Sherlock Holmes is an imaginary private detective created by British writer Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1880s. Doyle’s stories about the detective have been turned into movies and television shows.
One of Sherlock Holmes’ great skills is a powerful memory. In a recent BBC television series, the character uses a memory technique called a “mind palace” or “memory palace.”
On one show, for example, Holmes has been severely wounded in a shooting and retreats into his mind to search for ways to survive. He visits rooms in his mind palace, looking for helpful memories. In one room, he finds his childhood dog, and the memory helps calm the detective.
The memory palace idea was not a BBC creation. The method for remembering has existed for thousands of years. Many language educators today teach their students how to use the method to improve their language skills.
But what exactly is a memory palace? It is a real structure, such as a home or building, that you can picture in your head. You then imagine placing things you want to remember inside the structure.
You can use a memory palace to remember words, phrases, facts, or even the order of events. If you can see the inside of a house or building in your mind, you can make your own memory palace. On today’s Education Tips, we will show you how.
Making your palace
Start with a list of words or phrases that you want to remember. Then, close your eyes and choose a physical space that you know well, such as your home, a school you attended, or a current or former workplace. If your chosen space has only one or two rooms, do not worry. You can also use things like doors, passageways, steps or other permanent places along the physical path.
The next step is to imagine walking through the space using the path that you would normally take through it. As you walk through, put objects that you want to remember at specific places along the path. Leave the objects there to pick up later when you visit your memory palace.
Now, let’s try this technique by using six ingredients for a pizza: flour, water, dry yeast, tomato sauce, cheese and basil.
Close your eyes and picture a home.
First, you open the front door and see a bag of flour on the floor. The bag is broken and some of the flour has spilled. You are worried that you might slip, so you carefully step over the area.
Second, you walk into your bedroom. On top of your bed sits a cup of water. The cup is shaped like an upside-down piece of pizza. You think about how funny that is and laugh about it.
Third, as you enter the living room, you see a very large spoon of dry yeast sitting on the sofa. The spoon is watching a cooking show on television.
Fourth, while standing in the living room, you notice the room has a strange smell to it. You look above the television and see a block of cheese hanging on the wall.
Fifth, you walk into the kitchen and see two tomatoes chasing each other around the room. Suddenly, they crash and explode, covering the floor in red.
And sixth, you open the back door and go outside. There, you see a group of very tall green basil plants. In a funny voice, the tallest plant says, “Choose me! Choose me!”
Did you notice anything strange about the palace? It was full of extraordinary and humorous imagery. We will say more about that in a few minutes.
But first, let’s check how well our technique worked. See if you can answer these questions:
1-What was on the wall above the television?
2-Where were the tomatoes and what were they doing?
3-Which object was sitting on the bed?
4-Where was the yeast and what was it doing?
5-Which ingredient spoke and what did it say?
6-What did you see when you opened the front door?
My guess is that you remembered everything in our memory palace. That’s good news.
Make memory strong
Experts offer some advice for making strong memory palaces.
For instance, if you want to remember a lot of words, memory trainer Anthony Metivier suggests first drawing a simple map of your memory palace. Then, number the places along your path where you will put the things that you want to remember. You can put more than one thing in each room or area. Later, you will add the mental imagery.
English teacher James, of the YouTube channel JamesESL English Lessons, has additional advice. In his video on memory palaces, he says that there are three keys to a strong memory palace. They are: emotion, movement, and connections between the object and something permanent.
Both he and Metivier say imagining things in a humorous or crazy way improves your ability to remember them. These experts also agree that connecting images to actions or movement will create lasting memories. For instance, the tomatoes were chasing each other and the basil spoke.
And finally, teacher James suggests placing the objects next to or on something permanent in your palace. Beds, sofas, floors, walls, doors – all of these are permanent. The block of cheese was on the wall, for example.
Now, it’s your turn. Pick a list of English words or phrases that you have trouble remembering and try this method on your own.
Let us know how it goes.
I’m John Russell. And I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
palace – n. a very large and impressive house
ingredient – n. one of the things that are used to make a food or product
slip – v. to lose your balance, especially on a slippery surface
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
spoon – n. an eating or cooking tool that has a small shallow bowl attached to a handle
sofa – n. a long and comfortable piece of furniture on which a person can sit or lie down
kitchen – n. a room in which food is cooked
guess – n. an attempt to give an answer about something when you do not know much about it or are not sure about it
key – n. something that is necessary in order to do or achieve something