recall each room in detail and cycle through the loci points you identified in your physical walk through. Do this a couple times a day until you are comfortable with the process and can quickly cycle through the loci.

Now that you know how to set up a mind palace you can continue to build upon it. Having roughly 400 loci is a good start, but if you’re serious about absorbing as much information in as short a time as possible then you will likely need more. For example, some of the projects I have worked on in the past have required multiple buildings all laid out around a courtyard. Depending on the type of information I was learning at the time I would use different buildings from my past that I could still mentally fly through. You can do the same thing.

Now lets go through some advanced mind palace building techniques.

Advanced 1: Get creative! If you’re young, or if you’ve only lived in your parent’s house and a dorm room, then you may find yourself a bit lacking in the past building experience. To shore up this lack of personal experience you can create a fantasy building to fill with loci and data. My favorite tool for this trick is Minecraft. Yes, you read that right. I have experimented with building my fantasy buildings full of fun nooks and loci, in Minecraft. There is no limit to the size and complexity of your build in this world, which makes it the perfect tool for such a task.

Advanced 2: Write out a description of your mind palace. If you’re a little unsure of the process at first, or if you’re more drawn to the written word (guilty here!), then you can write out a description of your mental palace as well as each of the loci. Like a treasure map you can refer back to this document to prompt your memory.

Advanced 3: Change the contents of your mind palace. If you’re familiar with the works of Miyazaki then you’ve probably watched Howl’s Moving Castle. In the castle was a door with a color wheel that, depending on the color, opened to a different part of the world. I have successfully used this technique with the same building to change the contents of the loci. I simply change the color of the front door to indicate the type of data that I want to recover. The color acts as an anchor for the data you wish to remember.

Building your mind palace is a good first step in memory improvement for the sake of working towards polymathy. The amount of information needed to master any subject is great enough to be daunting to most people. The aim of the mind palace is to take the edge off that daunting task by giving you an easy method of remembering a lot of information in a short period of time. In the next article we will review how to utilize your new mind palace by adding data in the form of mnemonic devices.

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