In the first place

We hear a lot about innovative educational approaches, and since these silly people have been at this for a long time now, we hear just as often about the innovative approaches that some idiot started up a few years ago and are now crashing in flames.  We’re in steady-state.

I’m wondering if it isn’t time to try something archaic.  In particular, mnemonic techniques, such as the method of loci.  As far as I know, nobody has actually tried integrating the more sophisticated mnemonic techniques into a curriculum.  Sure, we all know useful acronyms, like the one for resistor color codes, but I’ve not heard of anyone teaching kids how to build a memory palace.

I’m just suggesting taking the idea out for a spin, see if it works well in some small, statistically-careful trials. I’m not talking about foisting it on everyone nationwide, willy-nilly.  Which shows just how out of it I am.

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60 Responses to In the first place

  1. CharlesK says:

    Yep. A memory palace. I wish we’d memorized stuff in high school. It was explicitly regarded as bad practice when I was a kid in the 60s. I remember reading a ridiculous article in the 70s saying that Scottish children should not be required to memorize dates in history. They should be taught instead to “understand” the context.

    The first time I tried a memory palace I was thirty something, but in my first try I managed more than 40 cards of a 52 card deck. I used the planets in order, then the rooms of my house, then the rooms of my childhood home, then the farmhouse.

    Some teachers still remembered the old tricks, which is about all I came away from high school with: the first three periods of the periodic table, but then, “Kindly Put Cat Out Front Gate Sir Victor” (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, …), and sadly, a now useless mnemonic for classifying stars which I maybe picked up from Fred Hoyle.

    Much later, I bought a book, impulsively, for fun, crammed with mnemonics for Psychiatry, which was not my subject.

    Weirdly I still use the periodic table mnemonics about once a month. For mathematical formula I must to use the very few that I can remember honestly, and derive the rest.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “I remember reading a ridiculous article in the 70s saying that Scottish children should not be required to memorize dates in history. They should be taught instead to “understand” the context.”

      Paul Johnson’s 1982 history of the 20th Century “Modern Times” was an electrifying read at the time because it went in opposite direction and specified the precise date of every event, sometimes to the time of day. That way, it was easy to make the kind of text we are most inclined to read: a chronological narrative of the chain of cause and effect. It’s like reading a juicy story about how Mary told Sue what Sam said, so Sue immediately told Bill, except it was with Hitler and Stalin and Roosevelt.

    • engleberg says:

      Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me? Still on Wiki, though with some brown dwarf stuff at the end nowadays.

  2. dearieme says:

    Pointless. The experiment would work. Then it would be adopted on a large scale, and fail. That is the fate of almost all educational experiments. Only mass “turning the clock back” could possibly succeed, and it would probably require as a preliminary the annihilation of the present corps of teachers.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Teaching is a performing art.

      If I go to see any kind of performer who has made some kind of name for himself, whether a banjo player, mime, or stand-up, he’s usually pretty good. That doesn’t mean 3 million other people could learn to enthrall a room full of people by playing the banjo or miming.

      Heck, now I recall that the basketball player Jerry Lucas had a nightclub act featuring amazing feats of memory, presumably based on memory palace techniques. It was pretty entertaining.

      • CharlesK says:

        “Teaching is a performing art.”

        My Physical Chemistry professor has his own IMDB entries. I have never used an RPN calculator as hard as in his course. I came in overqualified in calculus, linear algebra, and data structures & algorithms and left with with an elevated respect for high school PV=nRT, dimensional analysis, and actually doing something in a laboratory.

        “Arthur Grosser is an actor who also works as a physical chemistry professor at McGill University”:

      • praguestepchild says:

        I read a memory book by Lucas and someone else way back when I was a teenager and actually picked up a few techniques, specifically turning a string of numbers into words by associating numbers with letters. Haven’t used it for a long time, and rather lost the knack, but it does work. The book has some interesting anecdotes and discussion of how these guys picked up their memory “tricks”.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      A youngster going into teaching doesn’t dream the nonsense up themselves. They’re infected during teacher training and them injected into the national blood stream. Teacher education is the source.

  3. praguestepchild says:

    Gene Wolfe has the amnesiac hero Latro learn the memory palace technique directly from Simonides of Ceos in “Soldier of Arete”.

  4. Jason says:

    In high school, they taught me that mere memorization was low-rent. I graduated having learned virtually nothing (except “concepts” and proper PC sensibilities). When I got to college I had a real problem. My approach of glancing at a book wasn’t working. Especially since I was just skipping past all that detail junk.

