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In Sherlock the BBC TV series the protagonist Sherlock and the villain Magnussen are able to recall information from their mind similar to searching for a file in Windows. Is this really possible? If yes then I would be very much interested in knowing how to do this...:)

Let me clarify that this has nothing to do with having Idetic memory as it is mentioned by Sherlock that the memory palace is a technique and not a god gift.

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Somehow I think that if it were that easy then we'd all be doing it. – Pharap Apr 17 '14 at 6:23
up vote 31 down vote accepted


To quote from The Independent about the source of mind palaces:

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.

The article goes on to describe how many mental athletes around the world use this technique to compete in memory championships, before interviewing a collection of these athletes.

Finally, to use the article's rather lovely conclusion as to why a palace could be useful:

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.

For more information, you can look up the Method of loci, which is what the memory palace is more traditionally known as. To quote from the Wiki:

'The method of loci', an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally 'walks' through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established as is the minimal interference seen with its use.

The page also has an interesting collection of movies and television shows where the technique has been used.

As for learning it yourself? Try this article from Remember Everything

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Just came here to mention Yates' book, which I read years ago in grad school: ISBN 978-0226950013, Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, available in paperback and ebook form, as is one of her sources, Giordano Bruno's De Umbris Idearum (e.g., ISBN 978-1492329961) [the same Giordano Bruno mentioned in Cosmos]. – outis nihil Apr 16 '14 at 18:51
Maybe one should distinguish between 'mind palace' and 'mind palace as depicted in Sherlock' (e.g. Magnussen's "Google Glass"), because the OP mentions: ... recall information from their mind similar to searching for a file in Windows – Oliver_C Apr 16 '14 at 19:15
@Oliver_C: Good point. I think the Independent part of the answer covers that a little, but definitely most of the stuff I came across online referred to the traditional idea of a mind palace. – Andrew Martin Apr 16 '14 at 19:15
It's very real: – Wayne Apr 16 '14 at 22:19
As a former psychology student, I'd speculate that this method involves reinterpreting/associating semantic as/with episodic data in episodic memory. This probably works most of the time because the average human's episodic memory is generally better than their semantic memory due to the human need to learn from experience, however I would also wager that for some people their episodic memory is not necessarily as good as their semantic memory, in which case the technique would not be as effective. I'm just making an educated guess though, I could be completely wrong :P – Pharap Apr 17 '14 at 6:21


The kind of mind palace portrayed in Sherlock isn't possible for a normal person. Like most things on TV, they don't work that way in real life.

The technique that the mind palace is based on has been known for thousands of years at least, but it is only really suited to recalling lists of items. The order of cards in a deck, the name of every king of England, digits of Pi etc.

In older versions of Windows when you searched for a file the computer had to simple go through every file in order until it found the one you wanted. A mind palace works like that, it can't be used to simply recall the 37th card in the deck without going through the earlier ones first. Newer versions of Windows create a database of files that allows the OS to quickly skip ahead to the one you want.

--- Edit: ---


"The method of loci is essentially a visual filing system, allowing you to memorize and recall a virtually unlimited number of items in a fixed order." In the TV show characters are shown as using a Mind Palace as random-access storage for brainstorming and free association, as well as instant recall of random facts.

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I'm just wondering you reference for your statements? It seems to directly contradict what Andrew's answer says. If you quote some sources, your vote count is going to be much higher. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Apr 17 '14 at 11:20
Is this not what Sherlock did in the series though? He went through every reference of "Hound" until he got to what he was after - he didn't just jump to the right place. – Andrew Martin Apr 17 '14 at 16:29
He did a random search of things related to "hound" in his memories. For it to be a real mind palace he would have had to previously research all those things and memorize them in the exact order he recalled them. The mind palace isn't google for your existing memories. – ゼーロ Apr 17 '14 at 21:03

I remembering hearing Ken Campbell talk about time he met Marvin Minsky - MM would have ideas that he wasn't able to process right at that moment, so "put" the new idea into an empty jar that he would come back to - apparently he had shelves full!

Maybe not quite the same as a "Mind Palace", but certainly a different way of considering memory and perception

There's an interview between the two of them here - - haven't got time to watch it now, but it'll certainly be worth having a look at

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