Memory Palaces – Long term vs Short term

May 30, 2021

Recently I was on the ABC podcast “All in The Mind” with Sana Qadar. You can listen to “The making of a magnificent memory” here.

One of the topics we touched on was learning for short vs long term using memory techniques.

In this blog I expand on some differences in using memory palaces to keep in mind (pardon the pun) when remembering for the long term.

This is a common need, for example when learning a language or a poem.


Learning long term


Memory places are the key to long term memorisation of large amounts of information. You can read about them in other blogs on this site.

So what is the difference in how we use a Memory Palace when we want to learn for the long term?

1.  Choose a palace that has a relationship to the information. This makes it easier, but it isn’t essential.

2.  You can build the palace on the way

3.  Periodic revision is required on a spaced schedule


1. The palace is selected with a relationship to the information


Choosing a palace relevant to the information makes for easier recall. Making these obvious connections allows you to jump straight to the start of the information, rather than searching your memory until you find some association or hook. This becomes ever more important as the number of long term palaces you have increases.

For example, Taekwondo terminology is kept at the training dojang. You might have to get creative…want to learn cooking terminology? Maybe place them in the kitchen of a friend who is a good cook.

Any palace can also be associated with your subject matter by simply placing an icon or trigger at the start of it. For example, French recipes may be in a palace that is a normal house, but you put a big croissant at the front door that you need to step over it every time you revise.

If you can’t find a connection between the palace and the detail to be stored, don’t stress – just use a place or location you know well.


2. You can build the palace on the way


The second point about long term learning using memory palaces is you can build the palace at the time you place the information. You don’t have to take the time to first detail all the locations inside a palace. Instead you simply choose a relevant palace from your list of potential palaces and start at the front of that palace. Position the first piece of information, decide the next location, place the next piece there and continue. As always, resist the urge to insert the locations too far apart.

While building the detailed locations into the palace first is not normally needed, there are exceptions when you might pre-prepare a palace in detail. For example, when attending a workshop where you know you will come across lots of long term information that you want to place as you hear it.

During revision for long term memory palaces you need to not only check you can parrot back the detail but also take time to check you understand its meaning. Sometimes remembering information is so quick using a memory palace that you may skip this step, resulting in remembering more but with a decreased understanding. You can have both, but you need to do both steps while revising.


3. Periodic revision is required


Research has confirmed that if you want to learn information for the long term, spaced repetition or revision is required.

How much revision tends to vary somewhat between people, within a standard range, but it follows a pattern. I find that the following schedule tends to be enough for many students to hold a high percentage of the information for long term.


Example revision schedule for memory palaces


  • Immediately after creating the memory palace
  • on the same day
  • on the next day
  • a few days later
  • at one week
  • at one month
  • 6 months later


There is one immediate review plus six further reviews. This is a general guide so test yourself, record your results in Excel and confirm your own schedule.

Although this sounds like a lot of work, each revision may not take long – it often only takes a few minutes to visually walk through a palace. As always, if a term or detail isn’t sticking when you do the review, adjust that image or story, or even change it completely.


Revision schedule for other recall methods


If the information is not in a memory palace it still requires revision. Let’s say you are remembering words and their meanings but haven’t put them in a palace. The word can still be remembered using the image and story techniques, but is held ‘stand-alone’, without being in a palace.

Revision can be through keeping a written list that you refer to or through using flashcards. Automation works well here – the flashcard software called Anki allows automated revision schedules, and can be used from your phone. You can create a ‘deck’ of flashcards with a word on one side, and its meaning on the other side. The software offers up a set of words each day, and you indicate how well you recall it. Worse recall puts the word on a higher repeat priority.

Even if you drop your review schedule that doesn’t mean you are going to forget all the detail, you just lose some of the information long term.

After the first set of long term revision has been done, the details will fade over years, but review of the palace will bring all or most of the information back. This is an excellent benefit of memory palaces – your information libraries are never truly lost. So it is a good idea to have a long term learning list on your excel sheet with the palace and what information is in it.


Learning for the medium term


Often information is only needed for the medium term. An example of this would be a meeting presentation you need to give once, or a university exam in a few weeks for material that you don’t require afterwards.

In this scenario a memory palace is still normally the best tool, and some revision is still required. Choose a memory palace from your list of long term palaces, as without the full revision schedule this palace will be available for re-use on the long term list in a few months.

Revise this medium term list immediately after creating the memory palace, later the same day, the next day, in three days and again at a week. So the immediate review plus four. And then perhaps one more revision just before you need it, for example the night before the exam or presentation. After that you need never revise it again, so over time the details will fade from the palace and it will likely be able to be re-used in a few months without confusion the old information. Even with this disassociation from the palace over time, a lot of the details are likely to still be retained.


Learning for the short term


The key difference is the amount of revision.

For short term retention your ‘short term palaces often come into play. These are familiar, well-practiced palaces with rehearsed locations that allow you to quickly store new details. A set of such palaces should be in your memory arsenal – around five of them will likely be enough, each with around 30-40 locations. If your short-term data is longer, you can join two palaces together with a story.

The details are not revised past the initial learning session or two, so they fade quickly, and the palace normally can be re-used without confusion after a few days. As it will be discarded the subject matter also normally doesn’t need recording in your lists, although keeping a record of what day you used a short-term palace still yields useful data.

And a memory palace doesn’t have to be used for shorter lists – a series of images with linked stories will usually be enough.

So there you have it – long or short, you can build a home for your information.

Interested in learning more memory techniques? Improve your memory with my online Master Your Memory course.

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