Memory palaces and the periodic table

 Let's talk about memory palaces and chemistry. It really all started earlier this fall when I read the book, Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory with the Most Powerful Methods in History by Lynne Kelly. It was a book I read on the recommendation of a friend who shares my taste in books, though I'll admit I wasn't super enthusiastic about it. Having taken quite a lot of history classes and read quite a lot of history on my own, I had read before about the idea of memory palaces and was familiar with the prodigious memory feats that were possible. (One of my favorite books related to this is The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord about how the ancient bards managed to remember and recite epics such as the Illiad and the Odyssey.) The idea of memory palaces felt like an interesting footnote in history, but had little modern relevance. 

And then I read the book over the course of 24 hours. The author is quirky, but her experiences of actually using these methods (there are far more than just the memory palace) was intriguing. It was so intriguing that I decided it would be worth an experiment. Since we were going to be learning about chemistry already, I decided that the periodic table would be the perfect thing to try to memorize using the memory palace method. It was pretty arcane for a bunch of middle schoolers, so would be a good test of the efficacy of the system, and it we managed to memorize it (or at least a chunk), it would make a good parlor trick (or, at the least, if I'm honest, a bit of a bragging right). So we started doing essentially one element per school day. (That has slowed down to between two and three elements per week since I didn't factor in the review time that is needed.) 

People at first were... let's just say not enthusiastic. Really they were just humoring me for the first ten or so. Only just humoring. I could tell they thought this was silly and pointless and annoying. There was not a lot of buy in. My forced enthusiasm over that first week or so was starting to wear thin. And then something happened. By using this method, they all realized that it was actually pretty easy to remember each element and that this wasn't going to be too much extra work on their part. I had them completely convinced by the time we were memorizing silicon (Si 14) and Phosphorus (P 15), with a story about the fourteen Siberian huskies (Si) peeing (P) on the window we were using for phosphorus because it was on fire (there's more to the story, but you get the idea). There was much hilarity that morning and suddenly learning the periodic table was fun. 

So we continued adding elements to our memory palace, and eventually we reached the chapter in our chemistry program which introduces the periodic table. This is where I became a total convert. In her book, Dr. Kelly noticed that the things she had put into her memory palace became greater than the sum of their parts. The storied she told to remember the facts took on sort of a life of their own as she reviewed them and added to them. There was never a point where she confused the story for the fact, but the one reinforced the other to the point where all of it was like meeting an old friend when she recalled that item. This is what I started to see when we began to work with the periodic table.

First, the nice exercises the book had created to introduce and get the students to start to feel comfortable with the table was a bust for us. I mentioned this a week or so ago, but I'll retell it here. Essentially there were two different activities. The first was to set up stations for each of the first twenty elements. The students are then handed a set of cards with things written on them, such as 'This element had one electron'. The idea was the students would walk around to the different stations and try to find the element with one electron. (It's hydrogen [H] by the way.) When I gave everyone a couple of examples of what we were doing, I would read a card and everyone would know from memory which element it was. They wondered around putting cards at each element for a while and then asked if they could be done. This wasn't rote memory, this was actual knowledge they could recall at will. And because each element was tied to a place in the house, they could find it by name or by atomic number. I admit I was totally blown away.

The second exercise was to figure out how many valence electrons an element had. This was totally new for us as we hadn't talked about energy levels or how they are filled or anything like that yet. (Valance electrons are the electrons in the very outer energy level of an atom.) Each row of the periodic table represents another energy level. So the first row of elements has one energy level, the second row has two, and so on. In order to figure this out, you need to know where the element falls in the table. Since we didn't memorize our elements with any sort of mention of the shape of the table except for talking a look at it in the beginning, I figured this would be trickier. What we had done was memorize if an element fell in a certain column (alkali metals, halogens, and noble gasses). When they realized that an alkali metal was the beginning of a new row, they were set, once again, with those few landmarks, they could correctly say how many valance electrons an element had. And once again I was blown away. 

Every time we review our memory palace, they love recalling the stories we've made to help make the elements memorable. Sometimes they will add to the stories, sometimes we will add to the facts; it becomes a sort of running dialog between us. We don't always review it all, sometimes we will just take a room and do those five. I will hear them reference different things throughout the day, sometimes mentioning the element instead of the thing they are talking about. At Christmas, when I put away some items to set out Christmas decorations, they complained because I had taken away nitrogen and oxygen. Reference to the elements will just come out as part of normal conversation. It's cool... and unbelievable powerful in terms of remembering something. Dr. Kelly wasn't kidding. 

I regret now knowing what I do when we were learning about the US Presidents. This would have been the perfect set of information to put in a memory palace, and even though we moved from the Big Ugly House where we would have first learned it, it wouldn't have mattered as everyone find it's as easy to walk through it in their heads as to physically walk through it and remember. 

Why does it work? Here's the cool brain stuff part. Our brains seem to be particularly adept and designed to remember place. When you combine that idea of place with a funny or silly or surprising story, there is a whole bunch of neurons which fire together. And if you know anything about brain science, it's that neurons that fire together, wire together. We might not normally remember that the doorway between our dining room and kitchen is manganese (25), but there was much joking around about how manganese sounded like mangoes, but the abbreviation (Mn) was the same as for the state of Minnesota and it was impossible to grow mangoes in Minnesota. For some reason all of this seemed pretty hilarious to the middle schoolers, so when we get to the doorway, someone will yell out, "Mango!" and suddenly everyone remembers about the whole conversation and in no time we have listed manganese as our next element. From now on, whenever they come across a reference to manganese, they will remember all of this, knowing the abbreviation, the number (it's a doorway or window, so it must be a multiple of 5), and that it is a transition metal. 

I am finding the whole thing fascinating to watch and experience (because I am memorizing it all right along with them), but here's one other fascinating fact. On the days when we all get up and physically walk through our memory palace, R. comes right along with us. I'm sure what we are actually doing is totally baffling, but she knows that we walk through the house and point out different things in it and often tell a short story. The other day, we were going through neon (10) to potassium (19). We had done a few and I was waiting for them to tell me what our next item we were using to remember was. Before anyone else could answer, R. points to the object and proceeds to tell the story that goes with it. We were all a little surprised. She didn't know the name of the element, but she did remember the object and the story. I've been pondering this a lot, thinking that there is probably some important key there to help her learn. 

I highly suggest you read the book and try it for yourself.
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Recipe requests... I've had a couple of requests for recipes. The coconut braised chicken is from Bon Appetit. Recipes I can link to are easy. I know someone else wanted the leek and potato soup recipe. That is from Alice Waters' book, The Art of Simple Food. I can't write out and publish copyrighted recipes, but the book is worth finding. I know there was one more than someone wanted, but I can't remember. If you let me know (again), I'll try to direct you to where it is.

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