Can A Person Like Sherlock Holmes Exist

James Lee
• Thursday, 31 December, 2020
• 7 min read

The man with the world’s greatest memory shows Helen Thomson around his mind palace If you’d told Alex Mullen a few years ago that he was capable of memorizing a whole pack of cards in 21.5 seconds, he would have said you were being ridiculous.

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Fast-forward to today and Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi, has just been crowned the World Memory Champion. Mullen told me about a book he’d read called Moon walking with Einstein.

The book was written by Joshua For, a journalist who attended a US memory championship to write about what he thought would be “the Super Bowl of savants”. For started practicing the techniques himself, and went on to win the competition the following year.

Even the most average brain can boost its memory with special techniques (Credit: Getty Images) It consists of 10 rounds of mental challenges, which include memorizing as many numbers as you can in an hour, remembering as many faces and names as you can in 15 minutes, or committing to memory hundreds of binary digits.

The technique is attributed to a Greek poet called Simonizes of CEOs, who lived in 477 BC. As friends and relatives sorted through the remains of their loved ones, crushed beyond recognition, Simonizes thought back to where he had been sitting.

Suddenly, he could picture speaking to the guest opposite him, another was sitting to his left, a third was at the head of the table; he realized he could identify the bodies by remembering the exact order in which everyone had been sat. This event was said to have led him to discover that the best way of remembering a group of objects or facts is to attach images to a specific and orderly location.

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Centuries later, Eleanor Maguire at University College London and her colleagues scanned the brains of 10 people who had placed at the highest levels of the world memory championship. She hoped to identify whether they had any structural brain differences that predisposed them to having such an extraordinary memory.

When it comes to remembering numbers or binary digits, each competitor has their own system for converting these items into images. Although it’s not immediately obvious where each sound comes from, they are in fact based on a code that someone else thought up a long time ago, says Mullen.

A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday. Conan Doyle eventually published a total of four novels and 56 short stories starring the London-based sleuth, whose keen observation skills were based in part on those of Joseph Bell.

We humans love to forget things or ignore them entirely, which is why you probably don't remember what color your shirt was last Tuesday or whether you parked your car closer to the front of the lot or the back. Just practicing being aware of your own surroundings and taking note of details, (like colors) would be a good place to start.

For one, there's such a thing as a photographic memory which is about as close as a person can naturally get to remembering everything without practice. The alphabet song or Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge for sheet music would be a few basic examples.

They'll go into all sorts of detail on different mnemonics and how to do all manner of parlor tricks like memorizing the sequence of a deck of cards after only a few moments and other things. After last night’s season 4 finale, Sherlock fans have a long wait ahead of them before they can hope to see their favorite private detective in action again.

The trained forensic scientist has built a career out of entertaining crowds around the world with his powers of observation and skills of deduction. The Scottish-born entertainer can determine everything from what you’ve had for lunch to your first pet’s name and what kind of car you drive.

The entertainer suggests starting by observing simple things about the people we come across in our everyday lives. It’s noticing simple observations like that, which can lead to more advanced deductions, Cloud says.

Perhaps not, but that didn’t stop the determined reductionist from skipping ahead in school and becoming the youngest student to enrol in Glasgow Caledonian University’s forensic investigation program at age 15. “I was quite young, but I had been bitten by the bug of forensic science and trained myself to have a very good memory,” Cloud says.

Mainly, this meant buying into Holmes theories of deductive reasoning, paying attention to the meaning of all the details that surrounded me, and reading the news for crimes and mysteries. Originated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1887 novella, A Study in Scarlet, hundreds of writers across the centuries have penned stories featuring Holmes and Watson.

Numerous adaptations and reimagining have been created, with stars like Robert Downey, Jr., Sir Ian McLellan, and Benedict Cumberbatch each putting their own spin on Holmes character. Before setting out, I picked up The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, edited by Otto Gentler, and immersed myself in all the different telling of Holmes character.

I have a strange habit of accidentally memorizing information, especially phone numbers, which comes in handy a lot of the time. Filled with a changing cast of characters, there were millions of deductions to be made, particularly in my longer commutes from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Every time I stepped on the train, I'd start playing what I labeled in my mind as “The Deduction Game,” where I'd examine a person near me and try to decide where they were going, where they were coming from, what their life was like, etc. “I deduced that the pair of older women gabbing had just finished a book club meeting together.

The two suit-clad bros behind me discussing their buddy's poor real estate decisions obviously worked in the Financial District. The young girl sleeping on her mom's shoulder was coming home from an overlong extra-curricular activity uptown.

But this week, as I tried to glean what I could from deductions, it meant that I had to pick up my eyes and really look at the people I was sharing the world with. This whole week, I couldn't stop thinking about David Foster Wallace's “This is Water” speech, in which he urges his audience to pull out of auto-pilot and pay attention to the world around them.

While Holmes and Watson's adventures deal with complex puzzles and sophisticated murders, the reality of crime is far uglier. Instead of promising a romp through London, reading the news made me feel upset and helpless.

Though I didn't catch any murderers or uncover any secret societies, there was one big success of this whole experiment: After a whole week of playing The Deduction Game, my head is filled with characters and scenarios that I'm just itching to write about.

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