The Mind Palace

Sherlock Holmes possessed many spectacular gifts, and exceptional memory was among his chief weapons. He was able to recall the most obscure facts with uncanny speed and accuracy. His memory was not merely photographic: although he certainly could remember every scene and character in fine detail, it also extended to concepts, events, facts, numerical sequences—anything, really.

In the BBC show, Sherlock referred to his technique as a “mind palace.” For most of the show, this concept was left fairly vague—a sort of highly focused state in which Sherlock was able to quickly rifle through vast volumes of his memory in search of something particular. It was explored in detail in “His Last Vow,” the episode featuring Charles Augustus Magnussen, a villain with a mind palace of his own. Magnussen did not have a vault full of incriminating evidence. He simply remembered every secret in unerring detail.

This was the first time the show actually offered a visual depiction of a mind palace. It was presented as a vast complex of rooms, each filled with an array of artifacts. Each artifact—a memory. When Magnussen wished to recall something, he would meditate, entering his mind palace. He would stroll down a hallway, enter a room, pick an object, and remember.

Into the Palace

The “mind palace” technique is, in fact, based on an actual memory enhancement technique called “method of loci,” or “memory palace.” The technique is quite old, already known to the Ancient Greeks. A practitioner relies on spatial memory to store arbitrary information, associating a list of objects to be memorized with unrelated objects found in a familiar scene. For example, one could attach names of car parts to items in one’s pantry. Then to recall names of those car parts, one would take a mental walk through their pantry.

I learned about this technique in high school, and even though that was a couple decades ago now, I can still recall at least some of the list of words I memorized using this method. I just walk through my parents’ old house, and the words are there.

I learned about this technique in high school, and even though that was a couple decades ago now, I can still recall at least some of the list of words I memorized using this method. I just walk through my parents’ old house, and the words are there.

This much is well known. What is next?

For anyone who grew up with their brain buzzed by the Hacker Manifesto—my crime is that of curiosity—the most natural question arises: If this is a thing my brain can do, what else can it do? Could this technique be extended somehow? Creatively misapplied?

I happen to be fairly comfortable with visuospatial memory and imagination. So, combined with already knowing about the method of loci, when I saw the mind palace portrayed on Sherlock, it was immediately familiar. I am, of course, not as magnificently able as either Holmes or Magnussen, but the principle made perfect sense—with one difference. When Holmes and Magnussen go to their mind palaces, they find things they put away there. When I go to my mind palace, I can find things that are entirely new.

A Palace of Creative Discovery

Creative writing is a favored pastime of mine, and in its pursuit, I spend a lot of time in imaginary settings. When I am working on a scene, I have decided some of the things ahead of time, such as a general setting, characters, and a premise for their interaction. Most of the details, however, I can only describe as discovered.

Let us suppose I am working on a scene featuring a couple at a café. What do I see when I imagine it? I can picture the small round table, its polished wood stained with years of casual abuse. Grains of spilt sugar. A nearly exhausted candle. Cups of coffee, steam rising, one cup already half empty. I can see the two people, the details of their clothing and posture, where they are looking when they speak and listen. I can see their neighbors. The longer I concentrate, the more I can see.

From the start, I wanted to make my writing style visually engaging (I often say that cinema has influenced my writing more than literature) so visualizing such frames has naturally been helpful. At first, I used the visualization practice because it was easy—almost habitual. Eventually, the practice became intentional.

With time, I realized that I could move about the scene. I could circle the people at the café, go to other tables, move outside and look at them through a window, wander into the kitchen. I could engage all other senses—scents, sounds, textures, temperatures. Eventually, I could let the scene play out, like a movie, then rewind and re-watch parts of it over and over, so I could get the particulars just right.

In retrospect, these advances were minor, mere refinements of the same idea. The next turn was a leap—a mixture of startling and empowering.

Where Does the Palace End, Where Do I Begin

I realized that when the characters experienced emotions, I was experiencing them as well. I could step into their personalities. I suppose on some neuro-psychological level, this is perfectly sensible—these emotional states were already being created somewhere in my brain, so it was not too much of a leap for me to be fully affected by them.

The mind palace became a place of experience rather than mere observation. The process of writing became much more taxing.

The mind palace became a place of experience rather than mere observation. The process of writing became much more taxing. Although I found myself bearing the characters’ emotions in a rather direct way, I could not always easily verbalize them. I would have to relive a scene over and over until I could find the right words. Replaying a scene in my mind palace allowed me to hone in on fine nuances of each moment, but at the cost of having to experience each moment repeatedly—sometimes dozens of times until I felt I had it right. I became my own obsessive director and method actor.

I believe my writing improved by becoming deeper. The stories were not just visually appealing, they felt more authentic. The characters’ emotions became truer, and my distance from them that much shorter.

This proximity came at a cost. The first time that I can recall when I worked in this mode, I wrote a historical fiction piece that featured Joan of Arc and Cauchon, the man who would later preside over her trial. In my fictionalized account, Cauchon visits Joan shortly after her capture. In the scene he is a sadist, gloating over Joan’s defeat, toying with the defenseless woman. Cauchon’s mind was vile. The process was exhausting. It was hard to bear Joan’s grief and terror, and I hated having Cauchon with me. I was glad for a short deadline, and submitted the piece with a sense of relief.

To my genuine terror, the next day, Cauchon was still there. In fact, for several days, I was on the verge of panic because his voice kept floating up in my head. It was a struggle, but eventually he dissipated, passed like a viral infection, and I learned a lesson about safe disengagement.

Dragons of the Palace

Sherlock Holmes: “Possible suicides. Four of them. There is no point sitting at home when there’s finally something fun going on!”
Mrs. Hudson: “Look at how happy you are. It’s not decent.”
Sherlock Holmes: “Oh, who cares about decent. The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!”
(Sherlock, Season 1, Episode 1)

Famously brilliant, Sherlock was also infamously detached. However—detached, but not unfeeling. He delighted in taking down villains, celebrated bringing those under his protection to safety, and mourned his defeats. Given the real dangers and traumatic nature of his profession, some emotional distance is certainly healthy. Whatever his innate inclinations, his detachment was likely honed in principled practice.

This mirrors my experiences in the mind palace. Close encounters with oneself are never guaranteed to be easy. The subject matter of literary fiction, my home range, is often emotionally difficult. Indeed, all artistic work is to a significant degree emotional work. Authenticity is paramount, but so is self-regard. The mind palace practice, I believe, offers both.

Better acquainted with the technique, I have not had a repeat of the Joan of Arc incident. I have written other fraught stories, with hard emotions and loathsome adversaries. Yet however real and intense the scene, I was always able to step away, shut the laptop lid, make tea, and chat with a friend.

This manner of ability, I imagine, is not unique. It relies on some degree of visuospatial capacity and empathy, both of which are much more the rule than an exception for people. I would not consider myself notably gifted with either. The rest is practice. There is a mind palace for every person.

Boris is a physicist with deep affection and admiration for the arts. He currently lives in Washington, DC, where he resides in an apartment gradually filling with books, string lights, and tools.