An ancient Aboriginal memorization technique has been proven to be superior to the ancient Greek “memory palace” technique for recalling and retaining factual information.
Australian scientists have compared an ancient Greek technique of memorising data to an even older technique from Aboriginal culture, using students in a rural medical school.
The study found that students using a technique called memory palace in which students memorised facts by placing them into a memory blueprint of the childhood home, allowing them to revisit certain rooms to recapture that data. Another group of students were taught a technique developed by Australian Aboriginal people over more than 50,000 years of living in a custodial relationship with the Australian land.
The students who used the Aboriginal method of remembering had a significantly improved retention of facts compared to the control and the “memory palace” group.
The study led by Dr David Reser, from the Monash University School of Rural Health and Dr Tyson Yunkaporta, from Deakin University’s NIKERI Institute, has just been published in PLOS One.
Medical students, and doctors, need to retain large amounts of information from anatomy to diseases and medications.
Because one of the main stressors for medical students is the amount of information they have to rote learn, we decided to see if we can teach them alternate, and better, ways to memorise data,” Dr Reser said.
The memory palace technique dates back to the early Greeks and was further utilised by Jesuit priests. Handwritten books were scarce and valuable, and one reading would have to last a person’s lifetime, so ways to remember the contents were developed.
In Aboriginal culture, which relies on oral history, important facts like navigation, food sources, tool use and inter and intra tribal political relationships are important for survival. Aboriginal methods of memorising also used the idea of attaching facts to the landscape, but with added stories which describe the facts and the placement to facilitate recall.
Working with Dr Yunkaporta, formerly at the Monash School of Rural Health, the research team randomly divided 76 medical students attending Monash’s Churchill Campus, in rural Victoria, into three groups.
The students were given 30 minutes of training in the memory palace, Aboriginal techniques, or were in a control group who watched a video rather than undergo training. The students were then asked to memorize 20 common butterfly names (to dissociate from medical curriculum).
They were then tested on their recalls at 10 minutes and then 30 minutes after using their assigned techniques to memorize the list.
The researchers found the students who used the Aboriginal technique for remembering ie a narrative plus locations from around the campus were almost three times more likely to correctly remember the entire list than they were prior to training (odds ratio: 2.8). The students using the memory palace technique were about twice as likely to get a perfect score after training (2.1), while the control group improved by about 50% (1.5) over their pre-training performance.
Importantly a qualitative survey found the students using the Aboriginal technique found it more enjoyable, “both as a way to remember facts but also as a way to learn more about Aboriginal culture,” Dr Reser said.
Dr Reser said the Monash School of Rural Health is considering incorporating these memory tools into the medical curriculum once teaching returns to a post-COVID normal. “This year we hope to offer this to students as a way to not only facilitate their learning but to reduce the stress associated with a course that requires a lot of rote learning,”he said.
Australian Aboriginal techniques for memorization: Translation into a medical and allied health education setting
Writing and digital storage have largely replaced organic memory for encoding and retrieval of information in the modern era, with a corresponding decrease in emphasis on memorization in Western education. In health professional training, however, there remains a large corpus of information for which memorization is the most efficient means of ensuring: A) that the trainee has the required information readily available; and B) that a foundation of knowledge is laid, upon which the medical trainee builds multiple, complex layers of detailed information during advanced training. The carefully staged progression in early- to late- years’ medical training from broad concepts (e.g. gross anatomy and pharmacology) to in-depth, specialised disciplinary knowledge (e.g. surgical interventions and follow-on care post-operatively) has clear parallels to the progression of training and knowledge exposure that Australian Aboriginal youths undergo in their progression from childhood to adulthood to Tribal Elders.
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, we tested Australian Aboriginal techniques of memorization for acquisition and recall of novel word lists by first-year medical students (N = 76). We also examined undergraduate student evaluations (N = 49) of the use of the Australian Aboriginal memory technique for classroom study of foundational biomedical knowledge (the tricarboxylic acid cycle) using qualitative and quantitative analytic methods drawing from Bloom’s taxonomy for orders of thinking and learning.
Acquisition and recall of word lists were assessed without memory training, or after training in either the memory palace technique or the Australian Aboriginal narrative technique.
Both types of memory training improved the number of correctly recalled items and reduced the frequency of specific error types relative to untrained performance. The Australian Aboriginal method resulted in approximately a 3-fold greater probability of improvement to accurate recall of the entire word list (odds ratio = 2.82; 95% c.i. = 1.15–6.90), vs. the memory palace technique (odds ratio = 2.03; 95% c.i. = 0.81–5.06) or no training (odds ratio = 1.5; 95% c.i. = 0.54–4.59) among students who did not correctly recall all list items at baseline.
Student responses to learning the Australian Aboriginal memory technique in the context of biomedical science education were overwhelmingly favourable, and students found both the training and the technique enjoyable, interesting, and more useful than rote memorization.
Our data indicate that this method has genuine utility and efficacy for the study of biomedical sciences and in the foundation years of medical training.
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