How to 'Sherlock' your degree: The art of building a memory palace

In the current BBC series, Sherlock Holmes solves his crimes as much through his powers of recall as deduction. Here's how to apply them to your degree

Sherlock Holmes may be best known for his powers of deduction, but in his latest incarnation in the BBC drama "Sherlock", Holmes has another crime-solving trick up his tweed sleeve: a "memory palace", crammed with knowledge about everything from chemical formulae to breeds of chicken.

He sweeps about this mental space, coat flapping, opening doors and yanking out crucial bits of arcane information which somehow hold the key to solving the mystery. It’s the antithesis of the "google it" mentality, and it’s really, really cool. Procrastinating with Sherlock during the sad summer hole of revision is liable to bring on severe envy, and frustration that you aren’t also a fictional detective with a stately home for a brain.

As it turns out, memory palaces like Holmes’ are a real thing, and have been for thousands of years. It all began with a lucky escape from a collapsing banquet hall by the Ancient Greek poet Simonides, who realised that by visualizing the room where the accident happened, he could perfectly recall the names of all his squashed fellow revellers. He later found a less morbid use for this discovery, by associating things he wanted to remember with walks through buildings he knew well.

Nowadays, this technique is used by "mental athletes", who compete in memory championships all over the world. They combine imagined strolls through childhood homes or familiar streets with vivid mental images, the cruder and stranger the better, associating them with strings of random words, names and faces, shuffled cards, and binary numbers, to staggering effect. In 2010, Germany’s Simon Reinhard memorised 300 words in 15 minutes. That’s one word every three seconds.

Impressive, but most of us only have to remember our PIN numbers, mums' birthdays, and relevant facts and concepts for exams. And for that, having memory real estate can help.

That’s according to Ed Cooke, a Grand Master of Memory (meaning he can, amongst other feats, memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour). Winner of the Cambridge Memory Championship in 2007, he ranked seventh in the world championships of the same year.

With two degrees under his belt (philosophy and psychology at Oxford, followed by an MA in cognitive science at Paris Descartes University), Cooke has had to revise a lot. “I did hone a lot of these strategies while doing exams. The most information heavy exam I had to sit was probably my psychology finals,” he explained, which required him to learn “somewhere around a thousand studies.”

“I’d have some space, say a school or college at which I’d group experimental paradigms...”

“My most satisfying thing was probably when I tried to remember Heideggarian philosophy, and I used cafes round Oxford to remember different philosophical concepts he had.” Cooke set up “elaborate hypertext links between them all. That was quite intellectually satisfying.”

Wandering round Oxford’s streets, pubs and libraries, Cooke would lay down nuggets of information to be mentally accessed later. Any student can do this themselves, although Cooke concedes that “it helps to have a nice campus-style town".

Part of strong memory palace construction is inventing Ross Noble style mental images, so weird you can’t possibly forget them. For instance, imagining your lecturer getting it on with a lampshade might help you learn a line from Twelfth Night, or the structure of the cornea.

However, creating memorably lewd mental pictures can have disturbing consequences. “Especially with learning packs of cards,” says Cooke, “where you actually have people standing in for cards. I have four sisters who I used to stand in for cards, and I had to eliminate them because they found themselves in such awkward situations.”

Cooke has now turned his attention to helping others improve their capacity to remember stuff, with an educational app called Memrise. It can teach you anything from basic Russian to the geographical regions of France, and the glamour of knowing University Challenge trivia is strangely addictive. 

So does the memory palace technique really work? I tried revisiting my secondary school, to help memorise the names of the U.S. Presidents in order (there are 44). To get into the car park, I jumped over a washing line (George Washington), where Adam and Eve (John Adams) where playing cricket with Geoffrey Boycott (Thomas Jefferson). Marilyn Manson (James Madison) was in the IT block getting off with Marilyn Monroe (James Monroe) etc. It took me about 40 minutes to come up with the lurid tale, and apart from occasionally getting their first names wrong (so many Jameses and Adams) it worked a treat. I didn’t have to buy specialist stationery, or get repetitive strain injury from writing it out a hundred times, and it was actually pretty fun.

We don’t strictly need to know things by heart in 2014: you’ve got Wifi, you’ve got all the knowledge you could possibly need, right? Yet the best CEOs are supposed to be able to remember their employees names and birthdays. In fact, the ‘Sherlock’ series 3 finale hinted at the prestige knowledge can have in the digitized world: sometimes the only truly safe place to keep information is your own brain. Also, knowing the number for a cab company is very helpful at 3am when your phone is dead. Long live the mind palace.

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

English Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Experience...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

PE Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary PE Teacher (maternity cover) f...

English Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary English Teacher for a academy ...

Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments