Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced us to Sherlock Holmes in 1887. The detective continues to have a hold on our collective imagination today—witness the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch‘s interpretation of the character. Fans of the latest incarnation of Holmes are well aware that he has a “mind palace,” and can catalog virtually every memory from his life. While Holmes has an exceptionally thorough power of recollection, recent research shows our brains function in ways very similar to his.
Michael Price investigated for Science in an attempt to determine if brains operate the same way in different people when recalling memories. He writes:
“A group led by Janice Chen, a postdoc in the psychology department at Princeton University, and Yuan Chang Leong, a graduate student studying psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, strapped 22 study participants into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which traces blood flow in the brain to measure brain activity. The scientists then showed them a 48-minute segment of BBC’s Sherlock.”
The findings? Beyond the participants being able to recall impressive amounts of information—expected to speak for 10 minutes or so, the average participant discussed details about the show for more than 20—the study also determined our brains work in surprisingly organized and similar ways:
“When the researchers compared the viewers’ brain activity while watching Sherlock to when they were recalling it from memory, the brain patterns were so similar that the scientists could accurately identify which scenes the participants were describing at any given time just by looking at their fMRI results. ‘This goes beyond just showing that some part of the brain is active during some movie scene,’ Chen says. ‘We’re showing that there is a distinct brain pattern, like a fingerprint, for each movie scene.'”
There is also a potential health benefit to this research. If brains are found that don’t function in this manner, it may be a sign of impending Alzheimer’s or other neurological disorders.
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