The Curious Case of the Criticized Capability
Today on Tumblr (yes I actually opened a post this way) a blogger openly attacked the BBC’s use of the “Mind Palace” technique. They also expressed criticisms regarding the capacity of Charles Augustus Magnussen’s Mind Palace. Magnussen was of course a character in “His Last Vow,” the incredible third series finale episode of the BBC’s epic drama “SHERLOCK.”
The blogger felt the entire Mind Palace concept was an “embarrassingly overused concept” on the show and referred to the Palace as the shows Sonic Screwdriver. (If you do not watch ‘Doctor Who’ a sonic screwdriver is a devise that enables the Doctor to fix, or do, nearly anything. In this case they are using it as a metaphor for BBC Sherlock’s Mind Palace being an unrealistic easy-out for any scenario device. Also, why are you not watching Doctor Who?)
So now the plot thickened when my name was brought into the mix. Another blogger commented on the original post citing my own name and work on the Mind Palace subject to reinforce their feelings that the capacity of Magnussen’s Mind Palace was perfectly plausible. This same blogger had spoken to me before I found the post and had quoted my brief initial remarks in an additional comment before I got there and read the thread for myself.
So, time for me to share my thoughts on the aforementioned situation and subject. As well, this occurrence/debate combined with the loads of emails regarding people wanting to further their own Mind Palace capabilities have inspired a new series of Mind Palace articles I’ll be writing and posting promptly.
Pray Tell Watson! What was said?
First and foremost, here is the transcript of the original Tumblr post with the comments included:
hellotailor: This season’s big finale hinged on one of the show’s most embarrassingly overused concepts, the Mind Palace. The sonic screwdriver of BBC Sherlock. One Mind Palace aficionado was enough, but two stretches credulity to the limit. Plus, having Magnusson admit that his records are all stored in his head is just plain bad writing. Not only is it kind of implausible (seriously, not even Sherlock has that level of detail in his Mind Palace), but it’s also tantamount to inviting someone to shoot you in the head. If not Sherlock, then certainly John, who Magnusson would surely know is a gun owner. Unless Moffat was deliberately going for a Bond villainesque “I’ve brought you here so I may as well tell you my evil plan!” scene. In which case… that pretty much negates Sherlock Holmes’ power as a hero who relies on deductive reasoning to defeat his enemies. The denouement was the villain literally explaining his Achilles Heel, and then Sherlock murdering him to get rid of the problem. Not very impressive, when you think about it.
thebodyofsherlockholmes: I disagree that it’s impossible to have that kind of information stored (although I’d have to ask Joe Riggs for his opinion on that matter), but totally agree in terms of story-writing. ————————————————– thebodyofsherlockholmes: Update: I’ve spoken to Joe (the closest person we have in the real world to Sherlock Holmes himself), and he’s confirmed that Magnussen’s mind palace is well within the realms of possibility. Joe’s written many articles and a book on the subject (http://theworldofjoeriggs.com/) and has a massive mind palace of his own, so while questioning the story writing is definitely valid, Magnussen’s mind palace itself is not unrealistic.
(Oh and thanks to the person who commented for your kind words. Too kind indeed!)
Being Joe Riggs, I’ve taken the time to speak with myself about the matter and am eager to address it. However, let me just say that I am not or have no intention of debunking the original bloggers thoughts or opinions, the feelings they expressed are their own and are as valid as anyone else’s.
However when it comes to the facts, that is another story and I wish to explore them, as well as some of my own opinions. Again I do not fault for person for disbelieving in the concept or extent of it, after all questioning the incredible is one of the true signs of a logical mind. So bravo to them for not just taking the BBC’s word for it. I digress.
Did someone say…
“Most embarrassingly overused concept.”
Firstly, the blogger refers to The Mind Palace as the shows most embarrassingly overused concept. I have to vehemently disagree with this sentiment for innumerable reasons. Anyone who actually has and uses a Mind Palace will ‘overuse’ it, I assure you. Once you master the technique you tend to want to use it, A LOT. It is after all an incredibly powerful and potent tool for anyone wanting to achieve high levels of memory capacity and mental acuity. Now as far as embarrassing, I see nothing humiliating about being adept at a powerful and pretty bad ass memory system, or in using it often. Nothing, what so ever. In my own opinion I was thrilled with the decision to incorporate the technique into the modern Holmes.
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes describe his own mind like an attic, with a system…
“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. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.” -Sherlock Holmes | A Study In Scarlet
If Conan Doyle even envisioned Sherlock’s mental capacity like a systematic ‘attic,’ how appropriate that a modern day Sherlock would have a similar storage system. The brilliance in the writing is choosing the Method of Loci, otherwise known as the Memory Palace, otherwise known as, you guessed it, The Mind Palace. Fair play? Good, let’s move on…
In season two’s “Hounds of Baskerville” the Mind Palace appeared for the first time. They did a wonderful job of creating a visual experience for a technique that is inherently visual in nature, on a mental level.
