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Lately I’ve been watching an interesting TV series. Sherlock, the modern version of Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. It is written by Steven Moffat, one of the writers of the new incarnations of Doctor Who, another series I enjoy a lot. Two seasons have come and go (they only have 3 chapters each,) so far both excellent. But I’m not writing this post to (just) praise a TV series, after all I’m not a TV fan whatsoever. What I want to highlight is the appearance of the “mind palace” (as Sherlock named it) in some chapters, another way to put the more widely used memory palace. I have already written a post about how to use the memory palace technique, working as quite an introduction to the subject. But I want to retake it again, since some popular occurrences of the memory palace are pretty… odd.
Setting aside classical titles on memory or memory techniques, and the (somewhat) known book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, the first best-seller book I know giving some hints about the method is Harris' Hannibal, the prequel to Silence of the Lamb. In it, Hannibal Lecter explains how he stores all his memories and knowledge in an intricate memory palace. Anything from poems to maps. In Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes is also depicted as using this method to remember a London map, before chasing a cab using his knowledge of one-way routes and construction sites. In another chapter, he is also shown deep in search of data in his mental library. But is it really like this how it works?
First, for newcomers who don’t want to read my lengthy article about the memory palace method, let’s make a thought experiment to realise how powerful the method is. Close your eyes. Can you picture your parents (or grandparents) house? Mentally walk from room to room? I bet you can, even if your parents have moved since then. Can you walk mentally the route from your parents' home to your school, or high school? I’m sure you can do it without any problem. Your brain is hardwired for this: finding routes. After all, a hunter-gatherer unable to remember where the plants or the water lay was doomed to die.
The memory palace method aims to take advantage of this ability, paired with our visual memory and linking memory to remember… lists. In fact, you don’t need to remember lists, but the method is best suited to listed knowledge, since you can remember it ordered. The simplest example would be a shopping list. If you want to go shopping and need milk, onions and some tasty dressing (making some onion rings, maybe?) you can place each item in… your grandparents home. Or along the route to your high school. Problem is, done plainly forgetting it’s too easy. You are likely to walk over the 3 onions you placed in the middle of your parents living room. To remember, you have to make everything bigger, noisier and bizarre. Cleopatra (the Egyptian pharaoh of old) bathing in milk in the bathroom (in case you didn’t know, Cleopatra is said to bathe in donkey milk). A giant onion-man eating sliced humans in the living room. A bride (well dressed with her wedding dress) covered in ketchup. Far easier to remember, don’t you think?
On the other hand, the fictional cases of memory palaces showin in Hannibal and Sherlock are far more abstract. How are you supposed to remember poems or a map? Well, all you need is a code. To memorise a poem you need to remember its verse and rhythm. For Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, you’d start (again) with a bride, dressed in white with a finger to his lips, ordering silence. Then a boy appears out of nowhere, carrying a huge golden pocket clock in his neck, also gesturing for silence. And so on and so forth. One (or two) images for each verse are almost all you need. Pair it with some repetitions of the poem to get the hang of the rythhm and you’ll never be able to forget it.
And how are you supposed to remember a full map? Well, this one is trickier and I still don’t know how to remember a plain map. Remembering directions is somehow easy: just store a direction in each room of your palace: turn left, go straight and right on the 3rd is just “1 left” “straight 3 right”, which are easier to encode in rooms in a palace. For a map, I don’t know and I don’t think Sherlock or Hannibal could help us.
Of course if you have a good enough visual memory (or even eidetic memory like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory) you could remember the full map. But this is just being born with the right genes, and I’d rather know how to do it myself.
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