The immense success of the BBC’s latest series of Sherlock has got everyone, once again, talking about his skills of deduction, memory, and problem solving.

Like many skills, the key is to keep it simple, there are no “secret advanced techniques”. Sherlock Holmes simply combines a number of skills and applies them in a very specific way. With a bit of practice you to can boost your mental ability and start to think more like Sherlock Holmes…

Of course, you do not need to be a consulting detective to take advantage of these skills and “Sherlocking” your brain will give you advantages in whatever field you are in. It can improve you memory and recall (great when you forget the shopping list), increase your problem solving skills, and your ability to create rapport with people. It will also have the knock on effect of making you feel more confident in your abilities.

And you never know when being able to recognise certain types of cigar ash will come in handy…

Just don’t start acting like a “high functioning sociopath”; people can tend to model the wrong things, they will attempt to mimic the surface level behaviours, the aloofness and rudeness of Holmes. Don’t do that. It is never a good look and will make you appear as an unlikeable idiot.

Pay Attention

“Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details. My first glance is always at a woman’s sleeve. In a man, it is perhaps better to take the knee of the trouser.”

The number one skill of Sherlock Holmes is simply paying attention: You can learn a lot just by paying attention to thinks people don’t tend to notice.

We so often spend most of our time inside our own heads, talking to ourselves, thinking back to what we did at the weekend or trying to decide what to have for tea. We are rarely present and paying attention to the current moment.  This isn’t surprising, our whole system of perception is based on “best guess” and is inherently lazy, once we are subjected to the same stimulus a number of times we will simply stop paying attention to it (a process known as “habituation”) and since most of us live a routined life, we can start to sleepwalk through it if we are not careful.

So the first thing we need to do is to deliberately and actively start paying attention to what is going on around us.

Commentary Walking

One of the very best ways I have found to help practice paying attention is a process known as “Commentary Walking” (or commentary driving, commentary sitting on the bus, etc). If you have done any advanced driving skills, or been in the police or special forces, you will probably be familiar with this technique.

It is exactly what is says! You just run a commentary in your head (don’t do it out loud, you may get some funny looks) of what is going on around you and inside you. Stick to sensory specific information, try not to analyse it (which is actually harder said than done as you will see). I suggest, to begin with you make three statements about what you can see, three about what you can hear, three about what you can feel and three about what you can smell and taste, then go back to what you can see. Keep this up for as long as you can. I suggest building up slowly – even if you make the conscious effort to do it for 5 minutes a day (maybe on your commute to work, or walking the dog) you will soon notice, in a few weeks, how much more observant you have become and how will start seeing things yo never noticed before.

30 Second Profile

“By a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuff – By each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent inquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.”

Once you have the hang of that you can start building up 30 second profiles on people. It is a great ‘“people watching” pass time when you have a spare few minutes. It is surprising how much information you can glean from someone just by studying them in detail for as little as 30 seconds.

Many good communicators already do this (consciously or unconsciously) and adjust their communication style accordingly (matching and mirroring).

Some of the things you may want to look for are (this is not an exhaustive list):

Physical Appearance

  • Apparent age (hands, neck and side of eyes tend to be the most accurate indicator)
  • Jewellery (I find watches tell you a lot about the person)
  • Accessories
  • Mobile phone (what is their “wallpaper”?)
  • Grooming
  • Attire
  • Attractiveness (this is often purely subjective!)
  • Height, weight, apparent fitness
  • Skin, teeth, nails, hair
  • Tattoos and piercings

Psychological Disposition

  • Demeanour
  • Gate (how they walk and carry themselves)
  • Posture
  • Facial Expression (it may be worth exploring micro-expressions)
  • Speech (their accent, speed and rate, afflictions – stutter, etc)

Deductive Reasoning

“What do the public, the great unobservant public, who could hardly tell a weaver by his tooth or a compositor by his left thumb, care about the finer shades of analysis and deduction!”

Deductive reasoning can be described as “the process of reasoning from one or more general statements (premises) to reach a logically certain conclusion.”

One of the most famous pieces of deductive reasoning is this:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

You take two interrelated statements, or premises, and deduce a conclusion from them.

Holmes is famous for noticing certain details that, by themselves, may be meaningless, but when combined create a compelling and often accurate conclusion.

So you can start building on your observational skills and “30 second profile” and start deducing things from what you notice. To begin with you will probably be wildly wrong most of the time, but as you build up your experiences and references you will be surprised at how accurate you will be more often than not.

