UNDERSTANDING HOW SHERLOCK HOLMES IMPROVES HIS MEMORY AND HOW YOU CAN DO THE SAME USING ‘THE MIND PALACE’ METHOD
Sherlock Holmes is a man unlike any other. You will know that no matter which version of Sherlock Holmes you have encountered. Sherlock’s mind appears to work in ways that we cannot even comprehend. If you, like me, are a dedicated fan of BBC Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, you have marvelled at everything the man does. From his inability to be polite to his mind-blowing deduction skills, one thing that stuck out to me about Sherlock is his incredible capacity to remember.
Sherlock has a name for this extraordinary remembering skill he possesses as well- he calls it his Mind Palace. Sherlock’s Mind Palace, as his friend Watson explains it, is a mental map or location where he stores memories that he considers to be important and can visit anytime he needs to retrieve them.
When the show finally shows us a glimpse into Sherlock’s Mind Palace, we see a building with a stairwell and a series of rooms. Each room is a different place- a morgue, his brother’s office, a padded cell- and they each hold people important to Sherlock. These people tell him the information he needs to know, which in this case is ‘how to survive being shot’.
The way Sherlock’s Mind Palace is depicted in the BBC show is very extravagant, so much so that you have to believe that no ordinary human can possess such a power. You may readily brush it off as something that can only happen on television. While, indeed, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has skills that seem too good to be true, building a Mind Palace is something that people can actually do.
What Sherlock calls the Mind Palace is a strategy that has been practiced from the time of ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, this memory technique, or ‘mnemonic’, goes by the name of the ‘method of loci’.
The strategy is quite simple. One must have a mental map of a specific location, and connect the information to be memorised to each of the items in that location. Later, the person can recall this stored information by just mentally walking through that location.
Most people who implement this memory strategy use locations with which they are familiar. However, it is also possible to completely imagine up a location to use as your mind palace, which is exactly what Sherlock appears to have done! While possible, it is more difficult to use imaginary locations for your Mind Palace than to use an existing, familiar one, since you now have to remember the details of the made-up location in addition to the information to be recalled.
As surreal as the concept of the Mind Palace appears, you too can practice this strategy to improve your memory of any information. Here’s how you can go about it.
Step 1: Choose a location
Picture a specific location. It can be any place that you are familiar with. The location could be your home, your apartment complex, your college campus, a familiar street, etc. This location is where you will store your memories.
To illustrate how this memory strategy works, I will choose the location of my Mind Palace to be my college building.
Step 2: Establish a route through your Mind Palace
Now that you have chosen the location of your Palace, visualise your route through that place. I imagine entering the college building- walking past security, passing the reception, crossing the basketball court, down the corridor until I finally reach the college canteen. Sure, there are other routes to reach the college canteen, but while building my Mind Palace, I will stick strictly to this route.
Step 3: Keep specific details in mind
When you walk through this route of your mental map, pay attention to certain specific details in that space, in sequence. For example, at the entrance, I notice the security guard checking our ID cards, and in the reception I make note of the receptionist.
Similarly, I keep note of other specific ‘landmarks’ in all the spots I will pass while walking down my route.
Step 4: Make associations
Now that you have mentally prepared your map, it’s time to furnish your mind palace. Take a list of items that you need to memorise. Let’s say, I have a list of art supplies I have to purchase. The list includes a paintbrush, canvas, yarn, glue and gold paint. To incorporate these items into my Mind Palace, I have to create links between the items and my route from the college entrance to the canteen. Here’s how I would go about it.
I walk up to the entrance. The watchman is standing there. Instead of his normal stick, though, he is holding a giant paintbrush in his hand.
I enter the reception area. As I walk, I notice that behind the receptionist’s table, instead of a wall, there is a huge colourful canvas, fluttering loudly because of the wind.
I walk onto the basketball court. Some students are playing basketball, but instead of a ball, they are playing with a big, brightly coloured ball of yarn. I watch someone dunk the yarn, and the yarn then bounces off the ground like a ball.
In the corridor, I notice that the floor is all white. When my foot lands on the white surface, I realise that the ‘white’ is actually glue. I imagine walking through the corridor, feeling the thick, slippery glue under my shoes.
Finally, I step into the canteen. I find that every corner of the canteen has been painted gold by someone. The gold is so bright it hurts my eyes.
This example might sound ridiculous, but it is effective. You will find that when you associate the information you must remember with the details in your Mind Palace, you are more likely to remember that information.
All you have to do is imagine yourself walking down your Mind Palace and simply locate the information where you placed it. When you ‘see’ these items in your Palace, you are in fact recalling that piece of information.
Your memory is further enhanced when the associations you create are exaggerated and absurd. The use of a Mind Palace enhances our memory because our brains are wired to remember images better than verbal information.
While many of us can only dream of being as intelligent, observant and witty as Sherlock Holmes, we can make it a reality to memorise information and recall that information the way the detective does. I personally intend to start using this technique so that I, too, can yell at people, 'Get out! I need to go to my mind palace.'