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Use Sherlock Holmes' Mind Palace Technique to Improve Your Memory

The "mind palace" is one of the oldest mnemonic techniques known.

Key points

  • The "mind palace" is a well-known mnemonic technique that was popularized by the TV show "Sherlock Holmes."
  • The mind palace technique involves imagining unrelated objects in a shared space and creating a narrative to connect them.
  • The absurdity of the relationship between images in the "mind palace" technique makes the images easier to remember.

In some episodes of the TV series Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch, it is possible to observe the main character using a mnemonic technique which he calls “mind palace.” In this technique, Holmes seems to visit an imaginary place inside his mind and performs a series of associations between words, places, and objects, until he arrives at the information he wants to remember. Despite appearing in a fictional TV show, the mind palace is a technique that exists, being one of the oldest mnemonic techniques known.

How the "mind palace" memory technique works

Mind Palace is also known as the method of loci and is described by Yates in her work, The Art of Memory (1992) [1]. According to Yates, the art of memory was created by Simonids and reported by Cicero in the book De Oratore, in which he argues that memory is one part of rhetoric. So, basically, the method of loci was a rhetorical technique used by Roman speakers to remember and recite their long speeches.

As general principles of the method, Yates says the first step is to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places. The commonest, though not the only, type of mnemonic place system used was the architectural type. An example would be a house, preferably spacious with a wide variety of rooms such as a forecourt, living room, bedrooms, and parlors, and not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated.

Then, the second step is to insert images that are related to the speech to be remembered. For example, if the person wants to remember the phrase, “The world is suffering due to the pandemic of the new coronavirus,” they can imagine a globe (world) sitting on the living room couch, sneezing and being tortured by image of a giant coronavirus. This image may seem weird, but the level of absurdity involved in it makes it easier to remember.

Thus, in the method of loci (or mind palace technique), the person "walks" through the imagined house, observes the objects distributed by the rooms, and sets up a narrative in order to remember what they want.

Let's say you want to remember a shopping list with the items: banana, milk, eggs, and cheese. In your mind palace, you can imagine yourself walking around the room, seeing a banana sitting on the couch, having a glass of milk. You walk down the hall and there is a picture hanging on the wall with a family of giant eggs on a vacation. Entering the first room on the left, you find the cheese lying on the bed sleeping soundly.

It is important to highlight that one of the main points in the mind palace technique is not the distribution of objects in a spatial environment but the narrative created from the creation of a semantic relationship between what will be remembered and the spatial disposition in the mind palace.

Another popular mnemonic technique

This brings us to semiotic perspectives that explain how memory can be mediated by signs through the meanings they carry. Similarly, there is the mnemonic technique of forming acronyms to remember words (or syllables) that, in isolation, do not make sense. An example would be the techniques for memorizing chemical elements arranged in the periodic table commonly used by students. It is much easier to remember the phrase Happy Henry Likes Beer But Could Not Obtain Food than the isolated symbols H (Hydrogen), He (Helium), Li (Lithium), Be (Beryllium), B (Boron), C (Carbon), N (Nitrogen), O (Oxygen) and F (Fluorine).

These mnemonic techniques are widely used by professionals who participate in memory competitions, and the method of loci (or mind palace) is one of the most used. Thus, it is common to find discussion forums on the internet where people share their palaces, experiences, and other mnemonic methods[2] or even teaching how to build one’s own mind palace.[3]

That way, it is not necessary to be a Sherlock Holmes to develop a “super memory.” All of us can develop mind palaces or other kinds of mnemonic techniques to be able to remember anything we want. Maybe you won't become a detective, but at least you'll find it more difficult to forget your shopping list.


[1] Yates, F. A. (1992). The art of memory (Vol. 64). Random House.

[2] Available at: Accessed May 16th 2021

[3] Available at: Accessed May 16th 2021

More from João R. R. T. da Silva Ph.D.
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