The Sherlockian Way of Getting a Degree

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London’s best “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes is most renowned for his powers of deduction, celebrated in pop culture for his astute observations and remarkable crime-solving skills, often bordering on the fantastic… His legacy has been revived time and again, with many reincarnations holding the calabash pipe. Now, as another rebirth of the fictional character braces our television sets, we are presented with even more impossible tricks, conjured by a man whose fashion sense involves a long black coat and a deerstalker.

If anyone has watched the recent BBC drama ‘Sherlock’, you will have undoubtedly seen Benedict Cumberbatch order Martin Freeman to ‘Get out! I need to go to my mind palace’, or indeed seen the villain Angus Magnusson delve into the “vaults” of his memory to extract scandalous and expository pieces of information. From somewhere deep within their memories they are able obtain crucial bits of arcane information without so much as a Wiki search. An episode of Sherlock can be a frustrating form of procrastination during those sad hours of revision, when not even one fact seems to stay in our minds. Can we jump on the Sherlockian bandwagon and create a Mind Palace of our own? Do Mind Palaces even exist?

I once knew someone who had an impressive party trick. He would produce a sealed pack of cards from his pocket and dramatically unwrap it in front of a group of people. Flicking through the cards, as if memorising the deck, he would then begin to list them in order, turning each one over as he said it. The result was effective… It appeared that everyone who saw the trick held the same idea that he must have committed to memory 52 cards in the space of 30 seconds. Of course, once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth…

Now the fact that the cards were sealed had a simple solution. A bit of cling film will make any pack look brand new. It doesn’t take a Sherlock to figure that one out. Memorising the pack, however, is a little more difficult. I had not even heard of the term ‘Mind Palace’ until I learnt the secret of the trick: a secret which I am now sharing with you.

A Memory Palace capitalises on the idea that the mind is better at memorising locations than facts. Associating images with locations can trigger memories that you may have otherwise forgotten. For instance, I once needed to remember the name Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Naturally living on Leopold Street I used this as my location and imagined a mascot (Masoch) with a satchel (Sacher) standing in the street. I was only learning one fact, however, to learn a number of facts for an exam or 52 cards for a trick is slightly different. The best thing to do is to imagine a place you know intimately and begin to place nuggets of information throughout. For instance, my friend imagined his house, moving from the Queen of Hearts in his bedroom to the 7 of clubs on his bookshelf, 3 of diamonds on the landing and so on.

Once you become more confident with the concept of the Mind Palace, you can discard reality completely. Why not use Snape’s Potions Classroom at Hogwarts to store Chemistry facts or 221B Bakers Street to keep Criminology statistics in? As long as you know the space well, any location is possible. Who knows, maybe Arthur Conan Doyle or J.K. Rowling is all that’s standing between you and a first class degree?

Failing that though, I suppose the Mind Palace is always useful for learning the number of the taxi company that will take you home at 4am… But then again, I suppose that’s just elementary…

Holly Duerden

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