02 July 2021

Ancient Memory Aid

Welcome back. Do you use a mnemonic or some other approach to remember things, or do you just remember? I keep slipping on just about everything except remembering when I could remember. Fortunately, I don’t have to remember much, unlike the medical students that compared memory techniques in a recently published study by researchers affiliated with Australia’s Monash and Deakin universities.

Loci mnemonics are techniques that use familiar spatial environments to facilitate the recall of information. The Australian study compared two loci memory approaches (graphic modified from www.microprof.io/the-science).
We can look up or ask Siri or even write things down in a pinch, so we tend to depend less and less on memorization. But for training in some professions, such as health, memorization is the most efficient means of ensuring the required information is readily available and that a foundation is laid for advanced training.

Study Structure and Initial Testing
As part of the Rural Health curriculum and the undergraduate Nutrition and Dietetics program in the Monash University Faculty of Medicine, Nursing, and Health Sciences, the researchers enlisted and randomly divided 76 first-year medical students into three groups to test different memorization techniques.

All of the students were given 10 minutes to memorize a list of 20 common butterfly names; then 5 minutes to write down as many names as they could recall. The choice of butterflies was intended to divorce the training from the medical curriculum. 

List of butterfly names used for testing memory recall (from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0251710).
After the recall test, students in two of the groups were given 30 minutes of instruction in one of two memorization techniques. The third group of students, instead of memory training, watched an unrelated documentary movie.

Memory Training
One group was trained in the memory palace technique. This approach, which traces to ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical treatises, uses visualizations of familiar spatial environments to enhance recall. Students were instructed to associate listed items to be remembered with specific objects and locations in a memory floor plan of their childhood home. To recall items, they were to imagine revisiting the room and approaching each object and location associated with a listed item.

The second group’s training was in the memorization technique developed by Australian Aboriginal people over more than 50,000 years of living in a custodial relationship with the land. This method also attaches facts to a familiar spatial environment, the landscape. Stories are added to describe the facts and placement to facilitate recall. For the training, the instructor led the students through a campus rock garden, incorporating listed items into a narrative related to elements in the garden. Students were encouraged to visualize walking through the garden during recall.

Rock garden and sketch map with path through rock garden used for Australian Aboriginal memorization (from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0251710).
Retesting Student Recall
After the training, all of students repeated the memory test procedure--10 minutes to memorize the butterfly list, five minutes to recall and record the names; took a 20-minute break; then repeated the recall test again, this time without reviewing the list.

Results from each student’s recall tests were scored, with recall errors counted in four categories: no entry, near miss, wrong word or phrase, and removal of correct answer with no replacement. The results were also assessed with regard to the sequence of items in the original list.

Wrap Up
Both memorization techniques improved the level of recall compared to no memory training.

Although the mean number of items recalled by the two memory-trained groups was similar, differences were apparent. Of students who did not initially recall all items correctly, the Aboriginal method resulted in approximately a 3-fold greater probability of improvement to accurate recall of the entire word list. Further, students taught the Aboriginal method exhibited significantly fewer errors of sequence.

Apart from testing memory techniques, the researchers also had 49 undergraduate students evaluate the use of the Aboriginal memory technique as an aid for classroom study of foundational biomedical knowledge. The responses were overwhelmingly favorable. They found the training and technique enjoyable, interesting and more useful than rote memorization.

I know I would. Thanks for stopping by.

Method of loci memorization techniques: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci
Study of memorization techniques in PLOS ONE journal: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0251710
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-05/mu-aaa051721.php

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