Australian Aboriginal Memory Technique Works Better Than Sherlock Holmes' Mind Palace

Memories can be as hard to pin down as butterflies. However, when asked to remember the name of 20 butterfly species medical students found an Aboriginal Australian memory technique outperforms one widely used in the west since the Ancient Greeks. Image Credit: sarayut_sy/Shutterstock.com

A memory technique known as the “Mind Palace” (or "Memory Palace") dates back to Ancient Greece and achieved a recent revival as a result of the Sherlock Holmes series. It's been scientifically demonstrated to work, but that doesn't mean there can't be anything better. One small trial has found an ancient method used by Indigenous Australians to remember things is actually more effective than the Mind Palace at boosting students' memory recall.

The Mind Palace has variations, but the basic idea is to visualize a space, such as your childhood home, and imagine what you need to recall as an item to be placed in a specific location, sometimes co-located with items of furniture. Its effectiveness has been vindicated in memorizing contests, and with MRI scans.

Aboriginal Australians developed something similar, matching the information to be remembered to landscape features, but also weaving stories around the location to incorporate the items for memory. These stories include Songlines passed down as essential cultural knowledge but can also be made up on the spot to encode essential memories. “Detailed information, including numerical, spatial, and temporal relationships about the subject areas are built into the narrative, which is rehearsed frequently, allowing rapid and accurate recall of the information. These stories are personal, adaptable, and can be readily constructed or modified to accommodate new information,” Dr David Reser of Monash University and co-authors write in PLOS ONE

Reser tested the effectiveness of the two techniques using a sample of first year medical students. Even in an era of Internet access, Reser told IFLScience, medical courses require an immense amount of rote memorization – stopping mid-surgery to Google is frowned upon. New students are very aware that their predecessors consider this one of the most stressful parts of the course. Reser found that most students appreciated having the opportunity to learn memory techniques in their first week of studies.

To reach these conclusions, Reser randomly divided 76 students into three groups who were all asked to memorize the names of 20 butterfly species. Medical topics were avoided in case some of the participants had started studying early. After an initial attempt at recall, one group were shown a video while a second were taught the Mind Palace technique which incorporated the butterflies.

The third group were taken outdoors by Indigenous educator Dr Tyson Yunkaporta of Deakin University who wove a narrative around campus landmarks and the butterfly names. The students were then all given an opportunity recall as many of the butterfly names as possible.

Reser reports the control group modestly beat their first effort, while those in the Mind Palace team were twice as likely to get a perfect score after the memory training. Those trained by Yunkaporta, however, were almost three times as likely to remember the whole list post-training, and also much more likely to recall them in the original order. “This matters for some things that have to be remembered in sequence,” Reser noted.

As far as Reser is aware, the aboriginal technique has never previously been taught to non-Aboriginal people in this way, although he told IFLScience it is discussed in a recent book on indigenous techniques for remembering.

The Mind Palace, on the other hand, has been used by Jesuit theologians and memory competition champions. Reser warns, however; “People expect these techniques to be a magic memory pill” and are then disappointed when they still take work.

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