Though we can’t all hope to match Sherlock Holmes’ preternatural deduction abilities and knack for witty repartee, with a little practice you can build a Mind Palace just as lavish as the famed detective’s. Here’s how you can improve your memory and reasoning skills in your free time.
In the latest BBC spin on Sherlock, much of Holmes’ uncanny memory capabilities are derived from the ancient Greek technique known as the “method of loci.” This technique was supposedly devised by the poet Simonides of Ceos after a building collapsed atop a banquet that he had been attending. Apparently Simonides had stepped outside to meet a pair of late-arriving guests when the banquet hall ceiling gave way, crushing the people inside beyond recognition. However, Simonides was able to recount the identity of every person in attendance based only on their seating arrangement, their location within the hall — hence the “method of loci.” Holmes performs a similar feat with disassociated facts, tying each bit of information to a place within his mental construct — his Mind Palace — and so can you, with a bit of practice.
Your brain is constantly being inundated with sensory information 24/7. While it could, theoretically, store the entirety of your cumulative life experiences, your brain instead is more selective with what it tucks into long-term memory — specifically prioritizing unique, important, surprising, or emotionally-charged memories over the mundane. This is why you can still remember your first kiss or that really embarrassing incident in maths class in 4th grade decades later, but not what you had to eat for breakfast last Tuesday. The memory technique known as chunking takes advantage of this effect, affixing mundane information, such as a person’s phone number, to a more potent memory like a mnemonic lamprey. There are a variety of ways to do this:
Make It Acrostic: Need to remember a long shopping list? Take the first letter of everything you need to buy — say, figs, lettuce, oranges, apples, and tomatoes — and make a word from them — like “FLOAT.” Now you have just one primary item (FLOAT) to remember on the way to the store, rather than five.
Use the Keypad: The same method can be used to remember numeric series like phone numbers. Few people can tell you what the phone number for the old automated time/date service was (767-2676) but plenty of people are still familiar with POPCORN time. Namely because “popcorn” has a much stronger peg in people’s memories than a string of 6s and 7s. You can do the same by devising words or phrases from the letters on an alpha-numeric keypad for any given phone number.
Break It Down: For folks of average memory (read: most of us) our brains can only handle numeric strings about four to seven digits in length easily. So why is it that 8675309 appears as gibberish but 867-5309 is instantly recognisable? Granted this sequence is helped by the famous Tommy Tutone song, but simply breaking down number strings into smaller chunks has shown to aid in memory retention.
And it’s not just phone number formats that can be used to break up long strings of digits. The Ravenous Brain by neuroscientist Daniel Bor recalls a memory experiment conducted at the University of Cambridge wherein an undergraduate volunteer was tasked with listening to a number sequence and repeating it back. If he got the sequence right, the researchers would add a digit to the next iteration, get it wrong and they’d take a digit off. Initially only able to remember seven digits, he was able to improve his performance over the course of 20 months to remember 80 digit sequences by chunking the numbers. Being a running enthusiast, the volunteer converted sets of numbers into lap times — 3492 became 3 minutes and 49.2 seconds — something much more easily recalled than rote sequences.
Make It Memorable: For many people remembering phrases is far easier than straight number sequences or long lists of items. This is the secret behind mnemonic devices like “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” for the Order of Operations (Parenthesis, Exponents, Multipliers, Divisors, Addition, Subtraction) or “My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” for the order of the planets in our solar system.
This method can be extrapolated to a more advanced form known as the mnemonic peg system, which uses an ordered list of rhymes to “peg” an item to that list. As the Wikipedia entry illustrates:
1-gun Visualise the first item being fired from a gun
2-zoo Visualise an association between the second thing and a zoo
3-tree Visualise the third item growing from a tree
4-door Visualise the 4th item associated with a door
5-hive Visualise the fifth item associated with a hive or with bees
6-bricks Visualise the sixth item associated with bricks
7-heaven Visualise the seventh item associated with heaven
8-plate Visualise the 8th item on a plate as if it is food
9-wine Visualise a glass containing the 9th item
10-hen Visualise the 10th item associated with a chicken.
For example to remember the following grocery list of 10 items:
Apple: Picture an apple being fired from a gun
Butter: picture a gorilla stomping up and down on a stick of butter
Razor Blades: Picture a tree with razor blades for leaves
Soap: Picture a door made from soap
Bread: Picture bees flying from a loaf of bread as if it is a hive
Milk: Picture a brick house with milk jugs where the bricks should be
Cat food: Picture an open can of cat food with angel wings and a halo
Bacon: Picture bacon on a plate
Batteries: Picture a wine glass filled with batteries
Orange juice: Picture a hen being squeezed, and orange juice coming out
The technique is not an easy one to master, mind you, but once you have your initial rhyming pegs (1 gun, 2 zoo, etc) sufficiently memorized, you can create and recall lists of nearly unlimited length — at least a heck of a lot longer than you would otherwise.
Make a Picture, Make It Crazy: Phone numbers and shopping lists aren’t the only things mnemonics can help you memorize — details, like new names and the faces they belong to can be easily recalled so long as you tie that mundane name to a more visually striking memory. As Lifehacker’s Melanie Pinola explains,
For remembering names and faces, he [US Memory Champ, Nelson Dellis] said to take a name like Nelson and try to turn it into a picture by associating it with a famous person like Nelson Mandela (step 1). Then for step 2, find a prominent place on that person to anchor it, for example on his biggish nose — so imagine Nelson Mandela crawled up inside his nose.
The more explicit, vivid, grotesque, or weird the visual anchor your create, the more easily you’ll be able to recall the person’s name later on.
Now that you have the basic techniques for improving your memory and cognitive performance, it’s time to start practising these new-found skills. The following apps will help keep your brain operating at peak performance.
This popular web-based application utilises an exhaustive array of mini-games to both improve your cognitive abilities and measure your current state of memory, brain health, and cognition. It’s available on both iOS and Android, as well as your web browser, but doesn’t come cheap. Expect to pay $US15 per month for these cognitive lessons.
This iOS-only free alternative to the relatively expensive Luminosity, Brain School incorporates 20 “brain games and and over 100 levels of puzzle mayhem” to keep your mind from melting. What’s more, unlike Luminosity’s rigid lesson structure, Brain School lets you play any game whenever you want.
On the Android side, the freemium Brain Trainer touts itself as having the largest number of training games on the market that stimulate your cognitive prowess and memory. Games range from repeating letter and number sequences to spacial memory and Sudoku.
Sudoku and crosswords
If you want to train your brain without all the bells and whistles of the apps above, keeping your mind active with low-tech pastimes like crossword puzzles and Sudoku have been shown to ward off a number of age-related mental ailments. Both Sudoku and crossword apps are a dime a dozen on iOS and Android. Sudoku is a popular freemium iOS app (additional puzzle sets are $1 apiece), even though it’s named exactly like thousands of others. Similarly, Sudoku Free for Android offers numerous puzzles with four levels of difficulty for no charge.
If number problems are not your forte, the freemium New York Times Crossword app for iOS pulls classic and challenging puzzles directly from the NYT archives, while Crossword for Android offers 350 casually challenging word games for $2.
With these techniques under your belt and these apps in your mobile device, it will only be a matter of practice and time before you’ll be able to move into 221 B Baker street. Or at least remember the name and phone number of the hottie from the bar last night.