    I cured myself by going to the help center and getting the MOST basic study guide they had. It had some very simple memorization techniques, as well as study approaches like PDR (Preview, Do, Review) and it worked wonders. Truth is, I simply wasn’t paying proper attention to the material and trying to recall it. Once I did that, there was a dramatic change.

    I found that “mere” memorization was essential for every serious course I took, from biology, to finance to statistics. I suspect the lower the IQ the more benefit you get. Maybe geniuses really can glance at material and know it all. But I wonder if high IQ people don’t instinctively know they need to commit crucial data to memory.

  5. Anonymous says:

    In school i learnt by summing up and writing it down…this method helps since the learning style is equal to the way the material has to be reproduced, namely by writing it down

  6. This is in reference to an earlier post, but it is so funny I hope it is OK if I put it here. It was the
    one on elves. You spoke too soon. Elf woman

    has appeared.

  7. Perhaps your memory task is too sophisticated. We should start with underlining. That would test whether students could read and were attending to the material. Question is: what to teach? First aid? Evolution? Compound interest? Double entry book keeping? Microsoft Excel?

  8. Patrick Boyle says:

    I don’t think mnemonics is worth much. It’s easy enough but it’s value it seems to me is very marginal. I have used a Memory Palace-like technique myself successfully but it has severe limitations. I don’t mean just employing established acronyms but real ad hoc memorization of arbitrary numbers or letters quickly.

    When I was in Basic Training at the rifle range for final qualifying with the M-1, they had targets that popped up at random ranges from 25 to 300 yards. They gave us a sheet as we waited. It had all the ranges printed on it. We were supposed to give to the spotter the range sheet so he would know where to look. I told the sergeant that that was crazy. Anyone could just memorize the ranges and defeat the whole purpose of the random pop ups. The sergeant told me no one could memorize dozens of random numbers in just a few minutes.

    Well of course he was wrong. If you just devise some whacky associations, it’s quite easy. When I was on the firing line I called out the ranges where the next target would pop up. This freaked out everyone else contributing to my reputation as an odd ball. I did indeed qualify with the M-1 but not particularly high. It takes some time to remember – time that others spent scanning the range. I had an advantage but not a large one in the test. In combat, my little memory trick would have been useless.

    Later when I worked at the Post Office to put myself through college, I had to learn a ‘postal scheme’. This is a list of addresses and the number of the relevant mail route. The numbers and addresses are virtually random. Those who can’t master a scheme can’t be mail clerks. They get demoted to be mail handlers.

    They sent the new clerks away for several hours each night to a special classroom where we were supposed to memorize. As I remember they gave you three weeks to pass the test. But I knew mnemonics. I passed it in two days. I could have done it in one.

    I passed the test easily but there was a catch. When I saw an address on the envelope I went through my association chain and always got the right answer. But I was slow – just like on the rifle range. The other guys who came back from their three weeks of rote drill didn’t need to think. They saw the address and put it in the slot. After a month or so I could do that too.

    We need an fMRI study. I’m sure that mnemonic memorization is a pre-frontal process and rote memorization involves lower structures. They are not very alike at all.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      And then someone created automatic mail sorting machines (maybe with aliens in them.)

    • Gilbert P says:

      Another way to qualify as a sharpshooter (in this case, SADF, knock-off Belgian FN, known as the R1): Have an associate armed with a pen on your target in the bunker. Make sure you entirely miss the target with all your shots, and let your pal bodge your way to the badge.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “I don’t think mnemonics is worth much.”

      For who? Maybe the value varies with IQ?

      Given that a lot of the educational changes since the 60s have been driven by high IQ, academically enthusiastic, self-disciplined people maybe they got rid of all the things *they* didn’t need – and in the process destroyed education for all the people that did need those things.

  9. dearieme says:

    Apart from a mnemonic, how is anyone going to remember which one is amyl alcohol?

  10. marcel says:

    Tony Judt used this technique, in the year or two between his diagnosis with ALS and his death, to write his last book as his control over his body deteriorated.

    He’d spend each night, when he wasn’t able to sleep, composing the book and retrieving it for dictation the following day. At least that’s what I recall reading at the time.

  11. vaniver says:

    I never had much success with memory palaces; I think my introspective access to my visual imagination is not very good. But on the subject of memorization aids, it seems worthwhile to bring up Anki, a piece of spaced repetition software which I wish I had known about much earlier in my academic career. (The basic idea is flashcards, except spaced out based on the empirically determined forgetting function, so that you’re continually reminding yourself of all the old things you wanted to keep in your head that are about to leak out.)

  12. This is a very nice post. I have been thinking about how terribly inefficient standard education is. Where I am from, history (say, Roman Republic, Empire, Ancient Greeks etc.) are taught when at elementary school, middle school, high school. Recently, one of my favorite thing to do when I am bored at the dinner table is asking people when the (western) Roman Empire fell. More or less, not the exact (“official”) year as found in textbooks. No answer 95% of the time despite all people having “studied” the period and been tested on it multiple times.
    And then I ask my colleagues how much they remember of their college days. You know, things like organic chemistry, geology and such. Well, I remember basically nothing, to the point of being constantly surprised by how little I would be able to do if I had to resort to the things I learned in college. And I was an excellent student, by the way. They are often not as honest as I am, and so they talk about learning a method and stuff like that (like learning a method requires to forget everything you studied when developing the method itself).

    Now, interesting things to be taught starting from elementary school and possibly before.
    – how to memorize, because remembering is kinda important (to the point that to look things up on google you need to remember how to look up on google). Memory palace is an excellent choice.
    – how to control your body, including how to reduce pain (much easier to learn when you are very young)

    Maybe they are not scalable (especially due to the lack of instructors), but even then, not everything has to be scalable right off the bat.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I have never used formal mnemonic techniques, but life has recently tested me on how well I remember material from my college days. Turns out that I can still do the sorts of math and physics problems that I could then, in subjects like classical mechanics, real analysis, combinatorics, complex variables, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, etc. I usually have to crack the book though. Some of that material I have used from time to time, or even fairly often (especially linear algebra), most not. I’m sure I’m slower than I was then, at least on the stuff I haven’t used.

  13. Bruce Banner says:

    I guess working memory or short-term memory (or RAM memory in computer terms) is more useful than “hard Disk” or passive memory. The latter is finite, while the former is a measure of our IQ . That is, the very reason we forget things is because our synapses have to make room for new information and erase less used items of memory.

    Because humans are pretty intelligent compared to other animals but otherwise lacking in memory, we devised written language and later various other recording processes up to digital storage. Books, encyclopedias cover almost all we need. A scholar of any stripe can carry more information than he needs in a terabyte of digital information contained in a portable hard disk. The Wikipedia is also at hand where internet conection is available.

    Working memory, the ability to use short term information, such as data, formulae and concepts, in order to discover and arrange new ideas in our minds seems more relevant than raw memorization.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Long-term memory capacity must be finite, but I know of no evidence that anyone has ever run out of it. As for the idea that you don’t really need a lot of facts in your head to come up with new ideas: pretty much the opposite of the truth, in a lot of fields.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “Books, encyclopedias cover almost all we need.”

      You can’t make connections between two seemingly unrelated bits of information if you don’t know the information in advance.

  14. panjoomby says:

    might help some high Spatial Ability/Spatial Memory-types on certain tasks – but if it’s visual info the high Spatial types wouldn’t need to build a palace in the first place. some people have excellent visual-spatial memory & awful auditory memory, & vice-versa. most of KG-14 is set up for the auditory (bla bla bla) verbal folks – & kicks spatial out of the room (except for physics, advanced math & 3D chemistry molecules). later, auditory-verbal folks find out nobody will pay ’em to repeat things back. meanwhile the spatial folks (if they’re still around) go into STEM fields. some high verbal-auditory types can make it in biology (or in social sciences, law, & other bla bla bla things). Lubinski’s done some excellent research on this. Spatial > Verbal, Verbal > Spatial, etc. Memory Palace (& good instruction in general) simply separates kids even more – good teaching creates GREATER variability – smart kids benefit way more from it, & the nonsmart kids gain a tiny bit!

    • gcochran9 says:

      You might well be right, but I think we don’t know that mnemonic techniques increase variability until we try them.

    • Matt says:

      Re: Lubinski, g plus spatial ability seems to contribute to STEM ability, with specific verbal abilities (e.g. higher performance on verbal tasks relative to the prediction made on g) not really contributing at all (except in a negative way, by encouraging folks to go into other fields).

      High verbal abilities tend to have higher correlations to g than spatial ability though, so in practice this doesn’t mean that people with high spatial ability have more STEM ability, just higher relative to their g.

      At the level of the discipline, this causes the average level of practitioners to be lopsided in favor of spatial abilities, because it is generally a composite of folks who at the extremes have either high g and no special subfacets and high spatial, but lower g.

