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Memory Games: The Mind and Its Palaces

If you’re a fan of the BBC series Sherlock, you almost certainly will remember Charles Augustus Magnussen, a peculiar villain whose particular brand of evildoing involved access to sensitive information, which he then would use as leverage against influential people as a means to muscle his way into power. Sherlock Holmes called him the “Napoleon of Blackmail.”

Throughout that Sherlock episode (the 3rd episode of Season 3, titled His Last Vow), we were led to believe that all the sensitive information that Magnussen was privy to was somehow stored in an archive at Magnussen’s estate, Appledore. The fabled Appledore secret vaults were the place where everything was rumored to be on file. However, in the end, it was revealed that the Appledore vaults were in fact not an actual physical archive, but rather Magnussen’s mind palace.

The mind palace is an ancient memorization technique that allows you to store information in your head, retain it, and retrieve it at will. Also known as the method of loci (loci means “places” in Latin), the mind palace technique is a technique that resorts to creative ways to enhance memory by using visualization so as to arrange information spatially and through quirky associations, in ways that make recall easier, faster, and vaster.

The amazing feats of memory that those who have mastered this technique can achieve are on full display in Memory Games, a 2018 documentary that Netflix made available for streaming about a month ago.

Memory Games documents the world of competitive memory, also known as mind sport of memory, by following four competitors, as they get ready to compete in the 2017 World Memory Championships in Jakarta, Indonesia: American Nelson Dellis, Mongolian-Swedish Yanjaa Wintersoul, and Germans Johannes Mallow and Simon Reinhard.

Directors Janet Tobias and Claus Wehlisch craft a journey that show these memory athletes as brilliant, complex, and creative minds, by going beyond their accomplishments and delving into their backgrounds, not only to find out what motivated them to be memory athletes in the first place, but also to illustrate how memory cannot be dissociated from one’s own identity.

Simon Reinhard recounts first coming across memorizing as a sport: back in 2005, he says, “there was this training software. At level one, you had to memorize five words. I grew up playing video games as a kid so I was familiar with the level system. And I found it fascinating.” But Nelson Dellis’ foray into this field was due to far more personal reasons: what motivated him to deepen his knowledge about memory was witnessing the accentuated cognitive decline his grandmother went through as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.

Johannes Mallow’s experience was that, being diagnosed at age 14 with a form of muscular dystrophy that eventually left him wheelchair bound, he found in memory sport a leveled playing field where he could compete on an equal footing with everybody else. Whereas Yanjaa Wintersoul discovered memory techniques in her first semester of Business School, while looking for hacks that would allow her to graduate in two years instead of four.

So how exactly do these memorization techniques work? Lars Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who plays Charles Augustus Magnussen in the Sherlock series, has a cameo in this documentary. Fully in character, he addresses the viewer to explain what a mind palace is and how to use it: “At its simplest level, it’s about attaching memorable images to names, numbers or information you need to remember, and then storing those images in some place like a palace or any building you can imagine walking through when you want to retrieve it.”

The beauty of this system is that, inevitably, it becomes an exercise in creativity rather than a soulless retentive chore. In a way, these memory experts are tricking their own brains into replacing abstract facts with things that are privately symbolic. For example, recalling a random sequence of playing cards, in which each card is associated with an emotional cue, now becomes a matter of mentally reenacting a journey of your own fabrication: a memory journey.

For Wintersoul, “a memory journey is a place for you to sort abstract concepts into more concrete places, like places you already know.” And directors Tobias and Wehlisch do a superb job of visually illustrating with slick animations some of those mental journeys described by these memory athletes, to demonstrate how they mentally engage in association in order to store information, and how then they later retrieve it.

The documentary also talks about the origins of the mind palace technique and its history throughout the years. The technique has its origins in ancient Greece. Legend has it that, this one time, the Greek poet Simonides had been invited to recite at a big celebration in a temple. After performing, he stepped outside for a moment, when, suddenly, the temple collapsed, and everyone inside was crushed to death.

When asked to help identify the bodies, Simonides mentally walked through the temple to recall where everyone had sat, thus giving birth to the memory palace technique. The technique was then adopted and passed on. Early Christian monks used it to memorize religious texts. And in time, all the major religious orders of the Catholic Church also adopted it and started teaching it.

Neuroscientist Martin Dresler is also brought on to break down what observable effects these techniques have on human brains. What can today’s scientific resources and brain activity monitoring technology tell us about the benefits of memory training? According to Dresler, “what is fascinating is that we found that if you teach complete novices the memory palace technique, they not only perform better on memory tests, but they also change their connectivity patterns in their brains in the same way as we see with memory athletes”

Memory Games culminates with the big event in Jakarta in December of 2017. The tournament crowns the world memory champion, and consists of ten disciplines: 5 minute numbers, one hour numbers, spoken numbers, 30 minute binary digits, speed cards, one hour cards, random words, names and faces, random pictures, and historic dates. As amazing as the participants are, they all have different strengths, which adds a level of excitement to this doc: a couple of world records are broken, and no clear winner emerges until the very end.

In addition to possessing amazing memories, Wintersoul, Dellis, Mallow and Reinhard are interesting and likeable people who make Memory Games all the more enjoyable to watch. You’ll find insightful gems in their testimonies. Here’s one by Reinhard: “there is a very close connection between remembering, memory and identity. A person’s identity is closely tied to the experiences that shape their lives. And in the same way, culture is the sum of all valuable and important memories of a society throughout its history. Ultimately, culture is memory.”

And here’s another one by Dellis: “Memory is to be human, I think. It’s who we are. On a more personal level, you know, this is how we also develop relationships. This is what makes life meaningful, is memory. That’s why it makes me really sad when I think about my grandmother and her losing those memories: is because she lost the essence of what made her who she was.”

This compelling documentary will serve as a reminder of what the human mind can achieve. The techniques are available to anyone and there are several online communities and forums dedicated to promote memory training and competition. If you know nothing about this world, sites like Art of Memory and Memory League are a good way to get started. And since all the research seems to indicate that memory training is key to brain health, maybe you should see about getting yourself a mind palace of your own.

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