Arts of Memory 2.0: The Sherlock Update

I’m a little behind the times, I know, but I just finished watching the second episode in the second season of Sherlock, “The Hounds of Baskerville.” If you’ve watched the episode, you’ll remember a scene in which Sherlock asks to be left alone so that he may enter his “Mind Palace.” (If you’ve not been watching Sherlock, you really ought to.) The “Mind Palace” in question turns out to be what has traditionally been called a memory palace or memory theater. It is the mental construct at the heart of the ancient ars memoria, or arts of memory.

Longtime (and long-suffering) readers will remember a handful of posts discussing this ancient art and also likening Facebook to something like a materialized memory palace (here, here, and here). To sum up:

“… the basic idea is that one constructs an imagined space in the mind (similar to the work of the Architect in the film Inception, only you’re awake) and then populates the space with images that stand in for certain ideas, people, words, or whatever else you want to remember.  The theory is that we remember images and places better than we do abstract ideas or concepts.”

And here is the story of origins:

“… the founding myth of what Frances Yates has called the “art of memory” as recounted by Cicero in his De oratore. According to the story, the poet Simonides of Ceos was contracted by Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, to compose a poem in his honor.  To the nobleman’s chagrin, Simonides devoted half of his oration to the praise of the gods Castor and Pollux.  Feeling himself cheated out of half of the honor, Scopas brusquely paid Simonides only half the agreed upon fee and told him to seek the rest from the twin gods.  Not long afterward that same evening, Simonides was summoned from the banqueting table by news that two young men were calling for him at the door.  Simonides sought the two callers, but found no one.  While he was out of the house, however, the roof caved in killing all of those gathered around the table including Scopas. As Yates puts it, “The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash.

The bodies of the victims were so disfigured by the manner of death that they were rendered unidentifiable even by family and friends.  Simonides, however, found that he was able to recall where each person was seated around the table and in this way he identified each body.  This led Simonides to the realization that place and image were the keys to memory, and in this case, also a means of preserving identity through the calamity of death.”

The most interesting thing about the manner in which Sherlock presents the memory palace is that it has been conceived on the model of something like a touchscreen interface. You can watch the clip below to see what I mean. In explaining what Holmes is doing to a third party, Watson describes something like a traditional memory palace (not in the video clip). But what we see him doing is quite different. Rather than mentally walking through an architectural space, Holmes swipes at images (visualized for the audience) organized into something like an alphabetic multi-media database.

Surprisingly, though, this stripped down structure does have a precedent in the medieval practice of the arts of memory. Ivan Illich describes what 12th century scholar Hugh of St. Victor required of his pupils:

“… Hugh asks his pupils to acquire an imaginary inner space … and tells them how to proceed in its construction. He asks the pupil to imagine a  sequence of whole numbers, to step on the originating point of their run and let the row reach the horizon. Once these highways are well impressed upon the fantasy of the child, the exercise consists in mentally ‘visiting’ these numbers at random. In his imagination the student is to dart back and forth to each of the spots he has marked by a roman numeral.”

This flat and bare schematic was the foundation for more elaborate, three dimensional memory palaces to be built later.

The update to the memory theater is certainly not out of keeping with the spirit of the tradition which always looked to familiar spaces as a model. What more familiar space can we conceive of these days than the architecture of our databases. Thought experiment: Visualize your Facebook page. Can you do it? Can you scroll through it? Can you mentally click and visualize new pages? Can you scroll through your friends? Might you even be able to mentally scroll through your pictures? Well, there you have it; you have a memory palace and you didn’t even know it.