      It is an interesting question whether high g high performance on STEM is mediated by g contributing to spatial ability. The prevailing view often tends to be that STEM is reliant of spatial-visual representations, e.g. number line, etc. There are some studies which suggest it is not – for instance, seems to demonstrate that “associations between numbers and non-spatial representations of magnitude, such as physical size, grip opening, object graspability, tactile sensation, force (against a button, for example), and luminosity” that could contribute to at least quantitative skill and numbers as elements of a generalized representation of sensorimotor-related magnitude, which is not obligatorily spatial. This could offer an alternative on why g and spatial skills both contribute to STEM ability, that is not wholly mediated by g->spatial.

      As to whether memory palaces etc would favor high spatial folk, one possibility is may be that highly spatial folk do something similar already, so they would benefit from instruction less.

      • panjoomby says:

        @ Matt (& Gregory, Henry, Steven, etc.) thank you – excellent spot-on points, well-made. this blog is like having smarter older siblings whom one can run their ideas by. i’ll make a monetary donation whilst i’m feeling beneficent & before i return to default-irritability mode.

  15. dearieme says:

    I too was indoctrinated to despise memory work. It’s rather a stupid attitude. How the devil can you manipulate 1, 2, 3 … until you’ve memorised them? Or a, b, c …? Or study history fruitfully if you don’t know the sequence of events, so usefully summarised by their dates. (For example I once read a blog comment about how the US constitution carefully incorporated lessons from the French Revolution: attention to dates would have avoided such drivel. A more recent example was someone’s assertion that Newton fell out with King James, he of the bible.) An education that emphasised memorising material instead of understanding it would be a feeble thing, but that’s no excuse for replacing the demand that some facts be memorised by the Orwellian demand that some Victims be Empathised with.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I’ve seen someone blame the CIA for the Spanish Civil War.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Did the person not know the dates of US Constitution and French Revolution?

      Yes, attention to dates would have avoided this problem, but does memorization of dates actually encourage attention to dates? Designing a curriculum to influence attention seems to me a difficult problem. I see people fail to do basic sanity checks all the time and have no idea what to do about it.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Memorization of dates is a huge help for me, but I’m interested in chains of cause and effect. Knowing the dates is the most obvious reality check of historical theorizing. If I hypothesize that event A caused event B the first check is to make sure A happened before B. I have discarded countless theories for failing that test.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “Yes, attention to dates would have avoided this problem”

        Yes it would.

  16. Al Fin says:

    Advanced mnemonic and other learning techniques could partially erase racial differences in achievement test scores, as long as you taught them only to disadvantaged groups. Rather like the lopsided funding given to improve girls’ achievement in STEM and other high pay fields. A lot of money could be shunted to NAM school districts for advanced memory and learning methods. The politically correct should applaud such a program.

  17. JIm says:

    dearieme – The reference to King James may have been to James II. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Newton was involved to some extent with political opposition to James II.
    I agree that it helps to know a lot of stuff to do research in many areas of mathematics. One of the most amazing things about Wiles proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is how much mathematics is involved. When I saw the picture of Wiles standing in front of the blackboard in Cambridge giving his lecture on Fermat’s Last Theorem I noticed a reference to Hilbert Irreducibilty Theory on the blackboard. A summary of his proof I read didn’t even mention Hilbert Irreducibility Theory. Whole books have been written on Hilbert Irreducibilty Theory and apparently it’s use is just a very minor part of his proof.

  18. Steve Sailer says:

    Rap music is particularly suited to instruction via rote memorization.

    Up through age 25 or so, when alphabetizing things, I had to rapidly sing to myself the alphabet song to make sure I was getting L,K, and J in the right order. Thank goodness we were at least taught the alphabet using a song in first grade, rather than taught to think critically about the alphabet.

  19. Steve Sailer says:

    Chinese history is not particularly hard to learn if you memorize the imperial dynasties.

  20. Brian says:

    It would be hard to improve on the Primary Education of the Camiroi.

  21. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Is this true?

    The perversion of the draft laws was tragic for those of us who had to lead these men in combat. The most difficult task in war is to fight close to the enemy. It takes extraordinary strength, endurance, skill and an intuitive sense of a soldier’s surroundings. Yet in my father’s war, thanks to a corrupt draft, infantry came from the lowest mental categories and were universally smaller and weaker than soldiers drafted for non-combat specialties. Thus it should surprise no one that better trained and acculturated German soldiers had a field day killing Americans with great skill in the hedgerows of Normandy. The same can be said for my Vietnam generation where the ranks of infantry units were too often filled with young men who hated the fact that they lost the lottery. They were too poor or too disadvantaged for their parents to get them deferred or into the National Guard.

    That would seem to indicate that each side was eliminating a different strata of their population with different, downstream, consequences. However, it was really a one-off things, still, I wonder how it shifted the average IQ in each group.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You think I know more about this than a retired major general and former head of the War College? I do, of course, but that fact itself should worry you.

      He’s not all wrong, but a lot of what he says is wrong. For example, the Germany Army was a conscript army, so conscription itself can’t explain why the Krauts were about 25% more effective than the average American unit. Nor is it true that the draft in WWII was corrupt.

      The US had a different mix of armed forces – more air forces and a much larger Navy than Germany. Those services have higher technical requirements and sucked up a lot of the smarter guys. That was just a product of the strategic situation.

      The Germans had better officers, partly because of better training and doctrine, partly the fruit of a different attitude towards the army. The US, much of the time, thought of the Army as a career for losers, but Germans did not.

      The Germans had an enormous amount of relevant combat experience, much more than anyone in the US. Spend a year or two on the Eastern Front and you learn.

      And the Germans had better infantry weapons.

      The US tooth-to-tail ratio was , I think, worse than that of the Germans: some of that was a natural consequence of being an expeditionary force, but some was just a mistake. You want supply sergeants to be literate, but it is probably true that we put too many of the smarter guys into non-combat positions. That changed some when we ran into manpower shortages in late 1944 and combed out the support positions.

      This guy is back-projecting Vietnam problems into WWII – he’s mostly wrong.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:


        Seems some generals are always fighting the war before the last.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Congress passed a law in the early 1950s banning the bottom 10% of IQ from being in the military, so there must have been some concern from WWII and Korea about low IQ soldiers.

        In general, the military was more satisfied with draftees in WWII than in WWI, when it came as a shock to national leaders to find out how many young men, especially from hillbilly states, were illiterate (e.g., the military’s Alpha IQ enlistment test of 1917 had to be supplemented with a Beta test in 1918 for illiterates). Americans were a lot better educated by 1942, and hookworm was less of a problem in the South, too.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      Having a different average IQ has a huge effect on infantry fighting for synergy type reasons. As mentioned already the ratio of army to navy/airforce will influence the distribution of that average IQ on top of any base population differences.

  22. Gordo says:

    The one I learned was “Black Bastards Rape Our Young Girls But Virgins Go Without”. And that was from the lecturer, but it was in all white Scotland some few years ago. Understand entirely if you don’t let this one through moderation.

  23. dearieme says:

    Looking back, it’s odd that the memory-haters didn’t do anything constructive about eliminating arbitrary labels that need to be memorised, replacing them by self-explanatory names. Pentane, hexane .. etc explain themselves, so why leave the preposterous methane, ethane, propane and butane in place? Also, the Periodic Table would allow a rationalised set of names for the elements: why not introduce one? (I’m assuming that just using atomic numbers would lack élan and grace, lead to endless confusion along the lines of “Did you say 14 or 40?”, and eliminate the redundancy that is essential to effective communication.)

    On the other hand, what about Newton’s Laws of Motion? When I first met them I absorbed them immediately, and used them happily for many decades without having the foggiest idea about which was his first, second or third law. (There were three, weren’t there?) It didn’t seem to do me any harm.

  24. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    NPR thinks they can close the gap.

  25. Greying Wanderer says:

    I bought a memory-tricks book years ago for something related to work and it definitely works.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      Thinking more about my experience of memory tricks it struck me that I used them for stuff I found too boring to remember. I never had a problem remembering stuff i found interesting.

      Perhaps that is the same for people who find academic information boring? If so rote memorization might be more beneficial for the slow and average cohorts and less so for the quick cohort.

  26. melendwyr says:

    Effective memorization techniques are of little use unless the students are given something worth memorizing. The clever ones develop their own methods anyway, or learn about them through research.
    If you give the students a better way to memorize meaningless nonsense, how is their condition improved?

  27. Julian says:

    A good suggestion. I’m surprised more of these ‘accelerated learning’ techniques are mandatory. At university I bought Kevin Trudeau’s ‘Mega Memory’ partly out of curiosity. The techniques work very well if you put the time in.

  28. FredR says:

    At a young age, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert.

  29. Hermy says:

    I’ve often wondered how people memorize large chunks of text, such as actors or speech-givers.

  30. Pingback: Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me | educationrealist

  31. The suggestion and the comments led me down an interesting exercise that begins with navel-gazing but eventually circles around to the start of an answer: I will eventually post the specifics, but those of you who like thinking about memory might find it interesting.

    Short version: memory palaces wouldn’t work for everyone, and when we talk about teaching kids to memorize, we might want to remember the huge range of cognitive abilities teachers have to deal with.

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