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August 03, 2018 Friday 03:50:38 PM IST


Cover Story

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC) stood before a landscape of rubble and entombed bodies. He had just delivered an ode in celebration of Scopas and then gone out to attend to a pair of mysterious messengers. In a flash, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, squashing everybody inside. (Scopas was an ancient Greek sculptor and architect, most well-known for his statue of Meleager, the copper statue of ‘Aphrodite’ and the head of goddess Hygieia, daughter of Asclepius.)

The mangled corpses could not be identified until Simonides volunteered to point out to the place where each victim had been sitting and identifying each by name! At the moment, according to legend, the art of memory (later stamped as memory palace or method of loci) was born.


Once upon a time, remembering was everything. Erudite people exhibited their knowledge by revealing astonishing access to memory. Classics like Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey or Ramayana were not written down but passed through generations by memorised streams of poetry. Cicero, the Roman orator, did not allow the use of lecture notes; memorisation techniques like the method of loci were used by orators to crunch malleable information and convert and pass it off as gullible knowledge!

In the 15th century, Gutenberg changed all that: printed books became aids of external memory and there was no need to remember what the print could remember for you. The emergence of the computer era, some 500 years later, and now artificial intelligence and machine learning relegated memory techniques to the background. But in the first decade of the 21st century, in countries such asIndia, Japan and China, where cramming schools have begun to mushroom, the memory frenzy is undergoinga resurrection, especially in the field of education.


Someassert that memory is all that is required for learning. Consequently, the faster you memorise, the more accelerated is the learning process, they say. However, a broader vision of learning involves not only the acquisition ofknowledge (a common-sense view of learning) but also being able to use knowledge in a variety of new situations. When taking a knowledge acquisition view of learning, we emphasise ‘remembering’.

Antithetically, the two most important educational goals of learning are to promote retention and transfer of knowledge. Retention is the ability to remember materials in much the same way it was presented during instruction. The transfer is the ability to use transformed knowledge to solve new problems, answer new questions, or facilitate learning new subject matter.

It is, therefore, axiomatic that real learning takes place only if conjugated with transfer.


Long-term memory is made of multiple memory systems. A major division in the hierarchy of these systems is the distinction between explicit or declarative memory (knowing what) and implicit or non-declarative memory (knowing how).

Explicit memory refers to knowledge of events, facts, and concepts. They are coded as images that are difficult to verbalise. Memory enhancing techniques available in education foster episodic memory. Memory aids are moulded around stories, visual aids, mnemonics, and connecting links.

Implicit memory refers to the skills and conditioned responses that reflect knowing how to respond to the world. It uses mental representations that are not accessible to conscious reflection. The aids in enhancing memory focus on reinforcing conditional responses, by repetitive rehearsals (for example,learning to swim or type). In the method of loci or memory palace, long-term memories are created in mind using episodic memory, which has more retention power. However, these techniques are of no use as a transfer process for learning.


Real learning by transfer takes place only if we can logically build relations between concepts (dots) to make hypothesis, theory and propositions, and test it under the fire of observations and vetting. Insights promote the level of thinking to higher order, ushering in creative ideas.

The Meaningful learning process is represented graphically as shown:

Memories (Concepts) ———> Theories and Propositions ——> New Ideas by Insight


Reformers in education aretrying hard to replace memory-oriented education with higher-order thinking skills,such asanalysis, application, evaluation, and creativity. They have to cope with the onslaughts of commercial interests in education, where coaching and rote learning are the easier ways ofsatisfying the norms of competitive examinations.

The leader in memory training is the British educator and self-styled guru, Tony Buzan, (inventor of‘Mind Mapping’) who claims to have the highest ‘creative quotient’in the world. There were exploited savants such asKim Peek (immortalised by Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning film ‘Rain Man’) whoseabsence of the corpus callosum(a thick band of nerve fibres that connects the left and right sides of the brain allowing for communication between both hemispheres) gave him extreme memory abilities.

Metaphoric models, such as Mac Lean’s Triune or Sperry’s split brain (left- Right) or 4-Quadrant model of Ned Herman, were used for giving an illusionof ‘whole-brain’ learning. Fortunately, the brain science has made a quantum leap in the past decade to demolish false hopesbuiltaround the magical powers of the 1.4 kg gray and white stuff in the skull deciding the fate of the rest of the 98% of the human body.


The prospect of drugs for cognition is already knocking at our doors. The concept of Trans-humanism (H+) is being probed with heavy-duty research investment. As the role of rote memory in the conventional sense diminishes in education, what should be its place in contemporary pedagogy? Why bother loading up kid’s memories with facts, if you are ultimately preparing them for a world of externalised memories? These are some of the intriguing questions, modern educationists have to answer in an age where humanity itself is getting edited by longevity technology and telomere (a compound structure at the end of a chromosome)regeneration.

Prof. Dr. V. Job Kuruvilla

Well known educationist based at Kochi
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