Memory and The Brain : More Is Easier

Did you know that mnemonic memory techniques are 2,500 years old?

Their origin is a legend, passed along by Cicero. Greek poet Simonides (c.556-c.468 BC) demonstrated a feat of recall that jumpstarted the theory. He had attended a banquet, where he presented a poem. Afterwards, he went outside, which saved him when the roof collapsed, killing the other guests. Simonides was able to identify the bodies by using visual recall, who sat where during the banquet.  

[Simonides] inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty [of memory] must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it. (Cicero, De Oratore, II, lxxxvi – translation: Sutton & Rackham, 1942).

Even though I learned about mnemonics when I worked with the Dale Carnegie program in the 80s and 90s, I wasn’t curious enough to ask how Carnegie developed the tips we taught our students. Given my fascination with the brain (I have been reading and thinking about about the brain for at least 20 years), I’m a little surprised at my ignorance.

How did I discover it today?

ConnectomeI’m reading Connectome: How the brain’s wiring makes us who we are by @SebastianSeung. He was on the Microsoft campus last week, and Mike snagged a signed copy of his book. On page 87, while discussing synaptic chains, he writes:

The ancients already knew the paradoxical fact that remembering more information is often easier than remembering less. Orators and poets exploited this fact in a mnemonic technique called the method of loci. To memorize a list of items, they imagined walking through a series of rooms in a house and finding each item in a different room. The method may have worked by increasing the redundancy of each item’s representation.

This explains why teachers often use seating charts; we can (relatively) quickly associate a name with a physical space. The more tricky task is linking the name to the visual quirkiness that is a person, especially if we encounter said person in another environment.

When I was 17, I was in a contest (I represented 4-H; my antagonist was a guy from the FFA) to learn the names of a bus load of high school kids en route from Georgia to New Orleans for a national conference. I unconsciously learned the names in association — pairs of students, what they were wearing, where they sat on the bus. As I recall, I “won” the contest — but I don’t remember if the recitation of names occurred before we piled out of the bus at the end of that first day’s journey or if we had to name everyone at the dinner that night. If it were the later, I’m doubly impressed with my younger self!

One of the promises of the Dale Carnegie course is an improved ability to remember names. Students learn how to fashion mental pictures (association) and the importance of repetition. Carnegie suggests several repetitions on initial introduction, along with fashioning an exaggerated picture to associate the name. Baker, for example, is easy. Here’s the picture I would draw for students as I demonstrated the technique:

Hi, my name is Kathy Gill. To help remember my name, visualize a tawny cat leaping onto a table top. On the table top, there is an open fish bowl. The tawny cat reaches her paw into the fish bowl, trying to catch a fish for an afternoon snack. Cat = Kathy. Fish = Gill.

We also taught ordered associations, creating vivid memory pictures in a 1-2-3 order and then tying the things to be remembered to the associated story.

  1. Run
  2. Zoo
  3. Tree
  4. Door
  5. Hive
  6. Sick
  7. Heaven
  8. Gate
  9. Wine
  10. Den
  11. Football Eleven
  12. Shelf
  13. Hurting
  14. Courting
  15. Lifting
  16. Licking
  17. Leavening
  18. Waiting
  19. Pining
  20. Plenty
  21. Dueling Gun

For example, “run” represents this picture: A thoroughbred race horse is thundering down the track, dirt flying, stirrups bouncing. What you want to remember is perched in the saddle atop this half-ton beast. Contrast that with leavening, number 17, which is freshly kneaded bread dough, slowly rising in the oven; what you want to remember pops out of the dough. Not nearly as active or colorful, that picture.

It’s probably not a surprise that the first 10 are easier for me to remember today than the second. First, the rhyme is better. Second, so is the imagery, at least for my brain! And except for teaching the class, I have rarely tried to remember more than 5-6 items. That, too, explains why the higher order numbers are harder for me to envision today, a lack of repetition.

The key lesson: vivid stories are more memorable and repeating the associative pattern facilitates recall.

These two mnemonics reflect one of the theories in Seung’s book: that repetition strengthens (thickens) the ties between neurons and thus improves access to the memory.

Another technique we learned in the Dale Carnegie course was a memory stack; we demonstrated this technique in the introductory, get-you-to-sign-up-for-the-class, workshop.

Think, for a moment, about the 13 original colonies. Can  you name them? More importantly, can you name them in the order in which they signed the Declaration of Independence?

It’s been more than 30 years since I learned this, and probably 15 since I taught the course, but the memory stack is so vivid that I can still answer “yes.”

  1. Imagine a delicate china plate, thrown into the ground, standing on edge
  2. Stuck through its middle is a large #2 pencil
  3. Precariously balanced on the pencil is  a Jersey cow, bell dangling
  4. Sitting cross-legged between the cow’s horns is King George, wearing a huge crown glinting with precious gems
  5. He has a cut on his forehead, from where the crown slipped while he got himself onto the cow, and the cut is connected with a band-aid
  6. The weight of the crown is giving him a headache, so he is holding a mass of ice to his head
  7. Embedded in the mass of ice is a carousel merry-go-round
  8. As the merry-go-round spins round-and-round, it expels a cargo liner headed south
  9. Teetering on the bow of the cargo liner is a gigantic smoked ham…
  10. … wrapped in the sheet music to “Carry me back to Old Virginia”
  11. The ham is the foundation for the Empire State Building, which is wobbling (sea legs) as the ship cuts through the sea
  12. Balanced on the pinnacle of the Empire State Building is another cargo liner, but this one is headed north
  13. On the back rail of the northbound cargo liner, talons clasped, is a Rhode Island Red rooster, crowing as the sun risesThe states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island

The more vivid the pictures (and the verbs), the easier it is to recall the stack.

Each examples demonstrates the counter-intuitive truth: it’s easier to remember “more” than “less.” Rote memorization — whether you’re trying to remember that list of states in chronological order or the things your S.O. wants you to pick up at the grocery store on the way home from work or, especially, the words of a speech — is notorious for letting us down.

Seung is on an ambitious journey to understand why this is so, from the somewhat straightforward calculus of how memory might work to the not-at-all-straightforward understanding of how genes and experiences interact to shape individuals, making me and you.

Highly recommended.

Here’s his 2010 TED Talk:

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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