Memory Palaces

Under the Bed

Let’s face it. There are some things in life you just have to remember.

For instance, remembering where you put your car keys – that’s a biggie.  Remembering what time you are supposed to pick up your grandchild from soccer practice – that’s another one. But, what about remembering which president was in office in 1956? Or, remembering the name of that bone connected to the fibula? Or remembering which equation is needed to solve that algebra problem? Well. Those are biggies too. Especially if your standardized test score will allow people to make judgments about you for the rest of your life. states mnemonic devices “are techniques a person can use to help them improve their ability to remember something.” (Psych Central, 2016). It is probably easy to find a number of mnemonics you have tried in the past. For instance, who has not tried music or word associations or rhyming to remember names, places, persons or things to varying degrees of success?

Yet, despite the empirical evidence gathered by researcher Jennifer A. McCabe and many others, even undergraduate psychology students are hesitant to use mnemonics to improve their memory of key phases and concepts. This clearly indicates the decision to use memory devices is one of motivation – not behavioral (McCabe, 2015)

To build upon this point, my Instructional Systems Design I professor required my classmates and I to test the benefits of one of the oldest mnemonic devices known to man: Method of Loci (MoL). Extensive studies over the last 40 years have defined MoL, sometimes referred to a Memory Palaces, as the process of imagining an ordered list along a well-known route then attributing things to be remembered with objects or items one would encounter while traveling this well-known journey (McCabe, 2015).

To test MoL, we were challenged to, first, relax, then imagine a room in our home. (I chose my bedroom) Then, in absolute silence and with our eyes closed, we were challenged to identify every item and piece of furniture in that room from every angle. We were even charged to remember the lighting in corners and crevices. We then had to step outside the door of that room and place a mental image of our perception of ‘community values,’ ‘outcomes,’ and ‘practices’ on the front door of that room. The images had to be distinct (In my case, I associated “community values” with the face of a high school student looking up helplessly from the pages of a textbook that he could not read), then walk through the door. We then had to associate something we imagined on the front door with an item in the room we know so well. (I imagined seeing the face of the student holding out the book in his hands from under my bed).

Did it work? I think so because, about ten minutes later, I walked into my bedroom and my eyes were immediately drawn to my bed wondering if a pair of desperate eyes were peeking at me from under my bed. He was asking me why he cannot read that book. Yes. It worked.

When asked how I could use this cognitive activity to improve my instructional design efforts, I think I learned that the theories expressed by E. Bruce Goldstein in his book, Cognitive Psychology” are right in that memory must be constructive, or associated with something that actually happened in our past to be burned permanently into our psyche (Goldstein, 2015). While substitute teaching, I had actually seen the face of that child, or one like him, staring at me obstinately because he did not think that I knew that he could not read that book on his desk.

This exercise with MoL alerted me to the need to ensure I embed the use of mnemonic devices in my instructional design materials. While MoL might not always be the most appropriate device, I must consider what strategies I could add within the instructor’s job aides that would encourage him/her to use memorization for germane intrinsic cognitive load as a strategy to support personalized learning for their students. In instructional design, this could include adding dramaturgical learner outcomes developed to assess if the learners committed learning to long-term memory.

Hopefully, such efforts would help me and my peers get that kid from under my bed so I can get some sleep.


Goldstein, E. B. (2015). Cognitive psychology (4th ed. ed.). Stamford, Conn: Cengage Learning.

McCabe, J. A. (2015). Location, location, location! demonstrating the mnemonic benefit of the method of loci. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 169-173. doi:10.1177/0098628315573143

Psych Central. (2016). Memory and Mnemonic Devices. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10,

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