You will start “piecing things together” and notice where information is missing, or people are taking wild leaps from insufficient information and you will starting asking better questions  (a good working knowledge of the NLP Meta Model and Sleight of Mouth Patterns can help).

Lateral Thinking

We tend to get stuck in habitual patterns of thinking; the thought processes we day after day after day. It means we tend to use the same references, pay attention to the same things and make the same inferences and conclusions.

To become effective at deduction you need to expand your thinking skills, work on your problem solving and lateral thinking.

Try solving riddles and cryptic crossword puzzles (many of which can be found online), to start improving your lateral thinking skills. To begin with, if you are like me, you will find it all frustrating gibberish, but stick with it and you will suddenly get a “head click” moment where it will all start to make sense. I started by reading the clues from the the cryptic crossword and then the answer to start to understand how it worked.

Your Memory Palace

You need organise all the new information you are collecting (like the differences between brands of cigar ash) in a useable and easily accessible way. This is where your memory palace comes in.

Probably the most talk about skill of the modern day Sherlock (at least in the last series) is his “Memory Palace”, I am not going to go into detail here as I have already written a detailed blog about it back in 2010. You can read it here.

Further Reading

There are some very good books out there detailing the process of Sherlockian thinking, here are just a few to get your started:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes
You will learn about how to think like Sherlock by actually reading the Sherlock books!

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
An excellent book chocked full of examples from the stories. One of my favourites (if a little repetitive and long winded at times – but I would prefer it to be thorough!).

Strategies of a Genius Vol 1
Here Robert Dilts applies the NLP strategy model to a number of famous “genius’s” including Sherlock Holmes (it is currently out of print, but you can occasionally pick up second hand copies on Amazon, etc)

Emotions Revealed
A great introduction to “micro expressions” and being able to read peoples emotions

the memory palace

UPDATE JANUARY 2014: There seems to be a great interest in Memory Palaces recently due to the phenomenal success of the BBC’s “Sherlock” series. This is the method that I learned and teach on my NLP Practitioner training courses. In just 15 minutes I can usually get trainees from remembering 5-6 things in order to remembering 20+.

I used to boast that I didn’t need a diary, that I remembered pretty much everything I needed to know, that I had a great memory and that I can remember a lot of information without the need of notes (other than phone numbers. Since getting a mobile phone, I have become incapable of remembering any numbers at all). This wasn’t “showing off” as such, just demonstrating the power of the techniques I had learned and developed to improve my own memory. As with most psychological feats, anyone can do it if they are so inclined and I hoped to “lead by example”.

However, recently I have found that my memory has been failing me. Rather embarrassingly I can’t even remember peoples names on training courses!

So I have been going back and reviewing and revising all the techniques I have learned and developed over the years to improve my memory.

One of my favourite (and one of the most powerful) techniques is the “Method of Loci” or “Memory Palace”.

The Memory Palace has been used since ancient Rome, and is responsible for some quite incredible memory feats. Eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien, for instance, was able to memorize 54 decks of cards in sequence (2808 cards), viewing each card only once!

As chance would have it, this technique was demonstrated in a recent episode of The Mentalist (Season 2, Episode 11: “Rose-Colored Glasses”), but I first came across the technique in Thomas Harris’s “Hannibal” back in 1999. In this, the third book in the Hannibal Lecter series (sadly cut from the – frankly awful – film adaptation), Doctor Lecter uses the technique to recall extensive details of his patients records (we learn in the previous books in the series that Lecter is a “mnemonist” – someone with the ability to remember unusually long lists of information) and is able to internally adjust his perception of time so that he may “quietly wander the halls of his own psyche”. But in Hannibal this principle is expanded to depict the entire scope of Lecter’s “memory palace”; a four-dimensional building containing all the works of art, texts and detailed memories (including gruesome details of his murders) which he wishes to preserve intact.

Since reading the book, the idea of a memory palace fascinated me and I tracked down details of how to develop one for myself, this was around the time I was just starting to get into NLP and associated fields.

How Do You Do It?

The great thing about the memory palace technique is that it is simple and quick to learn. I often teach it as part of my Master Practitioner training, and in about 15 minutes I can teach people to be able to recall a list of 20 or more random objects.

