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Virtual Reality Memory Palaces

The ancient mnemonic “Method of Loci” has been in use for thousands of years. From memory competitors to students, the method helps to memorise items by combining visual and spatial cues. Many have perhaps heard of the technique through popular TV shows such as Sherlock or Hannibal, where their “Mind Palaces” or “Memory Palaces” are portrayed as a genius trait. The real method, however, is perfectly simple. And if you own a VR headset, it is even easier.

But before we discuss how we can create our own Memory Palaces, or Mind Palaces, in VR, we should first discuss what a Memory Palace in fact is? In order to perform the method, you need a location; real or virtual. It should be a place you know well, for instance, your apartment or an environment from your favourite game. You further isolate several rooms, and sub-parts of those rooms, that amount to the number of things you want to recall. Next, you may want to have a certain route which you mentally walk through your Memory Palace. This is where the method comes in: you visualise what you want to recall at the given places in your Mind Palace. Need to go shopping? Imagine coffee beans poured out on the floor, orange juice cartons in the sofa, and bananas hanging on the TV. If you need to recall something more abstract, you can get creative and use the visualisation as an association to what you want to recall instead.

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Hannibal illustration. Virtual Reality Memory Palace.

This method is believed to be powerful because of the combination of information with visual cues (the visualisation of the memory items), and spatial cues (their given place in the environment). Curiously, however, this exploitation of the visual and spatial cues in the brain, does not involve our vision, or true perception of spatial three-dimensional spaces at all — only through our “inner eye” and our already-established memory of spatial environments. VR, however, may change this. Instead of adhering to the Memory Palace as something just residing in our minds, we may immerse ourselves in it, making it external as well as internal.

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“Get out — I need to go to my Mind Palace”. Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock  — Quite busy in his Memory Palace. Illustration of by edthatch.

Adapting the Memory Palace technique is thus a perfect task for the medium of Immersive Virtual Reality. With VR, we can perform this method with raw, fresh vision that gives us both the visual and spatial aspects of our Memory Palace. In VR, we are provided with a highly optimizable visuospatial environment made of software, which gives us the opportunity to tailor the Memory Palaces to our own needs. By exploiting the visuospatial elements of the Method of Loci in a much more explicit sense,  the method may perhaps work even better, or be more fun and easy to use.

Extending our Minds through Virtual Reality

Addressing this, I created a VR memory palace app as part of my master’s thesis, which has been continued through my PhD. The notion that we may extend our minds into the virtual, employing virtual tools that eventually will constitute the organization of our minds, is a potential great endeavour for Virtual Reality.

But that is enough talk for now. Let’s get practical. We have created two videos below at our YouTube channel called AltVR. In the first one, we show you an example of a VR Memory Palace, where we detail its conceptual underpinnings.

In the second video below, we show you how you can create your own Virtual Reality Memory Palace on almost any VR headset. Hopefully, this can stimulate others to experiment with how we can extend our minds in Virtual Reality. We would love to hear what you end up creating!

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Top illustration based on “Mind Attic” by wonderful artist Tisserande. Original version without Head-Mounted Display can be found here.

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