Science of Sherlock: Memory Palaces

Monica Investigating

I really need to get myself one of these hats in real life.

There are many things that are engaging and entertaining about Sherlock Holmes, both in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and in the recent TV and movie adaptations. One of the most interesting to me is an aspect of Holmes’ mystery solving that doesn’t depend on any particular mental gifts or encyclopedic knowledge of specific subjects. I’m referring to the method of organizing and remembering information known as the “memory palace”.

This is a real technique, which can be learned by anyone through diligent practice. It’s also called the method of loci, referring to the main idea, that you picture the information spatially—that is, you organize and place different facts (or numbers, words, etc.) in various places, or loci.

You can see the benefits even without much practice. Try it out yourself! Read the description of this sample memory palace and actually picture everything described in each room. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you remember if you start at the beginning and try to recall everything in each of the rooms. (Start with just one room, if you want a tiny taste.)

Of course, people who use this and other memory techniques regularly can run circles around those of us who merely dabble, especially if they hone their skills through memory competitions. According to a paper recently published in Neuron, these people don’t have significantly different brain structure from untrained non-competitors. However, they did show differences in brain activity while performing memorization tasks, compared to other subjects who were given the same tasks.

From these results, it seems that the practice of memory techniques engages your brain in ways that don’t happen when you simply try to remember things without training. This change isn’t limited to elite memory champions, though. Subjects who underwent just six weeks of training in memory palace methods were significantly different from subjects who had no training, or who spent the six weeks doing other, less challenging memory games. Not only did they remember more words when given a list to memorize, they also showed brain activity patterns similar to those of the experienced memory competitors.

Even more interesting is that these altered patterns persisted even when the subjects were not engaged in memorization. This suggests that brain activity is changed in the long term, not just in the moment, by the very specific type of organizational thinking required to build and navigate a memory palace.

If you’re wondering why this technique seems to strike such a chord in human brains, consider how much of your life is probably related to visual and spatial perception. The familiar routes you take to work, to the store, to your friends’ houses—all of these are rich with loci, or locations, that become stored in your memory with increasing familiarity.

So how do you build your own memory palace? I’m so glad you asked!

Mind Palace 2

I wouldn’t say no to one of these either, though the brain dome is maybe a little much.

You can easily find some resources online, and they’ll give you very similar steps to follow.

  1. Choose your palace! Pick somewhere you’re familiar with and can picture very well, like a room in your home or a favorite place (in real life or in a movie, game, whatever works for you). The more information you need to store, the larger your palace will need to be, so it may be your whole house, or a travel route you know in detail.
  2. Plan your route. This is especially important if you’re trying to remember things in order, but you may find it helps anyway. If your palace is a single room or place, you can still have a route—walk around it or imagine the direction you’ll turn as you look around you. Going clockwise or counter-clockwise will help keep things organized.
  3. Decide on good anchors or locations for your information. If you’re in a room or series of rooms, good locations include furniture, window decorations, wall art, statues, food, etc. If you’re outside, try trees, buildings, billboards, or whatever else fits with the space you’ve chosen. In the next step you can finalize what these things will look like, but for now just come up with ideas for where to store information. Have fun with it!
  4. Place things in your palace. This is an interesting process, since the object isn’t necessarily to just plop down exact representations of everything you need to remember. You’ll do some of that, but you’ll find it’s often just as good to choose something that fits with your space but reminds you of what you’re trying to remember. That means that given the same list of words to memorize, everyone’s memory palace will be unique. You may prefer to have a scale model of Big Ben on your mind-palace mantel, while someone else will have a wristwatch lying on the coffee table, or something completely different that would make little sense to you. Try to make the objects different enough that you won’t confuse them, and make sure to pay attention to the order of your objects if you need to recall a sequence.

Here’s a (very simple) illustration of creating a palace (a table in this case, really) using a combination of literal representations and related objects. Using the list “duck, oak, Shakespeare, cherry, Babe Ruth, daisy,” I’ve created a simple tableau.

The rubber duck rests on a table made of oak, which is held steady by a thick book representing Shakespeare. Also on the table are a cherry pie and a baseball for Babe Ruth, and the duck holds a daisy in its bill. (It’s a very detailed rubber ducky. I have an active imagination.) Behold:

Memory Table

Here’s another example, which walks you through creating a memory palace using the birthplace of Simonides of Ceos, the Greek poet who is credited with inventing this technique in about 500 B.C.

The best memorization aid for you is the one you create yourself, so after reading a few examples, try making your own!


[Check out the world of memory competitions here!]


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