The Role of Place in Learning and Memory


The Method of Loci (MoL) is a powerful memory technique that enables large amounts of verbal information to be learned and recalled. The MoL is based on a spatial-navigational metaphor in which the learner imagines walking through a familiar landscape/building and 'placing' the items to be recalled at distinct locations (i.e., loci) along the journey. The MoL is traditionally attributed to Greek orators who used it as a method to learn and recall long verbal arguments to be presented in legal debates and performances (Yates, 1966). However, as Kelly (2016) and Neale & Kelly (2020) have argued, methods of embedding knowledge within landscapes have been practiced within Australian Indigenous oral cultures for millennia before the Greek orators. Experimental studies of the MoL within the Western cognitive neuroscience tradition have produced mixed findings about the extent to which the spatial and navigational processes are central to the efficacy of the MoL. Our review of this literature suggests that these apparently contradictory findings may reflect a tendency for the laboratory studies to implement the MoL in such a way as to dilute the spatial, navigational and embodied components, effectively reducing it to a strategy that involves associating images of words with static images of locations arranged in a mental list. Viewing this literature through the lens of the Aboriginal memory framework suggests a need to compare the typical MoL training used in cognitive studies with a training that implements the spatial and navigational elements of the method much more strongly.

Research Questions / Hypotheses

What is the role of physical locatedness and active navigation of space when applying the Method of Loci to learn verbal information? Applying an Indigenous Australian memory framework to this question yields the following hypothesis: Participants who apply the MoL to learn a list of words by actively navigating their loci while learning (located MoL group) will show enhanced memory for the learned words and the order in which they were presented on a subsequent memory test when compared to a group who apply the MoL using the standard procedure used in MoL experiments (standard MoL group). Moreover, we expect the effect of the located MoL to particularly enhance long-term memory, so that the located MoL advantage should increase at longer delays between learning and recall (i.e, after 1 week and 1 month). Our central research question yields two further predictions: 1) that because participants who use the located MoL encode richer visuo-spatial/navigational cues of their loci they will benefit less from being provided with contextual cues during recall than the other two groups; 2) that participants in the located MoL group will show a smaller negative effect of list-relatedness (i.e., word similarity/confusability) when recalling the serial order in which words were presented.


16 participants were recruited in this study. However, there were some methodological issues which means all of these participants were excluded. The study was continued outside of the research experience program.


In this experiment participants completed four sessions of a word based memory task. In session 1 participants were verbally presented with 4 lists of 20 words and were asked to memorise and recall them with no mnemonic device. In session 2 participants learned a new 4 lists of 20 words and were asked to memorise and recall them using a mnemonic device they had learned at the end of session 1. A recall test was done again a week later and again 4 weeks later (sessions 2 and 3).


This is an ongoing study. We are interested to see the effect of one of 3 mnemonic devices, the role of location in recall and the role of word relatedness on recall. Analysis will involve comparing the serial recall of participants in the 3 memory technique conditions over the 3 measured time points. The influence of context/place and word relatedness will also be analysed across the conditions to investigate whether any mnemonic techniques mediate the role of either factor.


We expect the place-based memory technique (which uses more spatial and navigational elements) to perform best across timepoints and to be less influenced by recall context and word relatedness. Data from S1 will be used as a pilot study for two 4th year theses. Further data collection to be done over the university winter break and S2 to form the analysis for the 4th year projects.