Sep. 21st, 2017


Sep. 21st, 2017 09:24 am
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In a piece published at Aeon, science writer Lynne Kelly, for whom I have the highest regard based on her book The Memory Code, starts off with the following sentence:
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) we learn that Sherlock Holmes used the most effective memory system known: a memory palace.
I believe this statement is in error, blemishing from the start what I thought was an otherwise interesting article. I say this because my recollection of that first Holmes tale was entirely different, which I just confirmed by doing searches through the version of the story available at

While the modern incarnation of Holmes, courtesy of the BBC and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, does mention the memory palace technique, the only substantive commentary on Holmes's memorization strategy that I recall in A Study in Scarlet was the following:
[Holmes's] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “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. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” (emphasis mine)
Clearly, by his own admission, Holmes believes the brain is capable of storing only a finite number of knowledge "chunks." In putting the quoted words in Holmes's mouth, I suspect Conan Doyle wanted to quickly fill in the outlines of Holmes's character for the reader and therefore chose an concise (if quirky, by modern standards) explanation that would resonate with educated readers of his time. (I find it inconceivable to think that mnemonics for memorization were not already part of the medical student's "bag of tricks" when Conan Doyle studied medicine!)

Myself, after having read (several times, now) Kelly's description of the lukasa and how she made one ("I grabbed a piece of wood and glued some beads and shells on it") and what she was able to do with it ("[encode] the 412 birds of my state: their scientific family names, identification, habitats, and behaviour") I remain at a loss to figure out the critical encoding step, especially as there would appear to be no pre-conceived pattern to the gluing of the beads and shells.

So if I understand this correctly—if one can create a piece of memorization hardware from beads and shells glued to a piece of wood—why can't one do the same, say, with oil paints, a brush, and a canvas? Anthony Metivier has some things to say about this in a recent YouTube video that addresses the question "Can Memory Palace practice increase happiness?" As I am still curious, I'm adding this question to my list of things to examine in greater detail.


P.S. I was able to zero in on the text in the story quickly because I was struck by it during my first reading of the story, back about a half century ago, and I recalled Holmes's use of the word "attic" to describe one's brain.

P.P.S. To make sure my own recollection was not faulty, I embarked upon some "due diligence" while I had the "find" box open on the Gutenberg page in my browser. I searched for key words—such as "memory" (1 occurrence), "palace" (1), "memorization" (0), "remember" (17), and "association" (0)—no occurrences of which turned out to be germane to Holmes's view of the way the mind works.


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