The Brachial Plexus - Complexity Distilled in a Memory Palace

Brachial plexus memory palace

I recently had the pleasure of giving a demonstration at the annual meeting of the British Society for Surgery of the Hand (BSSH). I presented alongside orthopaedic surgeon Danny Ryan, a friend from university. We used 3D models to demonstrate how one could quickly learn a complex anatomical system like the brachial plexus in a very short amount of time.

The brachial plexus is a system of nerves that comes out of the neck and extends down the shoulder to the arm. The nerves throughout the arm and hand are tied to this system, so it is an incredibly important part of anatomy. It's also a real pain for medical students to learn.

brachial_plexusThe brachial plexus consists of five root nerves which crisscross and interact at five different stages to produce a couple dozen terminal nerves. Students are required to know not only the root nerves and the terminal nerves, but also which roots become which terminal nerves via which channels. It gets very complex very quickly.

This is where the standard presentation of memory techniques breaks down. Most memory artists are very adept at remembering pieces of information and encoding those pieces into lists. The brachial plexus, however, cannot be reduced to a list – it is far too complex and for any practical knowledge of the system, the complexities and relationships must be known cold.

The memory palace we presented consists of five different zones – a different spatial zone for each of the five interaction points within the plexus. Within each zone are a series of characters who combine, separate, and interact in different ways – these characters represent the 5 root nerves on their journey through the stages of the plexus.

Our presentation was short, but we were able to demonstrate with 15 minutes the construction of the 5 stages, as well as the details for the first 3 stages. Also in that time period we were able to reconstruct a diagram of the brachial plexus from the collective memory in the audience, just recalling the images in the presentation.

As a non-medic myself, I was concerned about how the presentation would be received, but the feedback was really positive. Prior to the event, I had shown the demo to a couple of other friends who had no medical training and both were able to learn the majority of the brachial plexus in about 10 minutes and recall it the next day. On top of this, I'd run a workshop at BOTA (British Orthopaedic Training Association) in June where we'd gone through the whole brachial plexus as a group using a similar structure.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is that now weeks later I can recall all of the details of the brachial plexus without difficulty or hesitation. Considering it is the type of material that can easily get muddled and confused, this clarity in long-term storage is really exciting.

Figuring out the structure of the spatial setup we used for the brachial plexus was not easy, but with that structure in place, it can be reused by anyone, and each user can add his or her own mnemonic images. We will undoubtedly set this up as a guided module in Macunx VR once the software is fully ready. I'm looking forward to looking beyond this one system – as complex and important as it is – and exploring how we can set up memory palaces for all the systems of the body on a grand scale, with parallel memory palaces for the skeletal, muscular, vascular, nervous, etc. systems.

You can hear some more about memory training in medicine in the podcast I recorded with Danny Ryan immediately after our talk - click HERE.

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