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Cracking the Case of Sherlock Holmes-like Brains

by Vrinda Jain
Cracking the Case of Sherlock Holmes-like Brains

January 28, 2021

There are times when we wish that we had a good memory. You and I, both would have loved to have a sharp memory, whether for scoring good in exams or remembering our loved ones' birthdays.

Alex Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi, had wished for a sharp memory too. And he was granted it (not everyone goes on to win the World Memory Championship).

The Tale of Alex Mullen

In 2013, when Alex Mullen discovered a group of people who were training their memory by using ancient techniques, he started practising those techniques too, to make his mind and concentration better. The steady streak of practice that he maintained, Mullen went on to win the World Memory Championship for three consecutive years- 2015, ’16 and ’17.

As Mullen faced the championship’s final challenge for the first time, he was trailing in the second place. He stared at the cards for 21.5 seconds – only a second longer than Yan Yang, the contest’s frontrunner. But those 21.5 seconds were enough to drive Mullen to the first spot.

Mullen now holds the world record of recalling as many numbers as possible with his memory power in one hour – 3,029. He also carries half a dozen U.S. records, including remembering 3,888 binary digits in 30 minutes.

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Alex Mullen is an American memory competitor

What Happens in the World Memory Championship?

The World Memory Championship is a structured event for memory sports in which athletes memorise as much information as possible over a specified time. The contestants compete for three days in 10 different fields, including learning numbers, addresses, historical dates, faces, names and card stacks.

Contestants claim that memorising facts is similar to chess or programming. Rather than needing a high I.Q., it rewards those who adopt and practise a specific method diligently. Many athletes are devising special goggles to block peripheral vision, making it easier to focus and memorise.

The final round is often a round of speed cards, where players memorise a single pack of cards as rapidly as possible. One of the most challenging events is to remember a binary number. Contestants have 30 minutes to place as many numbers as they can from a piece of paper.

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Alex Mullen at World's Memory championship

The techniques to make you remember more. What makes these world champions to be the winner? Of course, there is practice, hard work and memory techniques. If you are wondering what methods the winners use, then we have a list of them so you can try and practice!

Method of Loci- Your Mind Palace

For those who don’t know Sherlock Holmes, the mind palace is a picture in your memory of a physical place that you recognise well. It could be your house or your way to work. To remember several things, you have to walk in your mind palace and drop a photo of each object at specific locations along the way.

The technique is credited to the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, form 477 BC. Legend says Simonides was a wealthy and cruel nobleman who was once attending a dinner party, halfway through the dinner, he was called out to meet a messenger. As he walked out, the roof of the banquet fell and killed everyone inside. As friends and family went through the bodies of their loved ones, Simonides went to the exact place where he was sitting.

Suddenly, he could visualise talking to the guest in front of him, another seated on his left, a third sitting at the head of the table; he realised that he could recognise the bodies by recalling the precise order in which they were all sitting. This occurrence has led him to believe that the best way to identify a collection of items or information is to connect photographs to a particular and orderly location.

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A visual on our Mind palace

The Sound of Numbers

When it comes to recalling numbers or binary digits, each competitor has their method for translating them into pictures. For example, Mullen uses a “two-card” method to memorise a pack of cards. It requires the translation of numbers into phonetic sounds. Take, for instance, seven of the diamonds and five of the spades.

The diamond and the spade together make an ‘m’ sound. The seven is transformed into the ‘k’ sound, and the five is the ‘l’ sound. Although it’s not instantly clear where each sound comes from, it’s based on a code that was thought about a long time ago.

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Two card method to memorize the cards .

Memory Palace

Memory Palaces can be anywhere – hotels, homes, work paths, restaurants, favourite holidays, parks, or train journeys. It is a system that is used since ancient Greek times to help encode memories for easy retrieval. When one needed information on their fingertips, they had to put the information in their mind.

One would have achieved this through a method that modern memory athletes call elaborate encoding. The Memory Palace technique is about translating your memories into pictures stored in a familiar mental venue. The idea is to make you mentally walk around your palace by looking at your memories to remember them.

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An illustration on memory place.

Spaced Retention

It’s easier to recall something you read yesterday than an article you read a year ago. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, referred to this as the curve of forgetting. His memory psychology research has shown that we lose the most recently learned information within a few hours or in a few days.

However, if you reinforce what you remember at regular intervals, it’s easier to keep that piece of information in your brain’s long-term storage rooms. The spaced repetition method is all about the practice of remembering at the right moment. You do this by stimulating a bit of knowledge in your mind right as you’re about to forget about it.

While there is no one as good as Sherlock Holmes, there sure are some people who can give him a run for his money. Honestly though, would we really want our favourite Doylean hero to be real, or is he only as brilliant as our imagination (obviously with Benedict Cumberbatch’s face)?

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