In 2016, Lynne Kelly published The memory code, a book based on his doctoral research into indigenous memory techniques and how they might reveal the secrets of ancient sites established by oral cultures, such as Stonehenge and the Nazca lines in Peru.
Kelly was influenced by her investigations of Australian Aborigines, who encoded information about plants, animals and creation stories into songs – navigation and educational tools that connected important places such as sacred sites and water points.
The songs have allowed a vast and complex network of knowledge to be transmitted with precision for thousands of generations.
When neuroscientist David Reser read The memory code, he wasn’t thinking of how to help medical students remember the bones in the wrists or the ligaments around the knee.
“The book was interesting, but it really wasn’t something I paid much attention to,” he says.
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That is until he starts talking to native educator Tyson Yunkaporta. Both men wanted to introduce more cultural elements to the Indigenous health units that are part of Monash’s medical curriculum.
Dr Reser observed that the native technique described by Dr Kelly was similar to the place method, or the memory palace method used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and later by the Jesuits and other scholars.
The main difference is that the indigenous system is about walking through a landscape and associating a story with each element – storytelling, combined with walking, is believed to help memory.
The Memory Palace, on the other hand, is all about creating a mental image of a room (or palace) and attaching the items you want to remember in different places.
The Hellenistic poet Simonides is credited – perhaps apocryphally – with inventing the technique. The story goes that Simonides was suddenly called outside while attending a banquet. During his absence, the banquet hall collapsed, crushing the guests to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Simonides was able to piece together the guest list by remembering where they were sitting around the table.
“The problem with the memory palace is that it can be intimidating to start out,” says Dr. Reser. “You have to build it. You have to review it and be very careful about what you include and what you remove, otherwise it becomes a lot less functional, maybe unnecessary.
Dr Yunkaporta and Dr Reser decided to compare the two techniques by asking 76 first-year medical students at the Churchill campus in Monash to memorize a list of 20 common butterfly names.
The students were randomly divided into three groups – Dr. Reser spent 20 minutes teaching a group the Memory Palace Method, asking the students to piece together their childhood bedroom.
During this time, Dr. Yunkaporta taught the Aboriginal technique, using a small garden on campus. He took the students around the space and told them a story connecting the features of the garden – the students attached a butterfly name to each of the features as they walked. Their training time was also 20 minutes.
The third group simply received the list and asked to memorize it in their own way.
All students were tested at 10 minutes, then at 30 minutes.
Three times more successful technique
Students who used the Indigenous technique were almost three times more likely to remember the entire list than they were before the training, the researchers found.
Students using the Memory Palace were roughly twice as likely to achieve a perfect score after training, while the group on their own improved about 50% from their performance before. training.
“We didn’t ask the students to remember the butterflies in any particular order,” says Dr. Reser. “But when we came back and looked at the data, the students who used the Aboriginal method heavily were much more likely to remember the list of butterfly names in the order presented to them. “
The results were published in the journal PLOS A.
Importantly, a qualitative survey conducted by co-author Dr Margaret Simmons found that students using the Indigenous technique said it was more enjoyable, “both as a way of remembering facts, but also as a way to learn about native culture, ”Dr. Reser said.
It would be interesting to find out if the technique could help other groups who wish to improve their memory, he says.
“Like any good fun research project, you get more questions than answers by doing the study. Is it something that is teachable and applicable to situations other than medical school? It’s something we’ve thought about a lot, ”he says.
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Dr Yunkaporta has since moved to Deakin University. Dr Reser and his colleagues believe the technique should be taught by an Indigenous educator, so training has been on hold in Monash for now.
If Dr Reser were to repeat the experiment, it would make the test more difficult, he says. Medical students are very knowledgeable, and their ability to remember a list of names – even without the benefit of a technique – was impressive, in his opinion.
A follow-up study was undertaken six weeks after the initial experiment, but only eight students participated, which is not enough to provide a meaningful result.
“But it told us that both techniques had to be practiced. Otherwise, the information gets lost, ”he says.