Let's learn, not just think, like Sherlock Holmes

Let's learn, not just think, like Sherlock Holmes

Books like Maria Konnikova's Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes merely scrape the surface of Sherlock Holmes; the greatest literary figure of mental dexterity and trademark 'deductions' (alongside below-average social skills, but let's leave that for another day).

Readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (plus BBC viewers, blockbuster consumers) would likely wish to experience for themselves his lightbulb-moments and seemingly impossible transformations of chaos into clarity. We can imagine the awe that others would experience upon witnessing us in action, just like what we, the reader, join Watson in experiencing when we read the stories or watch the adaptations on screen.


Holmes as not-so-implausible legend

Holmes could be described as a 'myth', yet the word is best interpreted in terms of legend, rather than falsity. After all, the idea that a figure like Holmes could exist is not entirely far-fetched. For one, Conan Doyle's Holmes was loosely based on Joseph Bell, rumour has it.

By pursuing mindfulness, we can think like Sherlock Holmes; yes. Yet the magic of Holmes is perhaps most dazzling when it comes to learning new information, memorising trivial details, and mastering eccentric topics.  Let's consider Holmes in terms of learning, not simply thinking.


How to learn like Sherlock Holmes

1. Create a 'mind palace' (or 'attic') and remember things spatially

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
— Holmes to Watson

Viewers of the BBC adaptation Sherlock will likely be conjuring up fond memories of the detective retreating into his inner filing cabinets of information. While not something that necessarily appears in the books (although there is a 'mind attic' analogy), the BBC writers did well to depict this.

The technique BBC Holmes uses is the "Method of loci":  a mnemonic device favoured by many memory champions (going back to usage in ancient Rome and Greece) which uses visualisation to organise and recall information.

John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel simplify things:

The subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally ‘walks’ through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items.

2. Visualise information to make recollection easier

Using the 'mind palace' technique helps us to remember information in spatial terms, allowing us to walk through it at a later date and have a pretty good chance of recall. However, we can create associations on a smaller scale too with mnemonics.

For example, to remember the Spanish word for rice, arroz, we can picture ourselves frantically shooting arrows at a bowl of rice. Arroz sounds like 'arrows', and the image of rice becomes visually associated with this phonetic trick.

  • To learn more words like this, you can check out Memrise, an online learning app which has helped me out with learning Spanish, Catalan and Icelandic across the last few years.


3. Create interconnected information webs

When Holmes makes a deduction, a flurry of consequent discoveries tends to follow closely behind. This is largely because information is interconnected in the Great Mind of Holmes: a piece of trivia is not tucked away alone at the back of a filing cabinet, but rather fixed to a noticeboard and attached with string and drawing pins to everything it's related to. This is how we should try to learn.

  • When acquiring a new piece of knowledge, think about what existing knowledge it reminds you of, no matter how distant they at first seem. Biology can be connected to art or engineering with a fable; we want our brains to each be a vast map of knowledge, linked in all manner of intricate, unexpected (yet very memorable) ways.
  • When revising for an exam, grab a large piece of paper and write the name of the topic in the centre. Next, jot down everything about it that comes to mind, complete with lines connecting pieces of information that belong both inside and outside the topic.


With a bit of practice in the art of memory palaces, mnemonics and information webs, we can start to emulate the logic and mental dexterity of Holmes himself. Combined with mindfulness and words of advice from the famous detective, we'll be well on our way to maximising our mental capacity, strength of recall and learning ability. 

5 marketing lessons from being mentored by a Googler

5 marketing lessons from being mentored by a Googler