I hope we all settled down on New Year's Day to watch Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, didn't we? We did, didn't we? Well, even if you've been trapped under something heavy and unable to click on iPlayer, you're totally familiar with Sherlock (Benedict Cuberbatch) and his "memory palace" technique for remembering absolutely everything... Really? Do we have to start from the beginning?
It's a memory technique. It doesn't have to be an actual place. The way it works, you put information there, and theoretically you'll never forget it, you just have to find your way back to it - Sherlock
And it is a real thing, the memory palace. Only it's not really called that. It's called the "method of loci" and it was first written about by the ancient Romans. I won't say they invented it because it was probably about for centuries before them. Anyone who's read The Odyssey must have wondered how poets like Homer got to know huge poems back in the days before writing was invented. But it was the Romans who perfected the technique and the famous philosopher Cicero describes it in his book on public speaking.
It works by getting parts of your memory that normally work separately to start cooperating: the visual memory and the semantic memory. You choose a place you know very well (such as your bedroom) or a familiar route (like your journey to work or school). The various "stops" along the way or items of furniture in your room are the "loci" in your memory palace and you visualise the things you need to remember being present there. When you need to recall them, you mentally "retrace your steps" through the room or along the route, pausing to notice each of the things you need to remember in order.
The only fiddly thing about memory palaces is building them: coming up with memorable people or things can take a bit of imagination sometimes, but the only thing that matters is that the connection makes sense to you. So if you want to remember King John coming after Richard the Lion-Heart and you once had a pet gerbil called John, then you need to imagine the lion being chased away by a gerbil. The sillier the better, because that makes it memorable.
But if a bearded American dude makes it clearer to you, have a look at this chap explaining things instead:
The Method of Locus does work and the more you use it, the easier it gets. In theory, you could build up a huge repertoire of knowledge based on the same route or room: so long as you get the starting connection right, your semantic memory will retrieve the next image in the sequence, so you won't get you kings and queens of England muddled up with your past winners of X-Factor (Steve, Shayne, Leona...).
Now you might be thinking, that's all very well, but it won't let me do the stuff that Sherlock does! Well... NO, because Sherlock is a FICTIONAL CHARACTER
But despite this, some pretty impressive feats of memory go on using the Method of Loci and similar techniques. Since the '90s, there have been Memory Competitions and the 2006 World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house to recall 1040 random digits in a half hour. Gary Shang has used the method of loci to memorise pi to over 65,536 digits. Read that back to yourself. Pi, to over 65,000 digits. Now watch that scene from Life of Pi and think, somebody did better than that! The clip below shows Thomas Morton, who has memorised a great amount of pi and a telephone directory!
The point is, these are ordinary people using a memory technique (memory tecniques are called "mnemonics") to do extraordinary things. They're not extraordinary people. There are extraordinary people out there. The page on individual differences in memory has some stuff on photographic memory, people like Stephen Wiltshire who can draw a whole city from memory. The point is, these people don't use mnemonics. They have abnormal memories.
Interestingly, TV's Sherlock is presented as being on the austistic spectrum, having difficulties in relating to people around him. Stephen Wiltshire is also autistic. While not every person (or even most people) on the autistic spectrum has this sort of phenomenal memory, it's interesting that some do. These "savants" seem to gain some abilities almost as compensation for losing others.
There's a terrific documentary series called Beautiful Minds available through Youtube and the first episode, The Memory Masters, deals with these people. Here's part of that below: have a watch and be amazed.
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.