Monday, February 10, 2014

The brain attic versus the mind palace.

"A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it." 
-- Sherlock Holmes, 1891

"I need to go to my mind palace."
-- Sherlock Holmes, 2012

Being a blogger is an exercise in constantly being made aware of one's limits. Putting thoughts out on public display with a comment section will quickly bring out the facts that one failed to include, and no human mind contains all of the facts in a chosen field. Not that some don't make a very good attempt at it. Which brings us back to our friend Sherlock Holmes.

Did Sherlock Holmes have a "mind palace" in 1891?

Yes, yes, we know he said, "A man should keep his little brain attic stocked . . ." but was he talking about his own mind? "Little brain attic" seems more like it could be his estimation of us regular folk. If we have attics, Holmes has a palace, to be sure.

But is our modern Sherlock's "mind palace" more of an expression of our modern faith in our instant access to all the data on the internet? Who needs a mind palace when you've got a data-phone that will pull in human knowledge on all sorts of things? And if we can do it with a phone, well, we'd imagine that surely Sherlock Holmes could do it with his brain, couldn't he? Or is that just our imaginations taking liberties?

Anyone who still maintains a library on a particular subject, like the subject of Holmes himself, will quickly tell you that all the data isn't even close to being on the internet. A true expert still needs "the lumber-room of his library." And Holmes was a true expert.

When Holmes was originally speaking of the brain attic, he was basically talking about the brain as a space for knowledge and not an actual mental construct for memorization. I suspect that that the method of loci (the older name for the "mind palace" technique) was actually used by Hannibal Lechter before a Holmes first did. (And shouldn't be confused with Sherlock Holmes's consideration of  the genius loci, the spirit of a place, in The Valley of Fear.)

If Victorian Sherlock was a student of method of loci, I suspect he would have given Watson some tips on it when he had to do twenty-four hours of intensive study on Chinese pottery in "Illustrious Client." Watson, it appears, used old fashioned cramming to get the job done for the short term. Of course, maybe Holmes just respected Watson's intellect enough to let the doctor use his own memorization technique of choice. But, who knows, really?

For the best answer about Holmes's use of method of loci, it's easiest just to consider the media involved. While the "mind palace" technique really doesn't add anything to a prose presentation of Sherlock Holmes, it really does jazz up the visuals of a video Holmes. And in that little fact, I think we can find our true reason for our favorite detective adopting the technique in the modern era.

The mind palace just looks cooler on TV than in The Strand Magazine. And that's not a bad thing.

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