The Mind Palace Technique

And How You Can Use One

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

So said the master of mind palaces in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novella on Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The popular TV series Sherlock took this statement and ran with it, showing us the viewers the inside scoop on how this mastermind thinks and processes information.

It’s easy to believe that only a genius could organize his mind and thoughts into such a system. How many times have you said, “Oh, I’ll remember that,” and forgotten it just a few minutes later? At some point in time, we have all struggled to remember that one little thing…it was just in mind…and now it’s gone.

Many times, we place the blame on distractions, plead not having a good memory in general, or shrug it off. No one is perfect, after all. Anyway, that’s what pieces of paper, email invites, calendar reminders and other people are for, correct?

But what if you could remember all the important information that you had to at any time?

“It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.”  

First of all, forgetting information is inevitable. Our minds take in information every second of every waking hour. There simply is not enough room to remember everything, which is why Sherlock “deletes” information such as the solar system, which he considers irrelevant to his life.

In real life, how often do people remember irrelevant details such as the dress that one coworker wore two days or the fact that the neighbors always seem to have people over on Tuesday nights? Contrariwise, how often do people forget to bring cash when they need it, to plan ahead for that call or doctor’s appointment, and to remember other highly inconvenient-to-forget life events?

Many times, we forget things because we already have filled our short-term memory subconsciously with other, much more interesting, things. Most people do not select and store memories with any deliberation at all.

It can be done.

“The skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.”

Before the invention of the printing press, people relied much more on their memories in day to day living. If they forgot something, there was not a easy backup to restore it.

Today, we have the advantage of multiple backups, from our emails, phones, online calendars, and more. We also have an unparalleled access to information which has never before happened in history. Add social media, the constant bombardment of news and opinion stories, and the shorter attention span of humans and it’s no wonder that our minds are full of clutter and mess. Do we really need to know what *insert favorite band, celebrity, or controversial person* is doing right at this second?

Do you need all that in your mind? Are you being deliberate in what is in your “brain-attic?” Or does information float about and elude you when you want it?

That’s what makes the difference between a “skilful workman” and Dr. Watson.

“He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work…”

One answer to an organized mind and memory is to create a personal mind loci. More commonly, we call these mind palaces. The basic theory has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans—Mr. Sherlock Holmes merely brought it back to a wider audience.

In its essence, a mind palace provides the user with a place in the user’s mind where things that need to be remembered are associated with something “solid” or sensible in the user’s mind.

For example, my personal mind palace takes the form of a library with multiple rooms. Every person I know has a book on a shelf, as do the topics in which I am interested and (presumably; I have never deliberately created a space for this) I believe that important information is stored somewhere about.

(Upon investigation, I think my important information is in the piles of paper on a mental desk.)

Other people have described their mind loci as their commute to work, a family home, a well-traveled walking route, and many other places, both real and imagined. It is commonly thought that storing memories in an actual place that you know well will make the process of storing memories easier as it’s one less thing you have to store in your mind. This varies from person to person.

“…but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.”

Here’s where the genius and everyone else fall out. Creating a mind palace does not automatically make everything easier to recall and remember when it is wanted. Nor does it instantly reduce the amount of random information that wanders in and out of our minds.

To store the information is simple in theory, but it takes practice to make it faster and better. And that’s not taking into account the deliberate setup and creation process.

Personally, my mind loci is more organic in nature. Rarely do I “take down” a mental book off my mental shelves and write something down in order to remember. Instead, I associate mental books, images, and places with specific sets of memories. This way, I can pick and choose (to some extent) what I think about when. I can also use it to “forget” or “shelve” memories that I do not want.

One of my favorite things to do is to “wander” in my mind and find new information in different places. After all, how much do I really know about my mind? I’m always curious…

At the end of the day, wouldn’t it be nice to remember what you want to, when you want to? Almost everyone could use a little more order and space in their minds. Why not try to create a mind palace of your own?

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