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How to Improve Your Memory: Learn From Sherlock’s ‘Mind Palace’

The technique is called the 'mind palace.' And it's incredible.

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How would your life change if you could remember anything?

I’m a huge fan of BBC’s Sherlock, the modern-day crime drama based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of the lead character, who describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath,” is brilliant.

But the show also introduced me to one of the most useful skills I’ve ever encountered:

It’s called “the mind palace.” And it’s incredible.

mind palace (also known as a memory palace) is basically a structure you build in your imagination, where you consciously deposit memories and attempt to retrieve them later. Sherlock uses the technique in various episodes of the series, to recall major (yet easily forgettable) facts that are relevant to a case.

Not having heard of this technique before watching the show, I was moved to research and pleased to discover it really exists–with an origin over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece. Its official name is “the method of loci” (loci is Latin for “places”), and it’s how many Roman orators memorized their speeches. Linguists believe the technique is the basis for the expression “in the first place,” i.e., in the first place of your mind palace.

A mind palace is extremely useful because it can help you remember … well, just about anything.

How does the mind palace work?

The mind palace doesn’t have to be based on a real place, but that helps: The more familiar you are with the structure, the more easily you can find what you’re looking for.

For example, your palace could be a representation of the home you grew up in. A house works great, but even an apartment is large enough–the key is that you have access to a number of easily distinguishable smaller locations (like kitchen drawers or the bathroom sink) where you can place distinct bits of information.

Here’s how it works:

You recently met Tom Jackson, a new business contact whose name you’d really like to remember.

The first chance you get, you find a quiet place and close your eyes. Then, through your imagination, you enter your mind palace.

The trick is now to associate Tom’s name with a vivid image that is hard for your brain to forget. For example, you imagine your new contact sitting on the living room couch, watching Tom Hanks and Michael Jackson competing in a lip sync battle, right in your living room.

Get it? Tom Jackson.

Sitting next to Tom is your mother, and they’re having a great conversation. This reminds you that Tom’s from Boston, just like your mom. But Tom also happens to be wearing an L.A. Dodgers baseball cap–because that’s where he lives now.

Of course, the mind palace works with more than just names. You can use it to learn a presentation for work, keep track of those pesky (and oh so forgettable) account passwords, or pretty much anything else you need to commit to memory.

You just need a location in the palace and an image that sparks your brain: the crazier, funnier, or more bizarre the image, the easier it will be to remember.

Why does it work?

Joshua Foer is a science journalist, and 11 years ago he was assigned to cover the U.S. Memory Championship. That’s where individuals compete to see who’s the quickest at memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled pack of playing cards, or who can recite hundreds of random numbers in sequence, after looking at them just once.

In an effort to understand how people pulled off these amazing, seemingly impossible feats, Foer spent the better part of a year training his memory using the method of loci. In what he calls “an experiment in participatory journalism,” Foer returned to the contest a year later and entered it himself.

But Foer could have never predicted what happened next:

He won the contest.

What this science journalist-turned-memory champion discovered is that almost everyone is equipped with an average memory. It’s our brains that are extraordinary; they just need a bit of training, using the right technique.

As Foer explained in his 2012 TED talk:

We remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are deeply engaged. We remember when we are able to take a piece of information and experience, and figure out why it is meaningful to us, why it is significant, why it’s colorful, when we’re able to transform it in some way that makes sense in the light of all of the other things floating around in our minds.

In other words, if we can give context to a single piece of information, it becomes easier to remember. And that, ironically, is the key: To remember one thing, you have to remember more things.

Make sure to put that in your palace.

I’m sure Sherlock would.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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