By Lily Kelting
In the middle of the second season of Sherlock, Holmes turns to John, Molly, and the viewer and growls, “Get out… I need to go to my mind palace!” In the final episode of the most recent season, we finally meet Sherlock’s new nemesis, Charles Augustus Magnussen. His secret weapon? A mind palace. Yes, it's been proven that imagining information spatially can help you organize and retain an enormous amount of information. But do our brains really work like Magnussen's imaginary filing cabinets? And if so, how much information can a non-Sherlock really file?
Apparently, a lot. Watching the videos of World Memory Champions parrot 3,841 binary digits memorized over half an hour might be less entertaining than BBC’s latest hit, but it is astounding. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock showboats, pouts, scowls, and molds his putty-like face into various contortions, as if to prove he is uniquely brilliant. Memory champions like Ed Cooke, however, claim to have simply “average memories.” “What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly,” Cooke told the New York Times. A 2003 Nature study confirms: memory champions have average brains, a lot of practice, and powerful memorization techniques.
The mind palaces that enable memory champions to memorize the order of a deck of cards in 32 seconds don’t look like Magnussen’s filing cabinets, though. I asked Dr. Larry Squire, Professor of Psychiatry, Neurosciences, and Psychology at UC San Diego about the way that Sherlock visually represented Sherlock and Magnussen’s mind palaces. I told him that Magnussen mentally visited a vault full of filing cabinets that he would rifle through for government secrets. He furrowed his brow. “That doesn’t seem like a very good analogy,” he understated. “Memory is associative. Things are linked to similar things.” Memorizing massive amounts of information is not like normal memory, he noted. In order to shock the brain into remembering seemingly endless data, the memorizer must associate this information with a series of vivid mental images deliberately and in advance. To represent the king of clubs, journalist and memory champion Joshua Foer used the image of moonwalking with Einstein, the title of his book about memory competitions. Sex acts are, perhaps unsurprisingly, hugely popular images.
The fact that a “mind palace” sounds quaintly Victorian makes it the perfect tool for Sherlock. The simplicity of the device also reveals Magnussen to be a lackluster villain, despite the symmetry of his and Sherlock’s mental acuity. Bond villains have grills and trained sharks; Magnussen has a palace in his mind filled with imaginary filing cabinets. Watching him lick a political opponent’s face as a show of domination in “The Last Vow” might be spine-tingling, but his secret weapon is actually both ancient and accessible.
While a variety of tools for rote memorization have been used around the world throughout history, Cicero claims that the Greek poet Simonides inadvertently invented the mind palace: “He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts.” The story goes that Simonides stepped out of a dinner party when the roof fell in and crushed the other banqueters beyond recognition. Simonides identified the corpses by simply remembering who was sitting where around the table.
On the other hand, watching Sherlock access his memory is high-tech, high-speed, and occasionally thrilling. In “The Hounds of Baskerville,” Sherlock swipes through a kind of mental iPhone, multi-touching the air and auto-completing clues. The trope comes to a head in the conclusion of the third season: Sherlock has been shot and must solve the crime before bleeding to death. He wanders around his mind palace in a kind of clip show. Sherlock’s mind palace montage begins with him hallucinating Molly for a medical consult, and ends with him clawing his way out of Jim Moriarty’s imaginary insane asylum. He isn’t so much recalling a list of binary numbers as moving through a Technicolor nightmare.
Maybe it’s so reassuring to think of our mind as a place because so much of our memory lives in the cloud, on servers in Mountain View, or on a small beeping device. Sherlock’s mind palace makes Sherlock a testament to the power of human cognition in an age where intelligence itself is outsourced. The Greco-Roman technique of the mind palace declined with the advent of the printing press. Squire notes that mnemonic techniques like the memory palace are, “hardly vital in an age of external memory in which remembering information may be less important than knowing how to find it.”
And so Sherlock, who moves through but refuses to live in a Google-able world, might be the perfect protagonist for 2014. Given the past decade’s rash of larger-than-life superhero movies, a hero with an exceptional mastery of ancient memory techniques feels just the right size. The internet is a great rememberer, and so we love a hero who has so over-filled his memory that important information flows out the sides. If the most intense moments of the series occur when Sherlock remembers, some of the most delightful are when he forgets: forgets who the prime minister is, forgets that the Earth revolves around the sun, forgets even his own trousers.