How to remember like Sherlock Holmes

My memory isn’t great, but for the most part it feels like it doesn’t really matter. Who needs to remember when we have the ability to note things down and look things up without any effort? Our phones and our computers are our memories!

Nonetheless, I was interested to learn a bit more about how memorisation works. I did a lot of reading on the subject — below is part of what I found, the rest is on my memorisation homepage.

Discovering the mind palace

I’d heard Sherlock talk about his ‘mind palace’ in the Hound of Baskerville episode of the BBC series and wondered whether it was actually a real technique.

I took to google and discovered that the mind palace is most definitely real and is also known as the ‘memory palace’ or the Method of Loci.

The Method of Loci is a mnemonic, a method used for aiding memorisation.

You may well have used mnemonics before — ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ is an example of a mnemonic used to memorise the colours of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). The Method of Loci is simply a far more developed variant of the same idea.

The method, to briefly explain, involves linking every item that needs to be remembered to a physical location. Each physical location is a place in your ‘mind palace’ — an actual building (it could be more simple than a palace, such as your own house) that you know very well.

You create vivid images to represent the items to be remembered and ‘place’ the item in a specific location in the building. When you need to remember the items, you can recall them in order by ‘walking through’ the building in your mind.

The method behind the madness

The idea is to use your spatial recognition to assist in remembering random items. We’ve evolved to be pretty great at navigating familiar terrains and buildings — before maps existed, being able to find your way home could have meant the difference between life and death.

The memory palace, in theory, allows us to use this innate ability that we possess to remember lists of items, random digits or pretty much anything else that we like.

I wasn’t totally convinced, so I looked a little further for evidence that it actually worked.

Real-life proof

The first thing that I discovered was that the Method of Loci (and other similar mnemonic techniques) are most definitely not modern inventions.

Before the invention of the printing press, memorisation was a highly valued (and widely taught) skill. Roman orators such as Cicero used the Method of Loci to memorise the key points of their (often incredibly long) speeches.

With hand-written books expensive and few in number, the ability to remember the content of books was incredibly important. The same book was read over and over, the content becoming understood incredibly deeply and often memorised.

Although we now have immediate access to endless numbers of books, there is far less of a focus on understanding the content deeply.

There are, however, still groups of people who value their memories very highly. One such group is the memory athletes…

The athletics of memory

I recently picked up a copy of Moonwalking with Einstein, a book which details journalist Josh Foer’s attempt to win the USA Memory Championship.

Josh Foer’s TED talk provides a great introduction to the story, and to memory sports in general. It does have some spoilers for the book but they really don’t spoil it — I watched the video before reading the book.

Even if you don’t have any interest in improving your ability to remember lists of items or random numbers, the video and the book suggest some pretty compelling reasons why we should all value our memories a little more than we currently do.

The most compelling point for me was the idea that memorisation, learning and creativity are deeply intertwined.

We learn through memorising concepts to the point that we can recall them intuitively.

We create by taking seemingly disparate memories and finding a link between them — whether it be through a story, a piece of art or even an invention.

Without a deep and vivid store of memories, our abilities to learn and to create are weakened.

I’m certainly going to be valuing my memory more highly in future.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about how our memories work, check out my memorisation homepage. Go to the actions section for a guide to trying out the Method of Loci for yourself!

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Originally published at Find A Spark.