Research

Let me tell you a little story about memory and space.

Once upon a time, around 40 thousands years ago, the first biped mammal imprinted his visions on the surface of his dwelling. While the explanation of such a meaningful act is still under debate, nowadays, anyone is still able to grasp the importance of those early drawings. Those drawings serves one main function: memory.

A few thousand years later, around 500 BCE, some other beings, now definitely humans, took another leap to enhance their memory. Instead of projecting their visions on surfaces from their surroundings, the ancient Greeks and Romans developed a technique called “The Method of Loci”, very well documented in Frances Yates book “The Art of Memory“. The most famous example, and said to be at the origin of the technique, refers to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos. Quintillian, in his treatise on rhetoric, “Institutio oratorio” (90CE), tells us the story:

“During a splendid entertainment in honour of a victory, Simonides, being invited to the banquet, was called away from it by a message that two young men, mounted on horses, earnestly requested to see him. When he went out, he found nobody, but he discovered, from what followed, that the deities were not ungrateful to him, for he had scarcely passed the threshold when the banquet room fell down upon the guests and crushed them so horribly that those who went to look for the bodies of the dead, in order to bury them, were unable to recognize, by any mark, not only their faces, but even their limbs. Simonides, by the aid of his memory, is said to have pointed out the bodies to their friends in the exact order in which they had sat.”

In other words, he was able to recall to mind the faces and names of recently deceased guests remembering each one location around the table. From then on, without any other convenient support to report their memories (printing didn’t exist yet), the ancient Greeks and Romans started to use visualization to organize and recall information. By creating imaginary rooms with specific locations in their mind’s eye and virtually link to those locations different objects, images, symbols and meanings, they were able to remember sequences of information very accurately.

This powerful ability relies on a very strong spatial perception that humanity has developed over hundred thousands of years of evolution. Since getting on their two feet, to escape the pursuit of predators, to find food, or the way back to their camp,  humans have developed  a powerful spatial orientation device in their brain. At same time, by erecting landmarks and buildings, by deploying new architecture styles and creating cities, not only they have modified their physical environment but they influenced their imaginary world as well. Moreover, by walking through their surroundings and by navigating their imaginary worlds in their mind’s eye, they have trained and enhanced their capacity to processed spatial information.

Today, far from being mainstream, this method of learning has been reduce to fragments also named mnemonics.  They are mainly used to remember lists or sequences of items like numbers or words. An example is like:“Run over your granny because it’s violent!“, where each first letter match the colours of the rainbow in order (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet). Although, those little tricks are using association between colours and letters, we have lost a big part of the potential of the technique describe above which reside in the dimensions of our built environment and its architecture. People that use the full range of “The Art of Memory” are able to remember enormous amount of things (see what they achieve at the Memory Championship here or on a more everyday approach here). They are building endless imaginary memory palaces deploying a variety of architecture features and styles to inhabit them with a lot of information.

Despite such a long history of working out how the brain works, the term “Cognitive Sciences” has only been coined in the 70’s. Up to today’s day, many people from various field have proposed all kind of approaches to explain how the brain works. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development (more about on Psychology4A) has really capture my attention to understand how children are learning at different ages. Although, this is not the place to expand on those theories, here is a mise-en-bouche of this present research main areas of interests in the field of cognitive sciences. Following an embodied cognition approach (more about this on Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), this research focus mainly on three theories:

  • Spatial Memory is the part of memory responsible for recording information about one’s environment and its spatial orientation.
  • Spatial Intelligence is an area in the theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed by H. Gardner (1993) that deals with spatial judgement and the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye.
  • Situated Cognition is a theory that posits that knowing is inseparable from doing by arguing that all knowledge is situated in activity bound to social, cultural and physical contexts. Gibson’s affordances in the field of visual perception is one of the main influence in the field

I forgot to mention there is no end to this story. From now on, new technologies are opening new doors and new worlds to explore and to confront all those theories. Video Games, 3D visualisation, 3D Virtual Learning Environment (3DVLE), Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and everything in between are amazing tools that we can use to understand and enhanced those cognitives capabilities to improve the way we learn and acquire new knowledge.


To summarize this project scope and aim:
Based on the Method of Loci, this research explores the potential of Architecture and Virtual Reality to enhance the way we memorize information and construct knowledge. (And yet, first counter argument that comes in mind : are we not losing sight of our cognitive potential through the use of technologies and externalization of our knowledge?)


The method:
A set of experiments invites participants to complete a basic memory task (playing cards) immersed in different 3DVLE. Each environment consists of a different style of architecture with its features and properties. How does the architecture influenced the way we learn?


This website will keep track of this evolving research through:

  • Books, papers, and articles that I read and post about in the blog section.
  • Comments and reviews that I write.
  • Fun facts and news on those matters.
  • Basic experiments that you will be taking part in.

If you are interested, please follow this blog by signing in here. I will post you an update as soon as the application is ready.
(And I will not post more than once a week, no worries.)

Thank you for your interest.

Pierre-Francois

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