The palace appears again in the long awaited season premier of season three, “The Empty Hearse.” In ‘Hearse‘ we see it in a unique way near the end of the episode, John Watson is demanding Sherlock to “Use your Mind Palace” in order to save their lives by finding the solution to diffusing a bomb. Yet the genius in the writing here is the Mind Palace method coming to a FAIL. It taught a valuable lesson that holds true to real life Mind Palaces. If you don’t put (or peg) something in it, deliberately, it just won’t be in there later if you need it. Or in their case, if you life depends on it.
Upon Watson’s demand Sherlock replied true to form that he didn’t have that information stored inside and could not. He then appeared to try anyway and failed. This scene shows the limitations of the Mind Palace technique. I think showing Sherlock’s Mind Palace fail him in that scene rules out the notion of the concept being embarrassing OR overused.
As far as Charles Augustus Magnussen is concerned, if you devoted your life to storing one type of information, and a lot of it, there is no reason why you could not store what seems like the incredible. You just must look at it also from the vantage point of the difference in uses between Sherlock and Magnussen. Sherlock stores MANY types of information on INNUMERABLE subjects, all related to his work. Magnussen uses a well constructed Mind Palace, designed over many years, for ONE overall type of information, just massive amounts of it. This is literally no more difficult in theory than Holmes use of the method.
“Two Mind Palace aficionados stretches credulity to the limit.”
Secondly, the blogger makes the argument that having two Mind Palace experts stretched the credibility to the limit. Again, I don’t see that. There are QUITE a few Memory Palace experts in the world right now, the real world, that we live in. They break Guinness Book records and do incredible, absolutely UNBELIEVABLE, demonstrations! I perform many such demonstrations myself. So to say two aficionados colliding, both with this “mind palace” mastery, stretches credulity to the limit, basically means every-time I meet a fellow aficionado, we are stretching the credibility of our being possible together. And yet here we are, living and breathing, and… coming into contact with each other from time to time. ;) Next…
The Monolithic Magnussen Mind Palace
Fact or Fiction?
The Answer: Fact within Fiction.
Charles Augustus Magnussen’s truly Massive Mind Palace is by NO means unrealistic. Nor is it the first time vast Mind Palaces have been mentioned in fiction. Hannibal Lector had quite the extensive palace of his own. I’ve cited many real life examples of people who have done astonishing things with Mind Palaces in my articles on the subject on this very blog, which I urge anyone interested in the subject to explore. I went further into detail on the subject in my first book and am delving far deeper in the coming book “The 21st Century Deductionists Monograph.”
I myself have written more or as much on the subject than anyone I know of. Not just my published and public writings, yet rather my extensive personal journals, a result of having been obsessed with the Palace technique nearly 20 of my 33 years. I have achieved near Eidetic memory levels on various tests more than twice. I say all this so you know I do not come to you from a spectator vantage point, yet a rather through-the-lens viewpoint.
People unfamiliar with the actual method or technique, might find this next breakdown confusing.
All Magnussen had to do was map out enough pegs in as many rooms as needed in his Palace of choice, or alternatively incorporate multiple Palaces to cover the load, either would work. He could (As I Have) map out the path between two Palaces and place pegs along them, furthering the information storing capacity. The real genius of the Method of Loci or Mind Palace are the nearly infinite possibilities. There is no limit to to the number Palaces you can establish, nor the multitude of pegs you can put into action.
Finally all Magnussen had to do was turn every piece of information he wanted to store into an image that represents it for pegging or employ a numerical phonetic encoding system, which I also teach on this blog, to store numbers as well. When it comes to analysing the literal work on the Mind Palace method with the portrayal of it in BBC Sherlock, this is something I’ve done continually and even contributed to.
My writings on the Mind Palace were featured in the lovely Baker Street Chronicle’s special SHERLOCK edition. While there is no real way to prove that Magnussen’s unknown amount of specific information could be stored aside from knowing how many files and their contents he had, then endeavouring to do it, I strongly submit my personal vote of confidence that he most certainly, undoubtedly, could have.
This Tumblr post added to the many requests I’ve gotten this past year regarding people wanting to expand their Mind Palaces and use them for new and exciting purposes has inspired a new series of Mind Palace articles in progress. A Maximum Mastery series so to speak. Thanks for reading this long winded response/post and again no disrespect and quite literally bravo to the original blogger for questioning the seemingly impossible, it is in questioning and doubting the fantastical that we delight our logical faculty and remain scientifically minded.
Thanks for your time and as always your comments are welcome.
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Joe’s book (raising funds for Save Undershaw) ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes‘ is available all good bookstores including Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and in all formats including Amazon Kindle and now on the iPad too. Fans outside the US and UK can get free delivery from Book Depository.