Introduction – Blame it on the Black Star …
About a month back, early January, I was driving on the way to work, listening to CBC Radio Montreal, as I often do. On the radio, the announcers were talking about David Bowie – it was the one year anniversary of his death. They talked a bit about his final album, Black Star, which came out just days before his death, and played a short clip from the lead-off title track Black Star. I had played this album a lot last January, and so, a few blocks up, at the next red light, I dug the CD out of the storage compartment between the seats and popped it into the CD player. And the beautiful-haunting-sprawling-soaring music flowed out after probably a year since I had heard the song.
And as often happens to me when I hear a piece of music tied to an emotionally poignant moment in my life, like a key turning the tumblers of a lock, a door opened, and sweet memory gushed forth in brilliant flashes. I think everyone gets this from time to time, with songs, with smells – but for me it is an explosive experience. This album was tied to a particularly poignant period of my life last year. A week to the day after Bowie died, I got married – remarried after 5 years going it alone following a nasty divorce. This album was the soundtrack in effect of all my driving during that period, including my wedding and honeymoon. The sweetest flashbacks danced across my memory – my wife’s colorful wedding outfit and the look on her face, the sight of the flurries in Mississauga that day, the smell of the January air, the scent of jasmine blossoms in a garland around my neck, the drive along the Niagara Parkway to the grand old Victorian inn where we honeymooned, and the gorgeous room where we stayed, the quiet streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake in the snow. All of this flooded back – I could actually smell the jasmine! – all of this from a song.
The portals of memory open in such unexpected and wonderful ways. And how strange its ways sometimes. The knowledge in the pages of a textbook you were trying to learn from yesterday – information you struggled hard to understand and remember – can be lost in oblivion, despite all your efforts, but the rich details of a weekend a year before can come back to you effortlessly if the right trigger is applied.
On the nature of memory …
Memory is deeply tied to emotion and place. Places to which you have a strong emotional connection, places which have great significance to you, they stick in your memory very vividly. Everyone has places like this. Some beautiful natural spot from a wonderful vacation, the location of a meaningful life event. Probably right now you can think of such a place. If you close your eyes, you can probably see the place in your mind’s eye in rich detail. You could even close your eyes and walk around in the place. Places with high emotional significance are given preferential treatment in being placed into memory, and are easier to retrieve. Spatial information in general – information about the layout of places – in general is easier to remember than general pieces of information, but emotionally-laden spaces are particularly memorable. And it is effortless. Certain portions of our brain are evolutionarily tuned to efficiently store and retrieve spatial data, just as certain portions of our brain are tuned to store and retrieve emotionaly laden information. Compare this to random verbal or conceptual information we want to make ourselves memorize. How hard it is to push it into long term memory so that it sticks, and how hard it can be to retrieve it again.
An ancient technique – The “Memory Palace”
One millenias-old trick for remembering things takes advantage of this ease of remembering places. This trick involves building a “memory palace,” and putting the things you want to remember there. In this technique, a person goes through an exercise of visualizing some place – it could be a familiar place, and imaging placing information to be remembered in distinct places within this familiar space. Then, when it is time to remember, the person simply closes his eyes, and in his mind’s eye, traverses the space, going from place to place, retrieving the information stored in this spatial filing cabinet.
Modernizing the technique – Virtual Reality
Now, let’s modernize this technique a bit, bringing it into the 21st century with the help of technology.
Imagine building a high fidelity 3D digital representation of one of these meaningful places that is viewable and navigable in an interactive VR (Virtual Reality) environment. A 3D scene with some interactivity laid over top. Imagine being able to place notes or representations of information or objects you want to remember within this virtual space that immerses you in a meaningful place already seared into your memory. These pieces of information then end up arranged spatially within this virtual space using an arrangement of your chosing.
This representation of place and spatially arranged information and items could be saved and accessed and modified later.
This VR tool would provide a nice visual scaffold to the classical memory palace technique, which traditionally depended entirely on the imagination. I would hypothesize that actually being immersed in that space and “seeing” the spatial relationships would support the process significantly. In addition, I could see the physical action of virtually placing the items within the space with hand gestures could also serve to reinforce the memory.
Interestingly, it looks like a company in England is already trying to do something similar to this, with a particular focus on using VR memory palaces to scaffold second language learning.