Did you know Sherlock Holmes holds the world record of most portrayed character in film and TV? Perhaps you were aware he’s been depicted more than 250 times by over 75 actors. But can you recall them all? If it wouldn’t break the fourth wall, the Mind Palace Technique is probably how Benedict Cumberbatch’s incarnation would memorise them with ease. Here’s how it works and what it takes to create our very own memory palace.
What Is a Mind Palace?
The Mind Palace Technique is a way of memorising people, objects, facts or ideas by creating mental images of them and picturing the items in an environment of our choice. Within the Sherlock genre, the Mind Palace has its origins in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original but was coined by the BBC series Sherlock. [Spoilers ahead]
Sherlock’s Mind Palace
The Mind Palace first appeared in the episode The Hounds of Baskerville, when Holmes throws Dr Watson and forensic pathologist Molly Hooper out of her lab to retreat to his Mind Palace. Here’s Watson explaining the idea to Molly (and the viewer):
It’s a memory technique, a sort of a mental map. You plot a map with a location — it doesn’t have to be a real place — and then you deposit memories there that, theoretically, you can never forget anything. All you have to do is find your way back to it.
Watching the scene, Sherlock’s technique seems to be a bit more than that, though. Holmes is seen sitting down, visualising clues, concepts, words and images. As he tries to find patterns and make sense of them all, Holmes recalls information, moves it around with his hands, matches it with other knowledge and discards or replaces items as if they were objects.
So rather than mere memorisation of puzzle pieces, the consulting detective’s Mind Palace also seems to enable him to order and structure his Stream of Consciousness. It appears to be a way of making sense of his messy thoughts; a way of thinking. In later episodes, how Sherlock experiences his Mind Palace is further revealed. In season 3, episode 3, His Last Vow, the detective has just been shot and needs to figure out a way to survive. We see his Mind Palace as a hallway, with various memories hidden behind doors.
What’s more, his memory palace is conceptualised as a place in which time slows down and he can interact with projections of his friends and family. This seems to either give him more time and resources to think and problem-solve, or it’s a mere visualisation of the speed with which Sherlock’s mind works. Either way, many features of Sherlock’s memory palace are rather unrealistic.
Our mind is a fascinating entity. In a way, we have two of them. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, one part of our brain is slow, logical and deliberate, the other one fast, emotional and intuitive with a tendency to take mental shortcuts. It almost seems like 21st century Sherlock is using his Mind Palace as a means to consolidate the two. To the very least, it’s quite different from what the character’s creator envisioned originally.
While there was no Mind Palace in the original, Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet introduced a remotely similar feature in 1887: the brain-attic. Bewildered by the eccentric detective’s lack of common knowledge, Watson prompts Holmes to explain his way of thinking to him (and the reader):
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. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.
He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
In other words, for the 19th-century gentleman, pieces of knowledge are tools and our capacity to store them is limited. So we should carefully choose what to commit to memory. This is deliberately tied in with the character’s quirky selective ignorance. According to Holmes, useless knowledge with no bearing on what he’s trying to accomplish is to be forgotten. He famously has no need to know let alone remember that the earth revolves around the sun. (Perhaps only if it ever became relevant to a case.)
Brain-Attic vs. Mind Palace
Comparing the two, the brain-attic seems to be more of a long-term principle. A way of knowledge management if you will. Known as the master of the art of reasoning and deduction, Doyle’s detective knew that seeing, observing and remembering are different things. We may walk up a flight of stairs every day but not be able to recall how many steps there are. Being conscious of our brain-attic, imagining it as a physical space, we can decide if and where to store this piece of information.
Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes has found similarities between the brain-attic and how our brain actually memorises information. Indeed, our minds continuously take in new information and discard outdated knowledge. Given the ever-changing nature of our memory, accessibility is paramount. As Konnikova explains, knowledge is only real and useful if it’s available to us when we need it. This makes Holmes’ brain-attic almost like an analogy for thought process optimisation, a means to prioritise and develop our thinking skills.
The Mind Palace, on the other hand, is depicted to be more situational. A dynamic short-term method of recollection and pattern-seeking that requires Sherlock to have some me-time. Sure the memories must’ve been put there at some point, but it’s almost like a problem-solving technique in and of itself. One that builds on the idea of the attic. He doesn’t just recall information, he seems to process it in his Mind Palace. I suppose the term also has a much better ring to it.
As Watson alludes to in the first Mind Palace scene, it also fits the rather self-absorbed and arrogant manner of the more modern Sherlock. And while there are parallels between our actual mind and the brain-attic, the way Watson describes the Mind Palace has striking similarities to a real mnemonic technique known as the method of loci.
