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TO REMEMBER EVERYTHING: aboriginal “tales” vs. the “memory palace”

TO REMEMBER EVERYTHING: aboriginal "tales" vs. the "memory palace"
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Australian scientists have noticed a specific technique that Aborigines use to remember information.

They just start making up stories, which are fairy tales and myths  in our “civilized” understanding. Archaic mnemonic techniques proved to be cooler than modern ones.


Computer to computer


Researchers from Australia’s Monash University consider the Aboriginal urge to compose is socially significant because it makes new and complex knowledge about the world part of the collective oral tradition.

As a result, the mythological narrative accumulates information like a hard drive. It turns out that primitive myth – making  is a kind of computer before the invention of the computer – it greatly expands the possibilities of human memory, learning and translation of knowledge.

If Australian aborigines need to memorize and transmit to others large amounts of data about anything – flora, fauna, peculiarities of the territory – they start composing a narrative about it.

During the evolution of human communities, fictional stories became the perfect tool for the human brain to ensure human survival.

From this point of view, myths and fairy tales are not fictions at all, but complex knowledge about a complex world encoded in a certain way. That is why they are so important for children’s, close to archaic, worldview.

Also the scientists of Monash University found out, that for the modern man archaic memory technology still works best, far superior to any newfangled techniques.


Butterflies in the “rock garden”


Good memory, the ability to assimilate and operate large arrays, no doubt makes humans as socially and evolutionarily successful today as they were 50,000 years ago. It was shown by experiments in which 76 medical students took part.

The students were divided into three groups and asked to memorize several dozen words  quickly and accurately and words were previously unknown to them. Namely – the English-speaking names of butterflies: hairstreak, patchl, copper and others.

The first group memorized them without using any special techniques. The second group adopted the narrative method of the Australian aborigines. People who where in the Japanese “garden of stones” were asked to compose stories in which, in addition to the names of butterflies, could figure the stones, plants, and objects in the garden. 

The third group of students applied the well-known modern practice of memorizing large amounts of information, which many people know as “memory palace”. It is considered as one of the most effective.

The essence is to imagine a huge house in which certain places would be associated with the information you need to remember. The idea of the “memory palace” is very popular because it is often exploited by Hollywood in the scripts of various psychological thrillers.


Stories are three times more effective than associations!


All three groups were given the same amount of time to memorize – 30 minutes. After that, students were tested for 15 minutes to check what they had memorized. Finally, after a 20-minute break to rest from the effort of recalling butterfly names, the students were questioned one last time.

After comparing the test results, the scientists found that the Australian Aboriginal method was the most accurate way to recall memorized information in a short amount of time. “Made-up stories” were 3 times (!) more effective than “memory palace”.

Later the scientists complicated the experiment  conducting it not on the material of butterflies but on the material of names of tricarboxylic acids and memorizing the sequence of complex biochemical reactions. And this time the aboriginal method came out the winner of the battle with modern mnemotechnics.

Those who used this this method reproduced the obtained information quite accurately. But in other cases the information was forgotten almost completely after 6 weeks without repeating it.


A Jesuit turned out to be the smartest Chinese


Humanity has been fighting over the problem of memory development for thousands of years.  Remembering everything is a superpower that has been valued at all times, in all societies and cultures. For example the well known case of the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricchi that happened in 16th century in China . He was the first European who successfully passed the examination for senior-level Chinese officials.

This examination required memorization of a vast array of  different classical Chinese texts, which even the average Chinese was incapable of doing. It could take the applicants a lifetime, and only about 1% of those tested reached the end. But it was precisely the percentage of geniuses that the Chinese system of government staked on.

Matteo Ricchi didn’t just pass the exam by being in that 1%. He prepared for it in a record time for Chinese tradition – in just 10 years, during which Ricci also managed to master the Chinese language to perfection. After all an incredible number of texts created by another culture in an unknown language had to be learnt to read, understand and interpret before they could be memorized and reproduced.


The collapsed roof of the “memory palace”


WE can’t say for sure what technique the ingenious Jesuit used. Some think it was akin to the one used by the Aborigines. But perhaps it was the notorious “memory palace”, the invention of which is attributed to the famous Roman writer and orator Cicero (one of the versions).

A more exotic version believes that the iconic mnemonic technique appeared in ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago. Its author was the ancient Greek poet Simonides under rather eerie circumstances. After reading his poems to the public in a large hall for festive gatherings  Simonides went outside.

And at that very moment  the roof of the building collapsed and buried all the participants in the festivities just behind the man. Simonides was lucky to be the only survivor. But the poet received such a strong emotional shock that the full picture of the feast at the moment before the tragedy was imprinted in the smallest detail in his mind.

The citizens of the city looked on as a miracle at Simonides’ amazing ability – he met the relatives of the dead and unmistakably led them to their bodies. Simonides subsequently described this experience, analyzing what had happened and formulating something similar to the “memory palace” mnemotechnique.


There is no such thing as a bad memory


Interestingly, it is the “memory palace” that is the most popular technology among participants in the World Memory Championships, a world championship in memorization that has been held regularly since 1991.  The most “memorable” people on the planet demonstrate memorizing a gigantic number of dates, faces, numbers, and lines of verse.

One of the most famous champions, Joshua Foer, covered the 2005 championships as a journalist. Things he saw fascinated and impressed him so much that he professionally engaged in the development of his memory. As a result, a unique book was born – “Einstein Walks on the Moon. The Science and Art of Remembering”.

In this book a memory-champion Feuer popularly explains how our memory works and analyzes the various techniques that allow people to remember more and better. He argues that a great memory is not a result; anyone can develop it. Because our brain never forgets anything and keeps everything we see and hear for the rest of our lives.

There really is no such thing as a “bad memory” – we are doomed to “remember everything”. Another thing is that we are bad at reproducing data, freely extracting information from the “lazy” brain. 

The narrative method of Australian aborigines works best precisely because any form of “topic development” maximally activates connections between neurons. Modern memory art is quite capable of adapting for the 21st century and using these archaic methods.

Even now, video games are being developed, in which the learning of foreign words is as if inscribed in the cosmic “reality” invented by the developers. For example, foreign words, that should be memorized, are written on the hulls of spaceships, that should  be shot down.

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