Ancient Aboriginal memory technique outperforms famous Greek method

A memory technique used by Aboriginal groups might be able to help students with rote learning better than more standard methods. Photo by Pixabay/CC
A memory technique used by Aboriginal groups might be able to help students with rote learning better than more standard methods. Photo by Pixabay/CC

May 18 (UPI) -- New research, detailed Tuesday in the journal PLOS One, suggests an ancient memorization technique used in Aboriginal culture is superior to the "memory palace" method, an ancient Greek strategy for memorizing bits of information.

For the Aboriginal people of Australia, there was no survival handbook.


For centuries, Aboriginal groups accumulated knowledge of their natural world, using oral histories to pass down down vital information from generation to generation -- information on where to find food and water, and how to build tools and other necessities.

To memorize important survival information, Aboriginal groups attached various facts to different parts of the landscape.

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Aboriginal people used stories to provide color and context for the factual connections -- and to aid memory recall.

The memorization method deployed by Australia's Aboriginals is similar to a technique popularized but the Ancient Greeks, the so-called memory palace technique.

During Antiquity, access to books was limited and information gleaned from them needed to last a lifetime.

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To memorize information, the people of Ancient Greece positioned bits of information within a memory blueprint of their childhood home. The technique was later practiced by Jesuit priests.

For the new study, researchers recruited students at a rural medical school to test the efficacy of the two memorization techniques.

"Medical students and doctors need to retain large amounts of information from anatomy to diseases and medications," lead author David Reser, lecturer at Monash University in Australia, said in a press release.

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"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 memorize data," Raser said.

Groups of students were trained to memorize 20 common butterfly names using either the Greek or Aboriginal memorization technique. A control group watched an educational video on the butterfly names.

Students using the Aboriginal method forged connections between butterfly names and different locations on campus, and reinforced these connections with brief narratives.

After using the Aboriginal memory technique, students were three times more likely to correctly recall all the butterfly names than they were prior to memory training.

Students using the memory palace method were twice as likely to perform perfect recall.

In surveys, the students said the Aboriginal memory technique was more enjoyable than other memory tricks.

In addition to requiring plenty of rote memorization, medical school can be highly stressful. The Aboriginal memory technique might be able to aid memory recall, while also providing a bit of levity, the researchers said.

"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," Resser said.

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