by Nareg khachatoorian
We all complain about bad memory. Some of us blame it on our phones. Others have other excuses. But we all want to know how to remember things better. Nareg Khachaturian has recently finished his PhD in City University of London investigating the mental and neurobiological basis of memory enhancement. Here he gives us a very brief overview.
One of the earliest tools of memory enhancement are Mnemonics. Ancient Greeks knew about them (Luria, 1969; see Yates, 1966 for a wonderful book about history of memory and also see here for a great article). Even pre-literary cultures knew about them. Mnemonics are mental strategies that use the person’s prior knowledge to help remember information one wishes not to forget.
The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos in the (556–468 BC) came up with ‘Method of loci’ which is also known as Mind Palace in Sherlock Holmes among many other names in popular media. If you want to remember a number of things, you use a layout already known to yourself such as that of your house or office or other geographical structures with numerous discrete locations in the layout (‘loci’) and ‘attach’ or associate the items you want to remember to those locations of the layout. This creates a ‘mental structure’ and when the information is needed, you ‘walk’ through the loci in your mind and retrieve the information.
Mnemonics such as method of loci are usually very effective for remembering lists of items that do not follow a meaningful pattern. For example, Memory Athletes (yes there is such a thing as a MEOMRY SPORT) use similar techniques to memorise 1000s of random digits. However, they are not very useful for remembering real-world memories. For example, the memory of having gone to a music concert or visiting a museum cannot be put into a mnemonic of this sort.
What have we learned about memory enhancements from the research in modern psychology?
Despite the importance of memory improvement and the benefit we could all get from it, very little attention has been given to by modern psychology (see Herrmann and Searleman 1992) . Only, in the past decade or so has memory improvement been examined by the scientific community. Here are two examples.
Retrieval practice: Educational psychologists have found that once students are taught some material, testing their memories (without allowing them to prepare) enhances these memories more than teaching them a second time (see a great review by Karpicke, 2017). However, retrieval practice has not been studied in the context of real-world memories. So, whether it works in real life too or it is, rather, a laboratory curiosity is unknown.
Reviewing the photos of events: Reviewing photos of personally experienced events helps remember the event better compared to, for example, reading written diary entries. This research has used photos taken by wearable cameras, in contrast to everyday use of cameras in our phones these devices create hundreds of photos within an hour. And this brings us the to million dollar question we started with.
Taking photos and reviewing them later may enhance our memory of the concert. But would the photos still help if we did not have access to them at the time we want to remember the concert. Will reviewing the photos after the concert be useful for remembering its content later on?
To answer this question, in the final year of my PhD, I ran a memory experiment outside of the lab and in the real world. I took groups of people on museum tours in the British Museum and gave them wearable cameras that took lots of photos from all the objects they visited. Afterwards, I asked half of my participants to review the photos. The other half, I asked to try and remember as much of the tour as they could immediately after the tour finished. One week later, people in the first group (i.e., those who had reviewed the photos) were better at recognition, differentiating between photos from their actual museum tour and other photos from the same museum but from places in the museum that were not included in our tour. Interestingly, people in the second group were better (relative to the people in the first group) at recalling information from the museum one week later .
In conclusion, it seems like taking photos of an event is useful, especially if you are going to have access to them. However, practising to remember the memories by reviewing things in our mind can also help us remember the events even if we do not have the photos.
So in fact, the annoying people who ruined the concert for others by filming everything with their phones do not remember better than others, according to my research. Next time, (when concerts come back after Covid-19 is gone, and yes they will come back), feel free to despise those people with even more smugness. My research supports you (*).
(*) Or at least, does not offer any evidence to bring you down from your grand standing.