There once was a time when humans held everything we knew in our heads. That might sound impossible these days when the internet is at our fingertips, but for millennia, it was our only way of passing on knowledge.
Now, some researchers want to remind us that there is still place for ancient memory techniques to be taught in the modern world. And there is more than one such technique, too.
In ancient Greece and Rome, people would construct mental maps with a technique known as a memory palace or method of loci. As their mind walked from room to room, scholars and clergy were able to recall facts and data they had attached to certain household features, like a rug, a desk, or a window.
Today, this Western technique is still used by medical students to cram an encyclopedia of knowledge into their brains, but a new study suggests an even older memory 'code' used by people from Australia's First Nations could be a better choice for memorizing copious amounts of information.
Aboriginal Australians are part of the oldest living culture on Earth, and for over 60,000 years, their stories and knowledge have been passed from generation to generation via songlines and dreamings.
These ancient stories, woven into artwork, songs, or dance, are intimately tied to the landscape, allowing Elders to recall crucial information regarding seasons, food sources, navigation, tool making, and laws as they walk by certain plants, animals or rocks.
The narrative-based technique is remarkably similar to the 'memory palace', and the researchers behind the new paper think this ancient wisdom can be used in a "respectful, culturally safe manner" to help medical students and health professionals remember long lists of facts.
In their study, 76 undergraduate medical students in rural Australia were enrolled and split into three groups, all of which would have to memorize an identical list of 20 butterfly names. To start off, all students had to try and memorize the list.
One of the groups then spent the next 30 minutes learning a narrative-based memory technique by an experienced Australian Aboriginal educator. During this lesson, each member in the group walked around a garden and constructed a story connecting each butterfly name to a visible feature, such as a rock, a plant or a concrete slab.
The students then practiced walking the narrative in their mind, recalling each element and name as they did so in order. The group was then tested again.
Meanwhile, another group of students were instructed for 30 minutes on the memory palace technique. Using this method, the group incorporated each butterfly name into a mental floor plan of their childhood home.
As a control, students in the third group were asked to recall the butterfly names without any instruction.
In the end, both types of memory training allowed students to recall the list better than when they attempted it on their own. But the group that learned the Australian Aboriginal technique made significantly fewer errors than those who used the memory palace method.
After training in this ancient Aboriginal technique, students were almost three times as likely to remember the entire list in their second test.
Those who learned the memory palace technique were twice as likely to get a perfect score after memory training. Meanwhile, the control group only improved about 50 percent in their second attempt.
"Student responses to learning the Australian Aboriginal memory technique in the context of biomedical science education were overwhelmingly favorable, and students found both the training and the technique enjoyable, interesting, and more useful than rote memorization," the authors write.
The findings suggest a narrative-based memory technique is useful for studying biomedical sciences, especially when the order of facts matters. Still, the technique only really works if the students keep practicing.
Six weeks later, when the same participants were asked to recall the list of butterflies again, those who were trained in the memory palace technique remembered more of the butterfly names. Meanwhile those students who were trained in the Australian Aboriginal method scored equally to the untrained group.
The sample size is small, so it's hard to read too much into these results. Nevertheless, the authors suggest the Australian Aboriginal method "requires sustained practice and repeated exposure" to the landscape to hold on to the information for longer than a day.
"This study reveals several subtle, but important advantages for teaching of the Australian Aboriginal memorization method as compared to the more widely known memory palace technique," researchers conclude.
"In particular the Australian Aboriginal method seems better suited to teaching in a single, relatively short instruction period."
All of this just goes to show that to hold on to stories for millennia would require dedication and an extraordinarily close connection to the landscape.
The study was published in PLOS One.