The Mind Palace


Last night, in an hour, I memorized all the titles of Shakespeare’s plays in the order he wrote them. Pretty good for a girl who has never given a damn about Shakespeare (the literal amount of “I do not care” I extend toward Shakespeare horrifies most of my friends). I sat down at breakfast and wrote them out in sequence for my family, much to their astonishment. I should have done it backwards and really watched their minds explode.

And I have Sherlock to thank for it.

Back in season two when the “Memory Palace” came up, I thought it an interesting idea but was preoccupied learning other things and didn’t bother to dive into any research. But this season, the Mind Palace has a much more prominent role so I decided to learn how to do it. Once I understood the principle, I realized I’ve been doing it subconsciously for years—always with success. I have a habit the night before I go somewhere of sitting down and planning the route in my head, imagining where I’m going and what I will see there, while planting things to do along the way. On the occasions when I forget my to-do list, it doesn’t matter – I do everything on it anyway, and usually in less time than I allowed.


The principle is that you anchor information to something familiar to you, and from there go on an imaginary journey of mental picture and word associations that triggers memory vaults. You follow the same sequence each time, which trains your mind to access that information in that order. The starting point must be somewhere you can clearly visualize in your mind. It requires intense concentration and repeated trips through this “information path” to cement the information in your mind, but then the more you retrace it, the faster the information enters your head on subsequent trips. This programs your mind to store the information to you – like building an escalator and later stepping on it and letting it roll you past stored information.

It requires only two things – the ability to visualize and imagination. You anchor everything to a specific place of your choosing and from there construct outer rooms as your knowledge grows, sometimes storing specific memories in certain places along the way. (Sherlock stores a childhood pet in one room.)

For someone who tends to focus on the overall picture rather than the details, this may be a useful way to retain what I learn. Since I’m such an internalized thinker, it’s exciting to think about having a vast labyrinth in my head to delve into whenever I want to explore past obsessions. The possibilities! This will be a lot of fun!


Footnotes: I started with The Memory Palace: Learn Anything and Everything. It was extremely helpful since I need to see a specific example of how something works to adapt it for my own use; the author takes you through a very vivid oddball world populated with things to trigger Shakespeare titles (if you can’t visualize the person or thing he suggests, substitute something that is meaningful to you – for the twins in the living room, I used Fred and George Weasley to remind me of “Comedy of Errors”).

Most of the negative reviews about the book complain it doesn’t work, but the readers then go on to admit they didn’t actually bother to visualize and learn the technique because they “weren’t interested in learning Shakespeare titles,” which defeats the entire purpose. It’s an exercise. It’s practice. It’s proof you can do it before you launch into building a massive library of information. Knowing you can do it is essential to success and prevents you from giving up. Once you learn the principle, you can go on and adapt it as needed.

For those who prefer general ideas rather than specifics, here is a good article and here is how to develop your visualization skills if they don’t come naturally to you.

38 thoughts on “The Mind Palace

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  1. Thanks, Charity! Will be looking those up. I was tickled to learn of the concept of the “mind palace” while watching the show–and when I saw Mr. Jerkface in the last episode going in his white room, and mentally go through his files, I had to chuckle because there was a time I stored certain things in mental files. It was a way of feeling like I physically tucked the info away somewhere. Got out of the habit…need to reteach myself.

    1. That’s pretty cool. How does that work? I understand of hooking absurd things in your mind, but it seems like storing them in a mental file cabinet would be hard!

  2. Thanks, Carissa for sharing your thoughts on the season! Good character development is hard to come by so I look forward to enjoying S3 and watching that – and it’s about TIME Sherlock realized/appreciated the awesomeness of the people in his life. 😉

    Given the first 2 seasons of ‘Sherlock,’ I don’t think I’ll mind that Sherlock doesn’t verbalize everything in regards to the cases. That is part of the allure of the show, really. It’s so clever that sometimes leaving us scrambling to figure things out is PART of the fun. 🙂

  3. Been using this technique for about two years now (since Sherlock Season 2…) and it really is amazing how much you can stash in there! Tricky thing for me has always been how to/if-it’s-even-possible-to delete items. I have to use familiar places sparingly, since info is pretty much permanent once there. Does the book address anything like that? I’ve had a really tricky time finding any answers.

    If it really is permanent, Imma need a bigger palace.

    Brava on the Shakespeare memorization! It would really be a chore, even for a die-hard Shakespeare fan like myself, to encode all of those titles. Can’t imagine what it must of been like for someone who doesn’t even like his work! XD

    1. This book really only addresses how to start using a Memory Palace, but there are other books out there — I’m going to read “Moonwalking with Einstein” next. My theory about the “deletion” of information is that you designate a specific place and/or room that you “clear” of information once you’ve used it. Like — you build a room that is completely empty, and things only appear in it when you need them?

      I think I’ll branch out into imaginary places, starting from places I know well — creating doorways in my mind, leading out of my house into entirely conceptual worlds.

      Ha, ha, thanks. I’ve just never really cared for Shakespeare. I love his plots, but it takes so bloody long to GET THERE that I tend to get distracted. Short attention span and zero interest in wading through the King James English.

  4. The book is now bought and I can hardly wait to make time to study it. Probably in the beginning of February!

    I’m so thrilled it worked for you! I mean, YOU, learning the titles of Shakespeare’s plays! That’s absolutely fantatic, as a certain Doctor would declare! 😉

    1. It’s a challenging hour of study (it would have taken me a shorter amount of time, but I kept clarifying each step as I built it in my mind, and then had to go back and add additional memory points for the plays I missed) but a lot of fun.

      Yes, I now know the titles of all Shakespeare’s plays… although I still have no interest in any of them. Hah!

        1. … is there any useful purpose I might put those plays toward? If not, as the original Sherlock Holmes would say — don’t learn it, and if you do learn it, delete it. 😉

          1. Hmm, useful purpose. I find the characters and situations a fascinating study in human behavior, so for me, yes. I could read and re-read Hamlet forever. For you, no, probably not. I think that Sherlock would be deleting Shakespeare too. 😉

          2. I enjoy the ideas of Shakespeare but not the way they are presented. If he were ever modernized into simple language, I’d be more of a fan — but I don’t like his work well enough to dedicate the extra brain power required to sort through the King James English. That particular way of speaking has always bored and frustrated me, hence I’ll never be a fan of anything written in it — and yes, that includes the King James Bible.

          3. Ooh, you can find copies of his plays with a plain English translation on the side. I’ve got one for Hamlet I believe. I don’t use it, but I know it’s handy for folks that struggle with his style.

          4. True. Much Ado About Nothing is really the only one I paid attention to from beginning to end, and that’s mostly because it’s a long line of insults. THOSE, I get.

  5. Well, this is funny. I just saw a form of this done in another show (The Mentalist), too. 🙂

    …cannot wait to watch S3 of ‘Sherlock.’ Love that dude.

          1. In a nutshell, she felt like it was too confusing, a lot of jumping around in the scenes and not enough explanation. In her opinion, it didn’t have the same intellectual as prior episodes – the explanations were missing.

          2. Hi, Rissi! One thing I love about this season is the character development. It’s far less about the cases and much more about the people. Sherlock wasn’t growing as an individual in the prior seasons. It took him being gone for 2 years to force him to appreciate the people in his life. This is the basis for the new season. It is still highly intellectual, but the cases don’t always have all the answers. It’s more about the characters than anything else, and I’m good with that. 🙂

          3. I might even venture to say it’s more intellectual, because it delves much more into motivations in addition to cases — the relationships are the focal point and there’s SO MUCH to think about, happening behind all their actions — so much that goes unsaid.

          4. Yes, exactly! We’re not distracted by the cases outshining the characters. These characters are changing, developing, and we’re able to watch it happen and it makes us, or at least you and me, curious. Why did Mycroft say what he said in the final episode? Why did Sherlock lecture Mycroft on friends? What are their motivations? When shows become purely about the action and not about the people, they tend to lose me. I’m glad Sherlock hasn’t gone that route. This season is by far the best of the show!

          5. I will watch anything just for character development. I get bored with procedural shows — I want something to sink my teeth into emotionally and logically, and this show is offering that up to me right now.

            Why is an east wind coming? Why did Mycroft remind Sherlock of Redbeard BEFORE Sherlock had to find Redbeard in his Memory Palace? Why did Sherlock imply Mycroft was lonely? What is the significance of how Sherlock sees Mycroft in his Memory Palace? What is the significance of how Mycroft sees Sherlock at the very end? And most importantly… WHAT OTHER ONE?!?

            HOW LONG WILL THIS HIATUS LAST?! Gatis and Moffat have it all planned out! PLEASE tell me it’s not going to be another bloody TWO YEARS. I can’t STAND it.

          6. It’s when the characters stop developing that I have a problem! I think they’d reached a stalemate on Sherlock. Something magnificent had to happen to jump-start new reactions and change. The writers may not always be logical, but their character growth this season has been spot on, 100%.

            Oh my gosh, I’d forgotten that Mycroft mentioned Redbeard! Why did he do that?! How Sherlock sees Mycroft must be one of the reasons behind his personality. How did Mycroft treat him when they were children? How cruel was he? Is he different now? Does he regret anything from their youth? And who the heck is THE OTHER ONE!?

            I get tired of cases leading to more questions, but I never tire of characters leading to more questions. This season, they’ve mastered the latter!

          7. You make a great point — Sherlock needed to “die,” to leave for a couple of years, to make his personality shift believable — otherwise, he’d still be the same person… not the Sherlock that asks Lestrade for help writing a best man’s speech, or that treats Molly nicely. He’s still the same manipulating, blunt jackass… but we’re seeing a little more of his heart, and that’s lovely.

            I think Mycroft mentions Redbeard to remind Sherlock of an emotional moment in his childhood — to rub it in that he’s the unemotional one, the one above such “sentiment.” I suspect even if Mycroft wasn’t “mean” in their childhood, he resented his little brother’s genius and made up for it by professing superior knowledge. Sherlock, meanwhile, started to see him as a domineering, disapproving harbinger of doom that plays an antagonistic role in his Mind Palace.

            Does Mycroft regret their previous relationship? I… suspect so. I have no proof, but I see a lot of falseness in Mycroft’s outer shell. He’s covering his own emotions, and he himself confessed that to lose Sherlock would “break [his] heart.” Clearly, he’s never shown that side of himself to his little brother before (“How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?!”) — which is sad, because it implies their relationship has always been fraught with conflict. (But also concern, which is why I adore it so much.)

            Such a good season. So many good questions.

          8. I guess I could see why she felt that way, since it does transition fast, but I didn’t have any trouble following it. Sherlock may not verbally explain as much, but it’s usually there on the screen for the audience to connect the dots.

        1. The books. Someone suggests the technique to Hannibal in “Hannibal Rising,” and he references combing through his memory palace in “Hannibal” (the book). It’s Lecter Castle, btw. 😉

          The door to Dr. Hannibal Lecter´s memory palace is in the darkness at the center of his mind and it has a latch that can be found by touch alone. This curious portal opens on immense and well-lit spaces, early baroque, and corridors and chambers rivaling in number those of the Topkapi Museum. Everywhere there are exhibits, well-spaced and lighted, each keyed to memories that lead to other memories in geometric progression. Spaces devoted to Hannibal Lecter´s earliest years differ from the other archives in being incomplete. Some are static scenes, fragmentary, like painted Attic shards held together by blank plaster. Other rooms hold sound and motion, great snakes wrestling and heaving in the dark and lit in flashes. Pleas and screaming fill some places on the grounds where Hannibal himself cannot go. But the corridors do not echo screaming, and there is music if you like.

          1. I’d ask if you’ve seen “Hannibal” the television series yet, but it’s so utterly gruesome I make it a point to not recommend it to anyone, ever… even though I’ve corrupted most of my friends to watching it. Oops.

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