How To Study Anatomy: Memory Palace

On a calm and pleasantly warm evening in Thessaly, Greece, Simonides (c. 556 - c. 468 B.C.E.) attended a banquet to read a praising poem he had written for the host. Right after the performance, he stepped out of the hall for some minor business, and the roof of the hall collapsed. Bodies of all the guests were crushed under rubble – disfigured beyond recognition. 

Simonides identified all the disfigured victims based on where they had sat – recalling it from his visual memory. That's the origin story of the "memory palace" or the "method of loci" technique. If this man could use it to improve his memory daily, you can surely use it to remember what you've learned.

In this article, we'll dive into a detailed example for using the memory palace method for remembering all the cranial nerves. We've also made a general overview of how to improve your anatomy studies. Explore it here.


Memory palace for anatomy learning (method of loci)

The "memory palace" or the "method of loci" can be used to remember all sorts of information, not just anatomy. The basis of this technique is imagining a familiar location – like your home, for example. Can you imagine it vividly?

Visualize yourself walking through this location – standing at the entrance door, opening the door, walking through the entrance, going to the living room, kitchen, bedrooms, etc. As you walk through these rooms, you place images of the things you want to remember along your way. 

To do that successfully you have to transform terms into objects or creatures that you can place in the physical space of your home. Preferably these objects will be something that you can instantly associate with the term you're trying to remember. Associations created by one person won't always work for others.

To make associations easier to remember, you can make them gruesome or even sexual – turns out our brain tends to remember such things much better. It would help if you also included as much sensory information connected with these images as possible - smells, sounds, textures.

Let's say you have just used the to learn about the location and functions of the cranial nerves. You find yourself mixing up the order in which the nerves go from I to XII. An alternative to remembering the nerve sequence would be to use a mnemonic as seen on the But with the memory palace technique, you can add more information – like the skull opening they travel through, etc. – later.


Put together your “to-do” list of cranial nerves

Firstly, let's list all the cranial nerves:

  • I - Olfactory
  • II - Optic
  • III - Oculomotor
  • IV -Trochlear
  • V -Trigeminal with three parts
    • V1 - Ophthalmic division
    • V2 - Maxillary division
    • V3 - Mandibular division 
  • VI - Abducens
  • VII - Facial
  • VIII - Vestibulocochlear
  • IX - Glossopharyngeal
  • X - Vagus
  • XI - Accessory
  • XII - Hypoglossal


Example of a memory palace filled with cranial nerves 

So now imagine you're standing in the doorway of your house. You put your hand on the doorknob and open the door. Immediately to your right, you see a big pile of bags and a police dog going around them, sniffing through the bags, looking for drugs. He even barks at you when he sees you, and you get a bit startled. But after a moment, he returns to sniffing. This will be the first cranial nerve - the olfactory nerve

Then you see that right behind it a giant owl is sitting on a hook where you usually put your coat. The owl is staring at the dog with its big, wide eyes and then it suddenly looks at you. The size of its eyes surprises you. This is the second nerve - the optic nerve

Then you notice that there are metal strings attached to both sides of the owl's head – they lead to the living room. You walk into the living room and see that these strings connect to a big motor. It's huffing and puffing with smoke coming out from one side. It is moving the strings back and forth, making the owl move its head and therefore - where it is pointing its eyes. This corresponds to the third nerve - the oculomotor nerve

The next nerve can be a bit tricky because the word "trochlea" is not an easy association. For me, it associates only with anatomy, due to the trochlear nerve and also the trochlea of the humerus. I imagine seeing a friend coming in from the next room. Due to the smoke coming from the motor, he does not see where he is going.

Knowing that the trochlea of the humerus is located in the elbow, I imagine him tripping on the side of the motor and falling right on his elbow, screaming in pain. He looks at you and shouts that he needs your help because he probably has broken his trochlea (in this scenario, he is also a medical student) - the trochlear nerve

You panic but then remember about the med-kit in the closet behind him. You run to the door and suddenly see a bright light coming from it. It's so bright that it almost blinds you. When you get closer, you notice that there are three beautiful gems on the door, reflecting the sunlight coming in from the window (three gems - trigeminal). This corresponds to the fifth cranial nerve - the trigeminal nerve

As you open the door, you then see three more doors behind it. All these doors are weirdly shaped - the shape of a V. You don't remember where the med-kit is located. You rush to the first door, but then you hit your eye with the corner of the door. It's super painful, and you feel your eye starting to water. This is the first branch of the trochlear nerve - ophthalmic division (V1).

When you see that the medical kit is not there, you rush to the other door. Being so clumsy, on the second door, you now hit your cheek and upper teeth, knocking two teeth out of their sockets. This is the second branch - maxillary division (V2).

After seeing that there is no med-kit there either, you rush to the last door. You're trying to be super careful this time, and you only manage to scrape your chin on the side of the door - mandibular division (V3). It's bleeding down your neck, but finally – you see the medical kit. 

You grab it to rush back to your friend, but turning around you see something blocking your exit. You can't believe your eyes because it's a duck with full six-pack abs doing crunches (ab-du-cens - abducens nerve). When you step over the duck, you forget about your friend and walk to the kitchen. 

There you see your mom painting by the window - it's a giant face she has drawn (facial nerve). She drops her brush suddenly and rushes to the closet. 

She pulls out a large, bright yellow life-vest and puts it on, giving one to you, too (vest - vestibulocochlear nerve). 

You walk out of the kitchen and towards the second floor. But on the stairs, you see one step that is so shiny and glossy that you can see your reflection in it. At this angle, you manage to see only your throat (glossopharyngeal nerve). 

You then walk into your bedroom. The first thing you see is a giant poster of the female genital organs on the wall (vagal nerve). You get shy, close the door, and walk to your parent's bedroom. 

There you find your dad by a counter made of wood. He is selling all kinds of mobile phone accessories (accessory nerve). 

Suddenly you see a bright light coming from the corner of the room. You look and see a hippopotamus floating in the air and glowing in a very bright circle of light (Hipo-glo - hypoglossal nerve). 

This concludes our imaginative tour through the cranial nerve house illustrating the process of creating a memory palace. Keep in mind that all of these associations may not work for you, so you need to come up with your own. Place some more objects in every room if you wish, filling them before moving on to the next one. After you have remembered all these nerves in the correct order, start placing extra objects on or around them to remember their origin, function, etc.