How Sherlock Holmes's "Mind Palace" Trick Can Boost Your Memory, As Shown By Brain Scans

It may sound simple, but a new study affirms that the “method of loci' is linked with more durable, longer-lasting memories. Image credit: GoodStudio/Shutterstock.com

New research has shown that Sherlock Holmes’s method for recalling fine details, known as the “method of loci,” may really help to enhance peoples’ memory skills. The new study also used brain scans to help explain why this ancient memory "hack” is so effective.

Sherlock Holmes, or at least Benedict Cumberbatch's reimagining of the fictional private detective, is able to remember vast banks of information by creating a “mind palace”. Originally developed by the ancient Greeks, the technique involves using visualizations of familiar spaces to help recall information.

Say, for example, you want to remember your shopping list: apples, wine, bread, etc. Start by imagining a familiar space, such as your home, then picture yourself making a journey through this space: you walk up the driveway, open the door, you walk to your hallway, look at the painting of your left, then make a right into the living room, etc. Next, assign each item of your shopping list to a particular room or feature and create a mental image of the object in that room: a bundle of apples in the driveway, a bottle of wine by the front door, etc. To remember the shopping list, simply make that journey through your house in your mind, recalling the mental images as you go, and you should find that a long list of items is noticeably easier to recall.

It may sound simple, but a new study affirms that this technique is linked with more durable, longer-lasting memories. As reported in the journal Science Advances, scientists at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands carried out two experiments to investigate the method of loci. 

Firstly, they assessed 17 of the world's top memory athletes who are extremely familiar with the method of loci, compared to 16 non-experts. This part of the experiment showed that the memory athletes were able to recall an average of 72 words in order, while the control group recalled around 43. 

In the second part of the experiment, they tested 50 non-expert participants who completed either an intense method of loci training, a less rigorous working memory training, or no training. The participants were presented with a long list of words and asked to memorize them in order. Both 20 minutes and 24 hours after seeing a list, the people who were trained with the method of loci were able to recall notably more words. All the participants were retested four months later and asked to recall the memorized words. Once again, the loci training group significantly outperformed the other groups: the loci group recalled 50 words on average, the working memory group recalled 30 words, and the untrained group just 27 words.

Using MRI scanning, they found that both memory athletes and the non-expert participants that received the method of loci training had decreased neural activity in several areas of the brain that play a role in spatial memory processing. The researchers write that this appears to display “neural efficiency.” In other words, although there is a decrease in neural activity, this is actually a reflection of the brain performing more dexterously and effectively, not at a lower capacity. 

"What was beautiful to see was that the effects were so strikingly similar between memory champions and the memory training group after training and directly related to performance increases," Isabella Wagner, lead author and postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at the University of Vienna, said in a statement.

"The method of loci technique obviously requires time and regular practice and might thus not be suited for everyone, but it is definitely possible to 'boost' memory and reach high or even exceptional memory performance."

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