What Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us About Memory

David Trammel's picture

Sherlock Holmes has always been famous for his memory, but its taken the BBC's 2010 series "Sherlock" starring Benedict Cumberbatch to really show us the mind behind the man.

Here's two articles exploring the science and techniques behind Sherlock's memory.

The Man Who Thinks Like Sherlock Holmes

"If you’d told Alex Mullen a few years ago that he was capable of memorising a whole pack of cards in 21.5 seconds, he would have said you were being ridiculous. His memory wasn’t anything special – “below average” even. Fast-forward to today and Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi, has just been crowned the World Memory Champion.

Mullen told me about a book he’d read called Moonwalking with Einstein. The book was written by Joshua Foer, a journalist who attended a US memory championship to write about what he thought would be “the Super Bowl of savants”. Instead, he found a group of people who had trained their memory using ancient techniques. Foer started practicing the techniques himself, and went on to win the competition the following year."

What Sherlock Holmes Tells Us About The Mind"


Remember, we have a main blog post on this too: The "Mind Palace" - A First Step in Your GW Mental Skills

Alacrates's picture

I took up the practicing some of these systems a few years ago.

For memorizing numbers and playing cards I used the "P A O" method (person-action-object). So for each digit (0-99) or card you have a person, and an action. To remember a number, say, 380461622905, for the attributions I chose, would be "Michelle Pfieffer searing in a jade pan, Jack Nicholson napping in the soil. " I could place these images in a memory palace in a certain order if needed.

I found that memorizing a deck of cards was a lot easier that I thought. I was going to try starting out with 10 cards, but then I realized that that is only 3 of these person-action-object images. I divided two places I knew well into 18 locations, and with one image in each spot, you can memorize a whole deck when you include both jokers. (I never worked on getting my time per deck down to certain times, though I can see that it's just a matter of practice, and smoothing out the associations in your system so that nothing in them are slowing you down)

One problem I have with these systems, I think they are often best used in memory championship-type applications, where you are given something like random digits or a shuffled deck of cards to recall. (Though I know there are other aspects to competitions, like names-to-faces or memorizing poetry etc.)

I think there is a passage in Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" where a famous memory champion mentions that he does not have a great memory in daily life, these skills really didn't extend beyond these competitions for him (I'll have to try to find that exact passage.)

My interest is seeing if these techniques might be made useful for daily life. I'm still working on it, but one book that I think is very promising is Lynne Kelly's "The Memory Code". Basically the book is written by an Australian naturalist and science writer: in researching a book on crocodiles, she came across the question, how did indigenous people memorize so much information about the types and behavior of crocodiles? The more she looked into it, she saw that the traditional methods of the aboriginal people of Australia was much like memory palace techniques of the Greeks and Romans. But instead of placing certain associations in rooms of a building, traditional cultures tied a lot of their mythology and survival information to certain physical places they would journey to over the course of a year, connecting them to rituals, song, and story.

Doing this, and initiated tribal person could recall a huge amount of information related to food gathering, herbal medicine, etc. just by mentally moving through the various localities in the landscape.

Kelly then expands her thesis to structures like Stonehendge: she thinks megalithic structures like these were a way to encode all that knowledge of pre-agricultural peoples into a single settled location, once people had settled and abandoned their nomadic lifestyles.

Lynne Kelly experiments with these techniques, by encoding various sets of information in her own locality: for instance, she memorized the countries of the world in order of population along a walk she routinely takes, as well as periods of ancient history, major scientific discoveries, etc.

I tried memorized the list of countries by size of population, and did the first 40 countries quite easily over the first little bit of a walk I normally take outside my building.

I'd like to keep working on these, and see if there are ways people can use these to remember important information and practical skills.

Last, I do think that the P-A-O systems for numbers have been actually fairly useful in daily life for me. I work as a plumber, and I'm constantly getting various addresses, and codes for lock-boxes, garage openers, etc. given to me, and I can usually remember these without writing them down, and they stay in memory for quite some time. I also returned to school recently for 2 months, it was easy to remember my locker number and combination code without struggling, just two images to remember.

I thought this book was fascinating and very applicable to what ever you wanted to memorize.

Alacrates's picture

Which book were you referring to, Moonwalking With Einstein or The Memory Code?

lathechuck's picture

What are the little objects and photos from my travels, but aids to remembering the sequence of events? I "curio cabinet" in my dining room unlocks my history. When I see similar objects at estate sales, they mean nothing to me, because they were someone else's memories, not my own.

David Trammel's picture

I consider myself a shaman.

That is kind of like I consider myself a Libertarian conservative, advocate of animal rights, a blue collar machine operator. The each are attitudes and skill sets that I have learned and incorporate in my Life.

It not a religion. Shamanism is to me more like a martial art.

I kata in the form Hawaiian shamanism, primarily taught by Serge Kahili King, in his book "Urban Shaman". It is an "adventurer" style of shamanism, not a warrior one, that was popularized by movies like "Dances With Wolves".

Hawaiian shamanism teaches there are three aspects of consciousness, the Heart Aspect, called "Ku", the Mind Aspect, called "Lono" and the Spirit Aspect, called "Kane".

Without posting a hugely long post, to relate to this thread, the Heart Aspect "Ku" existed without Time.

It stores experiences in body memory, usually in the muscles that are tense at the time it learns the experience. A critical factor is that the Ku makes no division on whether the experience happened in Real Life or was imaged. Emotions experienced while reading a book are just as valid as those experienced in Real Life.

So I might cry when visiting my Father's grave site but also cry when viewing a particular emotional movie scene. The Ku doesn't difference between the real and the unreal like you and I would.

I have memory objects as well as "fetishes" in my house.

Unfortunately the word "fetish" has acquired a sexual tone, but a real fetish is an item which carries a spiritual tag. And that doesn't mean a religious tag.

I have two "fetishes" in my home, unfortunately who have lost their domain. The first is a Mr Potato Head, with a crown. When I worked in Hollywood ad had a particularly difficult prop to build, I would often say a brief prayer to it, asking that my work would secede. The second is the "Vice Lizard". Somehow I found the front half of a rubber lizard. Its back legs and tail were missing. I used to keep it on the handle of our heavy welding vice. When I would do a particularly difficult welding job, I would sprinkle metal shaving into its mouth, as an offering,

Many mundane people, who would never read this website would laugh at my actions, and yet to me they made perfect sense.