Building Our Mental Palaces

Hans Husmann, Contributor

Hans Husmann (MBA ’22) shares his way of taking the transformational journey at HBS, one mental image at time.

Pursuing your MBA at HBS will be a transformative experience. From the moments of epiphany during a great class visit to the explicit message during the Dean’s welcome, the school is not short on emphasizing this fact. When considering coming to HBS, I realized that the case method was the fundamental part of this transformation. The idea of not being lectured and instead discovering insights through 500 case discussions seemed extraordinary. However, I was not clear on how that would tangibly contribute to the transformation. Would my way of thinking evolve through the discussions or would actual takeaways from the individual cases remain with me throughout my (professional) life? Speaking with alumni, I received rather mixed feedback on the lasting impact of the cases. “A few outrageous LEAD cases are all that I remember,” said one alumnus. Another alumnus, an entrepreneur, explained how she returned to relevant cases each time she was challenged with a new problem. In the past, I was often frustrated by moments where I felt I had gained a real understanding of something only to forget it about a good week later. I hoped the HBS cases would not be the same.

While moving out of my apartment in Berlin, I stumbled across a dusty edition of Moonwalking with Einstein by the journalist Joshua Foer. In the book, Foer describes his own journey to the U.S. national memory competition  (spoiler alert) which he manages to win, by diving deep into ancient memory techniques. Self-described as an “average intelligent person with a short memory,” he learns various mnemonics techniques to improve his memory. Central to his toolbox is the “method of loci”, also known as the “use of mental palaces”. Back in the non-digital world of ancient Rome, the great orators such as Cicero would remember whole speeches by mentally placing images of their main arguments within known places. While giving speeches they could just “walk” along a route through their mental palaces to recite their well-thought out arguments in perfect logical order. In the absence of book printing, the ability to remember vast amounts of information was seen as a virtue. Modern research in neuroscience now confirms the unimaginable capability of our brain to remember information through images and spatial memory.

With my summer travel plans canceled due to Covid-19, I decided to re-read the book. Previously, I had read it during preparations for my high school final exams. Back then, I gave the method a try for my history exams. Whenever I struggled to support an argument with a concrete fact during the exam, I would close my eyes and walk through the Reichstag in Berlin (the mental palace I had used). Even as I write these lines, almost a decade later, I am able to go back to my mental palace from high school and recall all the wars, treaties and random dates that I learnt about using various images. This feature of the method continues to amaze me. For a person like me, who was convinced of having average memory, it felt as close to magic as possible.

Serendipitously,  I re-discovered the book at the right time. Returning to business school after a few years in the “real world,” I decided to use the mental palaces method again. In fact, I feel HBS cases are made for mental palaces filled with memorable scenes: polarizing emotions, strong characters and physical products.

To make the abstract more concrete, here is how you can give the method a try yourself:

    1. Decide how you structure your individual palaces. Ideally you know your mental palace fairly well. You can use both real places or imaginary places, if you really liked Inception. I, for example, use a different individual building on campus by class—for example, LEAD is in Baker, with the different sections of the reading room serving as areas for the different modules and individual tables containing single cases.
    2. Add images as you go case by case. I will try to transfer the 2-3 main insights from the case discussion to my mental palace every day. This process takes a bit of creativity, as facts, frameworks and statements need to be converted into images. Pictures of the case protagonist and products usually are a good starting point for a simple and memorable short scene.
    3. Make facts and statements as vivid as possible. If the case is very framework-heavy and conceptual, it can get harder to come up with an image. Even then, I would try to avoid storing frameworks/formulas as only pictures in the mental palace. When it is difficult  to remember something, I usually lean on the strongest emotions and most bizarre image possible.
  • Take some notes and revisit from time to time. I tend to write down the insight with the basic images in a Google doc with a simple blueprint of the mental palace. Although the idea is to not refer back to any notes at all, the manifestation of the images still takes some time and repetition—I encourage you to read up on the idea of “forgetting curve” to learn more about this method.

A few  months into my RC journey I am thankful to have rediscovered these tools to navigate the academic journey of HBS. I did learn that the promised transformation has many nuances, but I am happy that my sloppy memory receives some support from the mental palaces I have built. While all of this may sound very cumbersome (and arguably a bit crazy), I dare you to give it a try for a week’s worth of cases. Perhaps it will  become a great study tool for your exams or  perhaps it will be an even greater asset beyond. Moreover, wouldn’t it be nice to remember what particular thoughts transformed you during your academic journey at HBS? To encounter a challenge in your business and refer to your mental palace of case learnings to decide what to do or even more importantly, what not to do?

Hans Husmann (MBA ’22) joins HBS from Berlin, after traveling the world with a certain consulting company from Boston. Having grown up on the Baltic Sea, he is an avid water sports fan and still thinks Boston winters are going to be just fine.