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.