Memory Method Works Using Virtual Reality
November 16, 2012

Socrates Method Of Memory Works Just As Well Using Virtual Reality

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

In the episode of NOVA that aired October 24 of this year, host David Pogue posed the question, “How Smart Can We Get?” At one point in the episode, he met with Chester Santos, who was the 2008 US Memory Champion, to pick his brain on how he manages to learn long strings of numbers and words. Santos taught him a technique that involved visualization of objects that were in Pogue´s own house and associating them with the string of non-related words. It turns out this technique is nothing new. Its roots stem all the way back to the time of Socrates, in fact.

A new research study conducted by a team from the University of Alberta has revisited this age old technique giving it a modern-day twist.

The memory technique, called loci, or location, by the ancient Greeks, was used by Socrates, according to classic scholars, to memorize his oratories. To do this, Socrates would wander around his home and assign a word or fact that he needed to memorize some familiar object or structure in his home.

At the time that Socrates needed to recall this information in front of an audience, he would simply conjure up his home and, in his mind, the words that he had linked to things like his window or table would instantly be recalled.

“Nowadays many contestants in memory competitions use this same technique,” said lead researcher Eric Legge. “They use the location method to instantly recall everything from words to a long list of random numbers.”

Legge, along with his U of A research colleague Christopher Madan, developed a virtual living-space environment. This virtual living room would allow their test subjects to use the ancient Greek technique to increase their memory ability.

“We created three groups,” said Madan. “One group had no form of memory aid, the second group used a personally familiar location to aid their recall, and for the last group we created computerized virtual realities of common spaces like an apartment and office.”

This technique was believed, until now, to be most effective when an individual was in an environment that they were very familiar with. But the researchers found, after testing 142 people, that this wasn´t necessarily the case.

“There was no difference in memory recall between the test subjects who used imagery of their own familiar locations and the people using a virtual environment on a computer screen,” said Legge.

The virtual location group was given five minutes to familiarize themselves with their “surroundings” and to then apply the location method. The test administered consisted of a long string of numbers that were to be memorized and recited in the correct order. The researchers, in an attempt to make certain the data they received were reliable, presented each subject with 10 different sets of 11 numbers. Data showed the group that was given no memory location help, either real or virtual, typically presented the lowest scores on the memory test.

With the completion of this study and data that supports the use of virtual locations, the research team says they plan to continue their location memory research. They know that loci works. Future research, they say, will focus on figuring out how loci works. They plan to study the link between visual prompts and memory.

Legge says the U of A has been an excellent place to conduct his postgraduate research.

“Not only does the psychology department have one of the best technical shops I ever heard about, but they also have phenomenal resources available to facilitate high-end research with undergraduates, such as an excellent participant recruitment and sign-up system."

“The interconnectedness and collegial nature of the Department of Psychology also makes it an excellent environment for fostering interdisciplinary research with other departments, such as the Department of Computing Science.”

The research was published Oct. 23 in the journal Acta Psychologica.