Pimp Your Memory: How to Build a Mind Palace like Sherlock Holmes

You’ve all seen that scene in the Baskerville episode of BBC’s Sherlock (if you haven’t, you’re missing out, mate) where the show is about to reach its climax and Sherlock, in that flat, bitchy tone we’ve all come to love, commands: “Get out. I need to go to my Mind Palace.” John Watson explains it’s a memory technique which, in theory, means you’ll never forget a thing, and then we see Sherlock (with the aid of a visual manifestation of his mind, including a particularly funny moment when Elvis Presley’s face is superimposed on his) link together all the clues they’ve been given to solve the mystery of HOUND.

Despite what a lot of viewers thought, the Mind Palace was not just a clever plot device invented by Mark Gatiss just for the show. My previous (and ongoing) infatuation with Derren Brown meant I had come across this method some months prior to watching Baskerville, when I saw Derren beat the house at Blackjack using this very technique, and then read in his book, Tricks of the Mind, how to implement this technique myself.

And I’ve found it to be a ridiculously helpful mind hack. It’s helped me remember shopping lists, lists of films I’ve been recommended, has helped me memorise lines for plays (yes, even Shakespeare. Especially Shakespeare), and has even helped me recall vast amounts of information for theory-based exams (I studied for my Media Law and Ethics, and for my Internet Authoring exams using this technique and aced them both). All it takes is a little bit of time and a quiet space where you can be with your own thoughts.

The Memory Palace technique, known also as the Method of Loci (Latin plural for locusmeaning location or place) is a memory hack dating back to Ancient Greece and Rome, wherein items to be remembered are mentally associated with specific physical locations. It couldn’t be simpler. All you have to do is to decide on a blueprint for your palace. You can create a whole new palace for yourself, a sprawling affair with velvet furnishings and floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and assign a new room to each discipline. Or you can think about a place you know quite well – your house, say, or your workplace. You could even think about public places (your favourite walk around the city, the walk from the bus stop to your house – I have memorised biological and neurological concepts based on the London Tube map.) The larger and more detailed the place, the more information you can pin to it.

Next, you’ll need to define a specific route through the palace. Are you walking around the Master Bedroom? Are you traipsing down the corridor? Wandering through the gardens? Are you taking the Central Line from West Ruislip to Epping? Once you’ve done that, you can identify markers along your route. Shepherd’s Bush –> Holland Park –> Notting Hill Gate –> Queensway –> Lancaster Gate –> Oxford Circus etc. Or you can place six chairs along the corridor you are imagining, each a different colour. Or perhaps you are inside a bedroom, noting the wardrobe, the carpet, the bed, the desk, and so on. Remember that the more familiar you are with your memory palace, the easier it will be for you to apply the technique. In your free time, perhaps before you go to bed, mentally walk around the palace and make sure it is completely real in your mind.

Now, you can place items which need remembering along your route. For example, if you are trying to memorise the process of mitosis, you would start by placing ‘Prophase’ on the first marker, by having a PROfessional footballer sitting in it. Then, place a famous METAL musician in the second chair for the ‘Prometaphase’, and so on until all the items have been placed. The trick is to be as creative and outlandish as possible, so that when you think of that particular room, you cannot possibly ignore David Beckham in the first seat. If you need him to be covered in jam, cartwheeling on a trampoline to help jog your memory, then so be it. There’s a palace in your mind. Make the most of it, for crying out loud.

For a wonderful example of a memory palace applied to remember Geologic periods, click here.

People who know me often comment on how good my memory seems to be. I can hear or read things once or twice and remember them almost perfectly afterwards. I can remember facts I read years ago, and I memorise dates, names and phone numbers like it’s nothing. The truth is: everybody can have a good memory. The trick is to engage with the information you have been given and make it relevant enough to you that it stays with you. If you process this data once or twice, you’re good for the short term, and this is perfect for learning lines and studying for heavily theoretical exams. Briefly thinking about the information will place it in your frontal lobe, and will make it short term memory. It’ll be there for a couple of days until it is moved away into your subconscious to make room for more pertinent things.  To get the information to stick with you for a long time, all you have to do is go over the information in your mind again and again. For example, you may remember you need to buy milk and detergent when you are at the supermarket because you’ve thought about it once or twice this week. That information can be forgotten once the errand has been run. But you’ll know the first moon landing occurred in 1969; that Watson and Crick discovered DNA; that the Earth revolves around the Sun and that fresh bread tastes really good dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Why? Because over the course of your life, you’ve had to recall that information far more often.

So there you go. To have a memory like Sherlock Holmes, the trick is to engage with the information you are processing. Some people call it mindfulness; which is quite an accurate description. Be passive and you’ll never take anything in except what is glaringly obvious (and even then, you may struggle). But if you are mindful and make a conscious effort to mentally acknowledge all that you observe (it only takes a microsecond), then you’ll find your memory will become more and more exceptional and people will start to ask you how you do it. The human mind is a machine of staggering capacity. It can do SO many incredible things. The human mind named itself. And you own one. To let it go to waste just because it is easier to say “Oh I’m not that smart” is utter sacrilege.

There are plenty of techniques which will help you pimp your memory. The Mind/Memory Palace is only one of them. To learn more, I recommend you read The Art of Memory and Tricks of the Mind, as well as The Memory Book, Mind Hacks, The Mind Map BookMoonwalking with Einstein, and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. For a general list of techniques, check out the Wiki page.


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