Australian scientists from Monash University found that an ancient Aboriginal memory tool was more effective and enjoyable than an ancient Greek “Memory Palace” technique.
Now, the Aboriginal method could become part of the curriculum to help medical students retain information and lower stress in medical school.
However, the methods are useful for anyone who struggles to remember things. Today, as we all grip with life post-Covid-19, that seems to be many of us.
Fortunately, after thousands of generations, Australian Aboriginals and other indigenous peoples like the Navajo developed a hack for remembering vast amounts of information.
The Ancient Greek Memory Palace Method
For the ancient Greeks, handwritten books were rare and prized. Sometimes, a person would have limited opportunity to read a book and memorize the content.
To help remember, they came up with the so-called “Memory Palace” technique, first described in early Greek and Roman treatises and used by Jesuit priests. Notably, the Greeks originally called it the Method of Loci (places).
Today, memory athletes still use the Greek method to enhance their recall. For example, people who enter the USA Memory Championship may use the Greek method to remember numbers, words, or faces.
How the Greek Memory Palace method works
Fortunately, anyone can use the Memory Palace technique, and it can powerfully boost memory. Moreover, It can work for remembering any kind of information, such as a grocery list or phone number.
For example, by combining visual and spatial memory, it makes it easier to remember information. The way it works is one memory is attached to a preexisting memory. Then, using visual cues you come up with, you can trigger your memory. (see video below)
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According to Inverse:
“Place the information you want to remember along a visual route you know well. You might place the first three digits of your social security number in locations within your childhood bedroom (on the bed, in the mirror, on a dresser, maybe) the second two in the hallway, and the last four in the bathroom. Then, to “collect” that information, mentally retrace your steps.”
Recently, scientists studying the brains of people using the Memory Palace technique said participants had increased “neural efficiency.” Therefore, by creating “strange and novel” associations, it makes it easier to remember data.
Notably, even months after using the technique, participants in studies tended to remember lists of words.
Today, scientists say the Aboriginal method is even more effective, going a step further than the Memory Palace idea.
See how to create your own functional Mind Palace from Practical Psychology:
The Ancient Aboriginal Memory Method
In Aboriginal culture, oral history was an essential part of the culture without a written record. Instead, indigenous peoples had orality, oral narratives, such as sacred creation stories connecting them to the past.
Thus, it was crucial to find a way to remember these stories and events to pass down to generations over thousands of years. In some cases, stories have been verified as dating back over 10,000 years. (see video below)
Interestingly, DNA analysis has found the Australian Aboriginal civilization is the oldest in the world dating back 31,000 years.
However, Aboriginal Australian ancestries date back 75,000 years after the first exodus from Africa. Over many millennia, Aboriginal elders devised techniques to remember and pass down the oral histories. To remember, they associated memories with the landscape and combined storytelling.
How the Aboriginal memory technique works
How does the Australian Aboriginal memory method work?
According to Neuroscience News:
“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 memorizing also used the idea of attaching facts to the landscape, but with added stories which describe the facts and the placement to facilitate recall.”
Thus, the Aboriginal method goes further than the Mind Palace technique, combining narratives and locations into the mix. After using the method, students were three times more likely to remember a list of 20 common butterfly names.
Furthermore, students found the Aboriginal method enjoyable “both as a way to remember facts but also as a way to learn more about Aboriginal culture,” according to Dr. David Reser, from the Monash University School of Rural Health.
Were Ancient Monuments Constructed as Memory Palaces?
According to Australian science educator Lynne Kelly, the Aboriginal method employed an extraordinary suite of memory techniques. Using such techniques, she has found her memory became stronger than ever in her life by age 66.
“Plasticity does go on if you keep using it,” she says. “There’s been experiments with older people with early-onset dementia using memory palaces and music showing that they respond to this in their identity.”
Perhaps, she suggests, using indigenous memory techniques early on could keep our memories working into old age.
“Why aren’t we embedding our knowledge, our identity, in our songs and in our landscapes way earlier and delaying if not preventing dementia in many cases?” she asks.
Similarly, many cultures worldwide devised memory techniques before writing came into widespread use. To help, they created physical memory devices, including monuments.
For example, the Aboriginal coolamon, a carrying vessel, featured markings which she believes help trigger memories. Other cultures worldwide may have created objects with a similar purpose in mind.
Furthermore, she believes a possible purpose of monuments like Stonehenge, the Nazca Lines, and the statues of Easter Island was to help unlock important memories. For example, standing stones at Avebury may have served as a sort of real-world memory palace.
See more about the Aboriginal memory technique and other indigenous methods from Australian science educator and author Lynne Kelly in Tedx Talks: