The Science of the 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
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.
- 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.
- I walk across the middle of my room past my blue office chair to the alarm and shut it off.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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)
- My alarm ringtone as I shut it off is Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (Chillin out maxin and relaxin all cool)
- 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,
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.