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The Science Behind Sherlock’s Memory Palace

 

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Posted February 2, 2014 by

The Science of the Memory Palace

memory palace

How could anyone hold as much information as Charles Magnussen held in his head without having their brain shut down? Sherlock is pretty much taking down supervillians now. Apparently even Moriarty has regenerative powers. The real trick is the blackmailing news maven doesn’t need to have wifi glasses or the mind of Braniac or M.O.D.O.K to recall information that well. ‘The idea of a ‘memory palace’ is a real and rather ancient technique that anyone can use to dramatically expand and organize their memory. You can memorize pi to a hundred digits or memorize a shuffled deck of cards, if you just understand the power of the loci method.

 

The Loci Method

memory palace

Not Loki… loci.

Loci is the plural of locus, a latin term meaning location. The Greek philosopher Quintilian first described this technique in Institutio Oratoria in 95 CE, as a popular method to remember large speeches. They didn’t have PowerPoint back then, and paper was scarce especially amongst the poor. This meant that the scholars and businessmen were forced to memorize speeches, documents, or entire books. When Fahrenheit 451 comes, will you be prepared?

How Does it Work?

The entire process is really about creating a sort of shortcut between your short and long term memory. Shortening the encoding and retrieval loop that you must run to encode an idea in your brain.

  • You begin by memorizing a route that you know really well. (e.g. your morning routine around the house)
  • Think of various points along the way, these are going to be your anchors in your long term memory.

Example.

  1. As I rise out of bed in the morning I see my black wood nightstand and a Wish You Were Here poster on the wall.
  2. I walk across the middle of my room past my blue office chair to the alarm and shut it off.
  3. Then, I circle the nightstand, open the door to the hallway, and hit the light switch.
  • Nightstand, Wish You Were Here poster, blue office chair, alarm, door, and light switch are the anchors in that example. The more descriptive the anchors, the better.
  • Run through that routine a few times to make sure you have the items in the correct order every time.
  • Now – take whatever it is your trying to remember and find ways to associate it with the different anchor points. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. The easiest way involves just straight recall between the image and the term.
  • More advanced users often use pictures to enhance the connection.
  • Be sure to take a moment to rehearse, repeat, and retrace your steps as you develop each anchor to strengthen the association.

Example –  I’m trying to memorize the lyrics to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

  1. As I rise out of bed in the morning I see my black wood nightstand with a baby on it. Instead of Wish You Were Here the poster says West Philadelphia. (In West Philadelphia born and raised)
  2. The walk across the middle of my room past the blue office chair which is sitting on a concrete slab with the markings of a basketball court instead of carpet. (On the playground was where I spent most of my days)
  3. My alarm ringtone as I shut it off is Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (Chillin out maxin and relaxin all cool)
  4. The doorknob on the door is now a basketball. (And all shootin some b-ball outside of the school)

 Elementary, my dear Watson…

Once you have your route down, with only an hour of practice, any normal person can memorize those shuffled cards or digits of pi. You can have as many hallways, rooms, and vaults defended by alligator infested moats as you can remember to create chains. According to Wikipedia, “The 2006 World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house for his world record in “number half marathon,” memorizing 1040 random digits in a half hour.”

This is all what just normal people can do, so maybe memory savants like a certain high functioning sociopath and a cranially challenged news maven could do truly amazing things.

As Sherlock Holmes says in A Study in Scarlet,

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

In the books, he wasn’t even aware the earth revolved around the sun, considering it irrelevant knowledge to crime solving.

My attic is too full of cat pictures, random movie trivia, and now the lyrics to The Fresh Prince to be of much use. Thankfully its not about what is scattered up there, but how you navigate it that matters.

For More Sherlock, Check out our reviews of episodes 12, and as well as 4 Things We Want from Sherlock Season 4

(1) – http://remembereverything.org/memory-palace-the-method-of-loci/

(2) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci

 



Jeremy Dawson

 
Writer from Lexington, KY


5 Comments


  1.  
    Nathan Gifford

    …when a couple of guys who were up to no good started making trouble in my neighborhood.




  2.  
    Lynn
    B+

    ‘Locus’ is a Latin word, not Greek, and Quintilian was Roman, not Greek. Also, this memory technique was described even earlier by Cicero in about 50 bce. People in the ancient world didn’t memorize things because there was a shortage of paper, they memorized things because people had always done so before the discovery of paper-making reached their particular little corner of the world. We have, in fact, lost much of this ability owing to our dependence on written and digital media.

    But an entertaining and informative article.




  3.  

    Good points Lynn! That was a brain fart to write Greek instead of Latin. Where did you see that Cicero mentioned the technique earlier? That’s fascinating.

    I was using paper as a simplified example. Obviously the oral tradition has been around far longer and was the dominant means of communicating and storing info. We probably would barely recognize what they used as paper today anyways!

    Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for the fact check :)




    •  
      Lynn

      np. Cicero wrote about it in the De Oratore, or perhaps the De Oratione, I forget which. I read it decades ago for a class in grad school.




  4.  
    Odysseus
    B+

    Very good article…of course Quintilian was not Greek otherwise he would have written his essays in greek…

    However one could say that he was “Greek” because when he was sent to Rome to study, he immersed himself in the greek corpus of knowledge that was common and prevalent at the time…this is where he learned about the loci method…

    Simonides of Ceos, a Greek lyric poet is credited with the invention of the loci method, claiming that he first thought of it after a roof collapsing incident that killed all the guests in a banquet that he attended for a while…because the bodies where not recognizable the authorities called him and he had to remember the location of each guest at the table at the time of his leaving the party !!!

    Of course one could just NOT believe his anecdote and speculate that this method was handed over to him by his teachers as a means of helping him to recite long passages of poetry so if this is true the reality would most likely be that the method was a professional secret known only to rhetors, poets, philosophers and historians while his “invention” could be called breaking the silence and popularizing a method that was declining in popularity because at the time it was much easier to write script in various media more or less permanent !!!

    If one really wanted to track down the birth of the method he would probably have to go back in periods of history when writting in parchment or papyri was NOT common and other means of permanent writting was too dificult to consider…

    Anyway…its a pity that most likely we will never know the answer !





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