Sherlock Holmes has a ‘mind palace’. At least, he does in the BBC series; in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories he has a much more mundane-sounding “mind attic” (I’ve got enough clutter in my actual attic before I start messing around with mind attics). But it comes as no surprise that a big-budget production with Benedict Cumberbatch and pals would upgrade from a semi-detached with attic to a whopping great palace.
Sherlock's mind palace
In the final episode of the third season His Last Vow, Sherlock slips into his mind palace to work out how to survive the gunshot wound he just sustained. He does so by recalling key bits of information from his years of sleuthing, such as whether he should fall forwards or backwards to best delay the loss of blood. We get a glimpse of the rooms he’s mapped out, the people and objects he’s placed there and the information they link to. It’s a classic mnemonic device that’s been traced back to the Ancient Greeks.
Mnemonics for learning vocabulary
Most of us aren’t too concerned about remembering what to do when shot (in my head I always successfully wrestle the gun from the assailant’s hand, incapacitate them with a deft kick to the kneecap, then backflip to safety. So, you know, gunshot survival info not needed).
What we are interested in, however, is how to harness this technique for, say, learning vocabulary for a foreign language. Here are the steps, simplified:
Map out a place in your head. It can be a place that exists in real life or a place you’ve imagined; studies have shown choosing one over the other has no effect on the ability to recall.
Work out a route through that place. For example, if you’ve chosen the school where you work as a teacher, imagine talking a specific route through the school, popping your head in and out of classrooms as you go.
Take a word that you want to learn. Let’s go for table in Spanish: mesa.
Think about that word. Look at it on the page in front of you. What image pops into your head? Say it. What does it sound like? Play around with it on your tongue. Say it quickly. Say it slowly. But if a clear image bursts into your mind—no matter how ridiculous—stop. That’s your image. I’ve just thought of a messy pile of arts and craft supplies. There’s glitter all over the place, glue sticks, craft paper, newspapers, spilt paint. And the mess-a (mesa) is all over the table.
Place that image in one of your rooms. This image is particularly fitting for a school: the messy table strewn with craft supplies can go in the art department.
Keep filling the rooms with images until your mind palace is stuffed with weird and wonderful things.
Keep taking strolls through your mind palace until the words you once struggled to remember move into your long-term memory.
The key thing about the mind palace is that it should be personal to you. There are vocabulary books that essentially prescribe you with ready-made images and associations. But they’re someone else’s images. You have no ownership over them. Your mind is a twisted, wonderful land of giant ducks that drive boats, edible postboxes that complain when you bite into them, vast castles occupied by Jon Snows, Cersei Lannisters and that British bloke from The Wire. Only you know what’s lurking there, and only you will experience the pleasure of remembering something that resides there.
Behind the curtain
Having said that, I’d like to invite you to take a quick peek through the window of my own mind palace. These are some of the most potent images that have been bouncing around my head over the last few weeks. They’re all Spanish, translated into English.
1) Sacudir - to shake
Sac(k) > pack > packet of crisps. I see the distinctive branding of Walkers’ Salt ‘n’ Shake crisps that kids had at school (they always made me jealous; they never turned up in my lunchbox).
2) Ranúnculo - buttercup
I know that culo is Spanish for bum. You’ve got ‘nun’ in there, so I imagine a nun flashing her bum. It’s yellow, like a buttercup. Yes, I know—a bit Carry On. But it’s the first thing I thought of.
3) Estrambótico - outlandish
I see ‘tram’, and I’ve developed an image in which a tram runs out of land and it’s flying off the edge of the earth without any rails to guide it. I apply some special effects to it for added amusement—think Nyan Cat.
4) Embudo - funnel
‘Bud’ stands out to me here. What does a flower bud look like? A funnel (at least in my mind it does).
5) Morosidad - defaulting (on a payment)
Prepare yourself. This only works with a cockney accent in my head. He’s missed the payment deadline and he’s broke. He’ll appeal to family members for help, just like he’s done in the past. He needs “more off his Dad”...moreofisdad...morosidad.
6) Fofo - flabby
This one comes with audio. Fo...fo...fo...is the sound rolls of fat make when they get jiggled around. Nice.
I had such a weird dream last night...
I could go on, but doing so would be like listening to a work colleague tell you about a weird dream they had last night. You might chuckle at the absurdity of it at first, but you’ll soon start to tune out. No-one’s dreams are as interesting as yours.
Make learning foreign language vocab fun. Create your own mind palace and make sure it’s stuffed with things that are as uniquely weird and wonderful as you are.