BY: DUSTIN BATTY
In each of his incarnations, fictional super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes has extraordinary powers of memory and observation that plant his stories tentatively in the science fiction genre. Unlike previous versions of the character, the “consulting detective” of the BBC series Sherlock uses a real-world memory technique that has been shown to drastically improve memory recall abilities.
Though Holmes’s “mind palace” memory technique may sound like just another fictional invention used to explain away his impossibly impressive ability to recall information, it is actually a valid mnemonic practice. “Memory athletes,” the kind of people who compete in the annual World Memory Championships, master this technique in order to improve their powers of recollection.
In an attempt to better understand how memory loss and memory growth manifest in the brain, a research group in the Netherlands examined the effectiveness of mnemonic devices, especially the “method of loci” (the technical term for the mind palace technique). For the first part of the experiment, they compared the brain functions of memory athletes to those of people with average memories and no history of mnemonic training. Though the athletes and the control participants had distinct functional connection patterns, the researchers were surprised to discover that the athletes’ impressive “memory skills do not seem to be associated with extraordinary brain anatomy or general cognitive superiority.” Instead, these skills “are acquired through deliberate training in mnemonic strategies.”
This implies that someone with an average memory could improve the “functional connection patterns” in their brain with mnemonic training. For the second part of the experiment, the researchers tested 51 people with average memories. A third of them were given loci training for six weeks. Another third practiced short-term memory recall for the same duration. The final third was given no mnemonic training or practice.
As expected, the last group showed little improvement after the six week period. The second group showed slight improvement, but the method of loci group more than doubled their recollection abilities on average. Moreover, “mnemonic training elicited changes in brain network organization that significantly resembled the network connectivity patterns that distinguish memory athletes from controls,” while the brain functions of the second and third group were unchanged.
The people in the first two groups were tested again four months after the training period ended. Though the memories of the people in the second group had reverted to their pre-experiment state, the members of the first group retained their improved memories. Thus, the experiment shows that the method of loci mnemonic technique is a valid method for improving your memory.
Though it is difficult to implement, the technique is fairly basic in concept. A simple guideline is described on the Remember Everything website. The first thing you need to do is hold a specific location in your mind. It needs to be somewhere that you know well—or, if it’s an imagined place, somewhere that you can picture vividly—and it must have different regions that you can encounter. Usually it is either a house with various rooms, each of which has distinct objects or attributes (the mind palace), or it is a road, along which there are distinct landmarks that can be visited in a specific order (the journey method).
Orators in ancient Greece and Rome used this method to memorize their speeches before paper was widely available for speakers to read from. They would picture a street that they knew well, and they would associate the various landmarks along the road with the various topics that they wanted to discuss. As they mentally followed the road, these associations would remind them of the next topic they had to talk about. Similarly, specific memories or pieces of information can be associated with the objects in the rooms of a mind palace.
Although the mind palace of Sherlock Holmes far surpasses that of any normal person, the concept is not as far-fetched as it first seems. It may not allow you to remember everything you have ever seen or heard, but undergoing method of loci training could vastly improve your memory.