Mind Palaces and Moonwalks

It’s thanks to my love for the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Sherlock, that I became fascinated with memory – how it works, where it goes wrong, and how it can be harnessed to make learning difficult and/or boring information easier (and more entertaining!). After seeing Sherlock’s “mind palace” come to life in the show, I decided to do some research of my own about this memory phenomenon. But it wasn’t until recently that I re-discovered my interest in the topic.

Today, I’m sharing a truly remarkable TEDxTalk about the powers of human memory given by Joshua Foer, the author of “Moonwalking With Einstein.”


Here are some tidbits that I thought were particularly thought-provoking:

  • Technologies have allowed us to “externalize” our memories so that we don’t have to remember every little thing; they have changed us on a cognitive level. (When was the last time you had to memorize a phone number without having your cell phone on hand to add it to your contacts list?)
  • In a research study conducted at University College London by Maguire et. al, the brains of participants from the World Memory Championships were found to exhibit different neural activities during memorization activities than the control group. Interestingly enough, these individuals were using parts of their brain that are involved in spatial memory and navigation: the hippocampus. (Check out the original study over here!)
  • The art of memory is figuring out how to transform information that lacks context and meaning into information that is meaningful in light of everything else you already know.
  • Memory is not an innate gift. Memories are learned. We only remember things when we’re deeply engaged with the information and turn it into something that fits with everything else we already have in our minds (e.g. why is this meaningful to me?)
  • Memory techniques aren’t really short-cuts – they work because they make you more mindful than you normally would be otherwise. They force you to increase your own depth of processing information.

Here is a fascinating summary of the study mentioned above (from this article about Maguire’s research):

Maguire and colleagues studied participants in the World Memory Championships, which take place every year in London. “People entering the World Memory Championships can do amazing things,” she explains. “They can memorise the order of cards in deck after deck of cards, for example. One memory champion passed time waiting in reception prior to his scan by memorising pages from the phone book – pretty well, too; I tested him on it.”

What was fascinating was that she could find no structural changes of the kind seen in the taxi drivers. Like the bus drivers, it seems that their memory feats did not place the same demands on the hippocampus. This emerged when she asked them what strategies they used. Nine out of ten of them had used the same strategy: an ancient Greek method, called the method of loci. “It’s based on navigation: they imagine going down a street they know well, place items at certain positions along the street, then mentally retrace their route to find the items.”

Although this strategy uses spatial memory to boost performance, the amount of large-scale space memorised is small, possibly accounting for the lack of structural changes in the hippocampus. “Their brain doesn’t have to change to accommodate a large map of London in their heads as it does for the cab drivers; the memory champions just need to memorise a couple of routes in detail.”

She could also ask a more basic question. Does the hippocampus store a ‘virtual map’ of the physical world or is it recalling relationships between objects in a more generic way? To test this, the team used fMRI to reveal which parts of participants’ brains were active as they visualised the spatial route between their friends’ houses compared with the social connections between the friends themselves. The tasks activated separate brain networks: the hippocampus is active when people visualise navigating to different locations but not when they navigate social networks of friends. What is satisfying is that the conclusion of this work complements the findings of studies of rats: the hippocampus is central to navigation.

And lastly, an inspirational quote by Mr. Foer:

“If you want to live a memorable life, you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember.”

I’d like to do more research about Maguire’s work and the “mind palace” technique (formally known as the method of loci). Perhaps this technique can assist me in my quest to become a successful physician? It’s worth looking into, I think.

Thanks for reading! :)


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