The best way to remember facts might be to set them to music. Medical students, for example, have long used rhymes and songs to help them master vast quantities of information, and we’ve just gotten fresh evidence of how effective this strategy can be. A young British doctor, Tapas Mukherjee of Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, was distressed by a survey showing that 55 percent of nurses and doctors at Glenfield were not following hospital guidelines on the management of asthma; 38 percent were not even aware that the guidelines existed.
Using his cell phone, Mukherjee recorded a video of himself singing immortal lines like “Aim for 94 percent to 98 percent sats now” (that’s a reference to the asthma patient’s blood oxygen level). He posted the video to YouTube and it went viral among hospital staff. Two months after he released the video, Glenside conducted another survey, finding that 100 percent of doctors and nurses were now aware of the asthma treatment guidelines, and that compliance with the guidelines had increased markedly. Mukherjee reported the results at meeting of the European Respiratory Society last week.
Although Mukherjee’s methods are modern, his approach shares 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 non-rhyming 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.
Songs and rhymes can be used to remember all kinds of information. A study just published in the journal Memory and Cognition finds that adults learned a new language more effectively when they sang the words instead of spoke them. Even great literature is susceptible to this treatment. Book Tunes, a collaboration between educational entrepreneur Jonathan Sauer and hip-hop artist Andy Bernstein (he performs under the name Abdominal), turns long, wordy books into compact, catchy raps, spoken over an insistent beat.
The duo’s latest offering: a rap version of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (“Hester’s story is set in the Puritan settlement/that was 17th century Boston where she’s being led/ from the town prison holding her baby daughter Pearl with an A on her chest/ for the world to see which we quickly learn stands for adulterer ‘cause turns out/ H is married … “). Book Tunes’s take on the tale of Hester Prynne is being offered jointly with SparkNotes, the study aid provider owned by Barnes & Noble, which is said to be interested in raps of other classics, such as the plays of William Shakespeare.
Purists aghast at the notion may need to be reminded that many of the world’s greatest works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, began as oral chants. Humans have been remembering through rhyme and song for ages: how can you update the tradition?