(This is the first post in a planned series on using VR as a learning tool. It was originally posted on Medium last September. The series was put on hold due to some personal circumstances, including change of job and an attempt to move to the Netherlands which ultimately had to be cancelled once most of the hard work was already done! I’m now starting to work on reviving the series so wanted to bring it in-house onto my personal blog)

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Ever since I first visited the Netherlands several years ago, I’ve wanted to learn the language. However, in the 14 months since I started, progress has been slow.

In parallel to this, I’ve been fortunate enough to begin working with virtual reality in my capacity as Training Developer, and I’m currently learning the skills I need to build virtual worlds. It’s natural therefore, that I have been thinking about potential methods of mapping learning into virtual spaces.

All of this reminded me of the concept of ‘Memory Palaces’. A pretentious sounding word for the technique of using spacial memory to aid recollection. It is also known as the ‘method of loci’.

The basic idea is that in order to remember facts, you create a striking mental image, which represent that fact, then map it onto a physical space in your mind. Since we are evolved as hunter-gatherers, we can recall information relating to physical space more readily than facts which exist purely in the abstract.

I first read about the technique in Derren Brown’s book ‘Tricks of the Mind’ back in 2006. More famously, it was adopted by Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC series. Horror fans will also recognise it as the method by which Hannibal Lector structured and accessed his own vast intellect.

Despite its popularity with fictional characters, there’s nothing fictional about the technique itself. While it may be a relatively niche practice these days, it dates back to ancient Greece. Several centuries before the invention of books and several millennia before the arrival of the printing press, it was a measure of ones intelligence how much one could retain mentally.

Knowledge was passed between the many great philosophers of the day verbally, without ever being written down. Conversely, using the written word to recall facts was viewed as nothing more than a simple trick which fell short of being considered proper intelligence at all!

These days, the technique mainly gets peddled by self-styled self-help gurus, like Tony Buzan, who inevitably wrap it in a tangle of pseudoscience and other questionable claims (No Tony, like you, I use the full 100% of my brain, thank you very much. The oft-recycled claim we’re only using 10% has long since been debunked). But there is undeniable scientific research at the heart of the loci method which seem to prove that those techniques work.

I’m keen to experiment on using loci within VR, (a quick google confirms I’m not alone in this idea!) but I’ve never personally used the technique, so it makes sense that I put it into practice first. Therefore, I’m going to try and apply it to learning the Dutch language.

This is the first post in a planned series covering progress both in learning Dutch using the loci method, and developing a VR loci to aid learning. The next post will outline more on the method of loci, the techniques I’ll be using and my progress so far in building VR environments.

Edit: Part Two can now be found here.

Further reading: If you’re interested in learning more about the method of loci, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is a great introduction to the subject. Only one chapter of the aforementioned Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown is dedicated to the loci method, but it’s still a fascinating and worthwhile read nonetheless.

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