How To Remember Better: Set The Information To Music
Love this: Dr. Arie Perry, a professor of pathology and neurological surgery at UC-San Francisco, helps medical students and residents remember the details of health and disease by creating songs about them:
“He first began putting lyrics to music years ago to help people recognize how the signs of brain cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases can be seen under the microscope.
It began quite by accident, during his medical residency at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas: ‘We had a weekly conference where we presented cases to our attending [doctors],’ he said. ‘One of the weeks, one of the attendings said that the residents weren’t entertaining enough.’
Perry aimed to correct this in the very next case he presented.
‘The following week, I showed the glass slides under the microscope and then at the end of the presentation, I pulled out a guitar and I sang the “Schwannoma” song,’ he recalled. ‘By the end of the song, there were about two to three times as many people because everybody walking by the hallway came in.’
He adds: ‘People who sit through hundreds of hours of lectures and just go through rote memory over and over again appreciate something different to help them learn.’
In a recent lecture about brain cancer pathology delivered to a room packed full of medical residents in the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery, Perry concluded his hourlong lecture by summarizing the material in a song titled, ‘Meningiomas.’ The lyrics were chock-full of important information about this form of tumor:
‘From the surface of the brain and the arachnoidal membrane
Grows a dural neoplasm, meningioma is its name
As a tumor of adults, with sharp margins and slow growth,
It may require the gamma knife, or surgery alone
Though most are low-grade, with a bland histology,
There’s an aggressive subset, with significant morbidity
Atypical meningiomas, recur quite frequently
Anaplastic cases have a high mortality . . . ‘
Perry said he has had a number of former students return to say that they still remember the words to one of his songs like ‘Meningioma’ years later.” (Read more here.)
Perry is exactly right that rhymes and songs help us to remember information much better. I wrote about why this is the case in one of my columns for Time.com:
“[Contemporary songs and rhymes] share in a long tradition of oral storytelling — one that shaped itself over thousands of years to the particular proclivities of the human brain.
Oral forms like ballads and epics exist in every culture, originating long before the advent of written language. In preliterate eras, tales had to be appealing to the ear and memorable to the mind, or else they would simply disappear. After all, most messages we hear are forgotten, or if they’re passed on, they’re changed beyond recognition — as psychologists’ investigations of how rumors evolve have shown.
In his classic book Memory in Oral Traditions, cognitive scientist David Rubin notes, ‘Oral traditions depend on human memory for their preservation. If a tradition is to survive, it must be stored in one person’s memory and be passed on to another person who is also capable of storing and retelling it. All this must occur over many generations . . . Oral traditions must, therefore, have developed forms of organization and strategies to decrease the changes that human memory imposes on the more casual transmission of verbal material.’
What are these strategies? Tales that last for many generations tend to describe concrete actions rather than abstract concepts. They use powerful visual images. They are sung or chanted. And they employ patterns of sound: alliteration, assonance, repetition and, most of all, rhyme.
One of Rubin’s own experiments showed that when two words in a ballad are linked by rhyme, contemporary college students remember them better than nonrhyming words. Such universal characteristics of oral narratives are, in effect, mnemonics—memory aids that people developed over time ‘to make use of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of human memory,’ as Rubin puts it.”
How about you? Have you ever made a rhyme or a song out of material you had to memorize—and did it help?