It is mooted that the only reason we have a brain is so we can find our way around, and remember where to go. Back in the day before cars, it helped us strike the essential balance of energy: we could find food before we ran out of steam to keep looking. It was about survival. So, the way the argument goes, memory is inextricably linked to our sense of place and the paths we follow to get there.
There’s a fair bit of evidence to support this, for example, the findings of brain researcher Eleanor Maguire (Foy, p.34). Focusing her attention on the place cells that remember landmarks and the grid cells that remember margins and pathways, her work demonstrates our allocentric and egocentric ways of viewing the world. Allocentric is when we know where we are in the landscape, can identify a place where we want to go, and in which direction to move to get there. These are our abilities (or in some people a lack of them) to read a map; to navigate. Egocentric is when we know where we are by recognising a view, and by remembering that, if we turn right when we get to the river and follow along its course, we will come to another view we remember and can picture in our mind’s eye. This is the way the ancients got along down song lines and along burial paths, handing down the waypoints orally. Many sea shanties, too, listed headlands, rocks, and safe harbours remembered in the verses of songs that were sung repeatedly.
Do some exercises in your mind’s eye to cement these ideas.
Shut your eyes and sniff an open jar of Vegemite. Does that take you back to a place and time? Can you see the people who were there? Can you remember their names?
Going back to the place where you were born, do your eyes quickly scan for familiar landmarks? Do you notice small changes? Do you know that feeling of well-being like all your molecules just fell into place?
Walk through the Christchurch CBD. Did you know the city before the earthquake? Have you experienced the deeply disturbing feeling when landmarks you knew are gone? In my own hometown of Timaru, historic buildings were demolished to make way for a Mitre 10, completely changing the cityscape. Senior citizens especially felt real stress.
We are blessed, or cursed depending on how you see it, with a brain that can do so much more than just act as a navigation system. We can do abstract things, like appreciate music and encode it on paper, like explain phenomena using mathematical models. We might have lost some of our navigational powers compared, say, to homing pigeons, but essentially our brain remains, at least in part, a built-in Tom-Tom.
The latest craze is VR. Virtual reality struggled for years with bizarre helmets, visual lag, and low resolutions. Then two things changed all that: Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift, and Google Cardboard. In Maguire’s terms, VR plays on an egocentric view of the world. It gives us landmarks and pathways we have not actually experienced, but, which we can experience vicariously in a computer-generated environment. Five years ago, Ayumu, a 7-year old chimpanzee was getting to grips with a touch screen and surpassing human capability, and parents were struggling with the concept that their children needed an iPad just to do their regular schoolwork. Now, VR, Google Cardboard, Google Expeditions, and Samsung Gear are being heralded as the new essentials for the modern learning experience.
OK, I have set the scene. Now it’s time to get to the guts of the matter. Is learning about memory? Is it about recall?
I think it is, but then I admit to being old school. I, like you, maybe, learned my times tables, and have found mental arithmetic a really useful life skill. I do not need to reach for my calculator to work out journey times or the likely cost of the fuel. I have enough French to travel independently in Africa. I have domain knowledge and skills that I can draw on in an instant: in the rain, in the dark, when I’m feeling ill. These are things I would say I have learnt; that I have internalised.
I believe the younger generations — not to discount the value of Wikipedia and Google — need this too. Some knowledge really has to be learnt if we are to use it to think with. There are extrinsic motivators too: for many professions closed-book examinations are not going away any time soon; you can’t jam if you don’t know your chord progressions; you can’t present convincingly unless you really know your stuff and can speak from the heart. An expression you hear used less these days: knowing it by heart.
The memory palace will be a technique known to many. Think of a house you know. In your mind’s eye, put the things you need to remember in the rooms. Picture yourself walking through the house retrieving the things. Do you see how memory is linked to place?
My challenge to educators is to use VR to give students places where they can put memories, and to give them pathways along which they go. By all means use the Wow factor to grab their initial attention, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that that is enough. Instead, aim to engage them at a much deeper level. Use it to deliver rich learning narratives, and attach those stories to vivid imagery, and an immersive sense of location.
Don’t let us allow this exciting new technology, VR, to get hijacked by the big players for edutainment. As educators, let’s get creative to use it as a tool to embed powerful learning in the minds of our students. Oh, and let’s have heaps of fun doing it!
Foy, G.M. (2016) Finding North: How navigation makes us human. Kindle Edition.