How to Make Memory Palaces in Medical School

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How to Memorize Information for your Medical School Exams

 

Sherlock, the BBC series, is perhaps the most popular depiction of the memory palace. Its realism is, shall we say, variable. In this show, Sherlock walks through his beautiful, literal, palace of memories to recall essentially any piece of information he has ever learned. He encodes facts with no effort the moment he sees or learns anything, and indeed can walk through his palace to completely relive the events of a previous day start-to-finish.

 

While it may not be this effortless for you, in this blog post we will walk through how to make a memory palace for learning that’s quick and that sticks. 

 

What can I expect from a memory palace?

  • Durable memorization of detailed concepts; learning that you retain strongly over time
  • More time front-loading to memorize the information, but less effort remembering it once you’ve put that initial time in

 

What should I not expect from a memory palace?

  • Magical recall of facts with no effort
  • Benedict Cumberbatch’s exquisitely contoured cheekbones
  • Only needing to learn information once. As with any method of memorizing, from flashcards to lectures to test questions, you’ll need to go over concepts you want to learn well more than once!

 

What are the steps in creating a memory palace?

 

  1. Imagine a place you’re familiar with. This could be a mall you used to visit, a friend’s house you’ve spent plenty of time in, your high school, or any of a million other places.
  2. Create images that encode the information you want to remember. We’ll go over how to do this below.
  3. Place the images in the place, along a pathway you can “walk along” in your mind.

 

Note: Step 3 is simply a way of organizing the images; it’s like writing down your notes on non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas in one page of your notebook, and your notes on antibiotic coverage in other. Deciding to write lymphomas on page 10 and antibiotics on page 26 doesn’t make a difference for the information you’re remembering; it’s just convenient! In the same way, putting your images for NHL (“okay, this bicycle will represent the cyclin gene!”) in your high school math classroom is just a way of getting that image to stick somewhere, not a way to change the information you’re memorizing with that image.

 

 

How to Encode Information into Images  (Creating a Memory Palace)

 

The vast majority of students we’ve worked with at Elite Medical Prep have used and enjoyed Sketchy Medical, and the process behind encoding information here is exactly the same as in SM! The idea here is to create a visual vocabulary (memory palace) that is distinct and fun – something you enjoy making, something that will stick in your mind, something that clearly represents the information you’re memorizing. For instance, as stated above, a bicycle could represent the cyclin gene. As you create more images, though, most memory experts recommend using very distinct or unsual images, as those are the most memorable. General guidelines include:

 

  1. Use weird images. Which is more memorable, a cardboard box in your living room, or a cow covered in spaghetti plummeting through the ceiling?
  2. Use graphic or inappropriate images. This can mean things that are gory or otherwise R-rated. Remember, these images are for you! You don’t have to share them if you don’t want to. And say what you will, but lascivious or violent images tend to stick in your head.
  3. Use BIG images. When you’re imagining a room in a house, a gigantic bicycle that just shattered your front door will be more memorable than one simply leaning against the wall. This is all about making things stick in your head.

 

And one guideline to avoid:

  1. Don’t reuse the same image. You want to maintain an unambiguous visual vocabulary, so keeping things clear will help with your memorization.

 

Now let’s walk through an example of how to encode these by creating a mnemonic for Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome. We’re going to make images that represent the following information:

  • The name of the syndrome
  • WAS is a mutation in the WASp gene
  • The disorder is characterized by actin disorganization
  • The WATER mnemonic is often used to remember “Wiskott-Aldrich: Thrombocytopenia, Eczema, Recurrent infections.” We will encode this mnemonic.

 

Now, let’s get started!

 

  • For our first image we begin with a giant whisk to remember Whisk-ott Aldrich. 
  • In fact, let’s make this image a little bit odd and a little more memorable by making it into two whisks hanging from a swingset. I’m going to use the playground from my old elementary school as my location for this. 
  • I will now imagine a twenty-foot-long wasp crawling onto the swingset, crushing it. This represents the WASp gene
  • Ah, but the wasp is being stopped from destroying my childhood by a huge web of yellowish threads. (NOTE: This is specific to me: in my images, big yellow threads represent actin. There’s no inherent reason why actin must be this image, but just as Sketchy uses bow ties for thyroid, I use yellow threads consistently for actin. This is simply part of my visual vocabulary.)
  • Now I imagine a large beach next to my swingset, with the sand made of thousands of tiny plates. This represents WATER, while reinforcing thrombocytopenia: in my visual vocabulary, plates = platelets.

 

All of the images are big, as straightforward as possible, and directly connect to their meaning.

 

That’s all for this post! While memorizing information will not be enough to ace your medical school exams, it certainly will help you in creating a strong knowledge foundation that you can draw from when it comes time to think critically. If you need help with your medical school exams or creating memory palaces for foundational knowledge, you can reach out to us here. Happy studying!

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About the Author

Caleb McEntire, MD

In 2010, Caleb McEntire graduated Magna Cum Laude from Brown University with his Sc.B. in Cognitive Neuroscience. After working in several other fields including food…

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