The Method of Loci
The method of loci goes back to Ancient Greece. Similar to the Mind Palace, it’s all about remembering by location. Loci (sing: locus) is Latin for places. The story of the method’s invention is not only quite spectacular, but it also took place in a palace.
Poet Simonides of Ceos was a lucky man. It was during a banquet he attended when the building collapsed. The rubble buried everyone. Except for Simonides himself, who had just been called outside. The bodies of the banquet guests were unrecognisable. However, the poet was able to identify all of them by recalling the places where they sat at the table. The method of loci was born and later became a popular mnemonic device to remember speeches without having to use notes.
Today, the method of loci is still used by mnemonists, people who memorise long lists of data in memory competitions. Partially thanks to Sherlock, the ancient method has been known more widely as the mind palace or memory palace. Apart from its name, there’s another way Sherlock’s iteration takes the method of loci to the 21st century. Watson was correct. As shown by the latest research, the Mind Palace doesn’t have to be a real place.
In a study from 2012, scientists from the University of Alberta instructed three groups to commit lists of unrelated words to memory. One group used the method of loci with a familiar building. A second group was presented with a virtual structure on a computer screen to create their mental map. The control group didn’t use the method at all. Results showed that using a virtual location was just as effective as picturing items in a very familiar one. On top, those using the method of loci outperformed the control group. Reason enough to learn how the technique works.
How to Create Our Own Mind Palace
If we strip away the dramatisation, the method of loci and the Mind Palace Technique as described by Dr Watson are remarkably similar. Let’s create our own by breaking down the steps involved and memorising a set of Sherlock actors:
- Pick an environment, real or virtual. It can be a building, a hallway, a street, perhaps a location from a fond memory. Make sure your personal Mind Palace is reasonably complex to provide enough unique locations for the items you want to remember.
- Take a walk through your mental map. Scan the environment for locations and deposit your memories in those places. Feel free to exaggerate the mental images, have them interact with you or the environmemt in a unique or witty way. The details make them even more memorable.
- When you need to access the information again, re-imagine your items by taking the same walk through the scene again.
As an example, we’ll be creating a Mind Palace with five of the most recent actors who played the British detective. We’ll picture Sherlock’s apartment at 221B Baker Street from the 2010 series as we plot our course through the mental map:
- We’ve entered the house. Coming up the stairs we run into Sir Ian McKellen who informs us that we shall no pass. (Mr Holmes, 2015)
- Sneaking past Sir Ian, we find Will Ferrell hiding behind the apartment door trying to scare us. (Holmes & Watson, 2018)
- On our right we can observe a lacklustre Benedict Cumberbatch lying on the couch, shooting at the wall with an old revolver. (Sherlock, 2010)
- Turning left, we can barely make out Robert Downey Jr., camouflaged as the armchair he’s sitting in. (Sherlock Holmes, 2009)
- As we end our walkthrough in the kitchen, we see Jonny Lee Miller serving tea to Lucy Liu with a puzzled look on his face (Elementary, 2012)
Admittedly, this Mind Palace is not as exciting as Sherlock’s with all his eccentricities and theatrics. Hypothetically, we could also start with an entirely unfamiliar or abstract place and add more drama and interaction. Although, this would require us to remember the new place on top of the items we’re trying to recall. Let’s not forget this is a memory technique, not an architectural design competition.
If you were to memorise a shopping list, it seems like a good idea to picture the actual supermarket as opposed to imagining an entirely new store from scratch. Unless you’re an eccentric super detective with unlimited brainpower, in which case you’d probably get Watson to do your shopping anyway.
There’s something fascinating about the character of Sherlock Holmes. His intellect, genius, style, quirks and vices. The fact that he tends to get away with it all and his priceless character dynamic with Dr Watson. The detective is a truly memorable character.
Likewise, the idea of the Mind Palace is of course over the top, yet exciting and pleasing to the eye. It visualises Sherlock’s thought processes while illustrating the detective’s personality. Similar to the Tenth Man Rule, an institutionalised version of devil’s advocacy, it’s a dramatised gimmick in many ways. The producers probably needed a more modern and visually appealing feature than a reference to ancient poets or the mental image of a dusty attic.
Theatrics aside, creating a Mind Palace to memorise information like Sherlock Holmes actually works. Dr Watson was right once more. I can’t imagine ever forgetting the Mind Palace of the five Sherlocks again.