The memory palace technique is an association or “pegging” (more on that term in a moment) technique based around “spatial mnemonics” or placing items to be remembered in specific locations (in your thoughts).

Let me explain…

Before I begin, a note to NLPers – this is a technique based largely around visualisation (but, of course, utilises all the senses to some degree), if you don’t consider yourself a “visual” person or maintain you do not learn or remember things “visually”, you need to work or building up your visual sense. The Representational System you work with is the one most suitable for desired outcome, NOT the one you just happen to prefer (unless you really want to limit yourself?).

1. Choose Your Palace

You will need to pick a place that you’re very familiar with. The effectiveness of the technique relies on your ability to mentally visualise and “walk around” that place with ease. You should be able to ‘be there’ at will using your mind’s eye only. Most people (and I also recommend this) start by using their own home (you can choose a different place, expand this one location or design your own once you get the hang of this technique).

2. Choose a Route

Once you have picked a location that you can visually clearly (it doesn’t need to be as clear or clean as “real life”, but it needs to be detailed) you need to be able to define a route around your Memory Palace.

In that route “tag” specifically defined sections where you can place information (which is why your house is so good, it has rooms in it, which are perfect sections!)

For example, when I started this technique I chose the house I lived in at the time, so my sections were:

  1. Drive
  2. Back garden
  3. Patio
  4. Kitchen
  5. Lounge
  6. Hall/Stairs
  7. Landing
  8. Bedroom one
  9. Bathroom
  10. Bedroom two

(we lived in a small house, and used to use the back door to go into the house!)

Go through you chosen Memory Palace and walk around the route your have chosen, as you do break it down into manageable sections (10 is a good number to start with, but it can be more or less depending on what feels comfortable).

3. Associate!

Now it is time to add the information you want to remember.

The Memory Palace technique works with the use of visual associations. The process is simple: you take a known mental location, called the “memory peg” and combine it with the element you want to memorise. For us, each memory peg is a distinctive section of our Memory Palace. Once you have got the hang of it, you can add more “pegs” by breaking each section down into specific feature (for example you could break your lounge down into specific pieces of furniture: sofa, coffee table, television, etc), or adding more sections or locations.

I found to begin with adding 2 items to remember in each room was ideal. If you do this, decide how you are going to look around the room (to make sure that you do not transpose the information in that section), so always scan the section left to right for example.

To really imprint your items that you want to remember you need to make the image crazy, huge, ridiculous, silly, funny and totally over the top. Make it unique and exciting, if it is boring you are doing to “wrong” and it probably won’t work for you.

So, say you want to remember 20 things on your shopping list:

Transport yourself to your Memory Palace and walk around it a couple of times to familiarise yourself with it “empty” (this is particularly important if you use it regularly to make sure you have removed the other associations), then you want to start adding each item on your list to a section of the Palace (so, with 20 items, in this case, you need to add two items to each section).

So, say the first thing your list is bacon, you place that in the first section of your Memory Palace (which, in my place would be my drive), but don’t just plonk a packet of bacon there, make it crazy and memorable. So what could you do to make it memorable for you? Maybe a frying pan cooking bacon? Or a big cartoon pig? Whatever works for you.

Once you have the image firmly in place, move to the next item on the list and do the same.

Get the idea?

Go through the list as many times as it takes to get the images locked in place, so you can walk through your Memory Palace and recall each item easily with just one stroll (very quickly, with practice, it will only take one “walk through”).

And there we have it, 3 simple steps to create a memory palace that you can use to remember information.

You can use it to store short term information, such as a shopping list or the contents of training or talk your giving (this is what I mainly use it for), or you can use it to store longer term information (I use mine to store pin numbers and password).

4. Just a Few Final Hints

  • Visit your Memory Palace regularly to keep the image clear in your mind, mentally walk the route on a regular basis (especially if you are using it to store long-term information
  • Use it! Use it every day to recall simple pieces of information, the more you practice the better you will get and the faster you will get there.
  • If you intend to use a Memory Palace to store longer term information, it may be worth using a different palace for the this purpose or a section of your main palace that you only visit to for this information
  • Relax! Over thinking your memory palace will actually make it harder to store and recall information.

So there we have it, a simple, yet incredibly effective way of memorising a lot of information, maybe you are study for exams at the moment? If you are you can use this to memorise and recall all the information you need.

To learn this and much more, click here to book on my flagship NLP Practitioner training, where you will learn this along with much, much more.