An incredible set of memory boards

It was one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. Julia Adzuki had taken the concept of lukasa and danced her own direction.

It was a very excited few hours over lunch when Julia, visiting from Sweden, demonstrated her unique take on the memory boards of the West African Luba people. Known as lukasa (plural nkasa), these boards had delighted me for their beauty and astounded me for their efficacy ever since I first heard of them a decade ago. I use my Victorian Birds lukasa all the time, but know it so well that I don’t need it physically with me.

Above: Julia Aduki (centre), Alice Steele (right) and me at lunch with our versions of traditional West African nkasa and other memory devices.

Alice has been making nkasa in various forms for well over a year now. She even has her three year-old son learning his acacia species with them. It is so cute when he says the scientific names for the plants, pointing to the bead on a little board.

Having learned of lukasa from The Memory Code, Julia has developed a set of 15 boards which fitted magically inside a wooden box. She designed these nkasa to help her when she was training as a teacher of the 15 introductory classes of the Skinner Releasing Technique. [link to http://www.skinnerreleasing.com] This dance pedagogy uses guided imagery as an impulse for movement, particularly for dancers. Each class follows a script which types up to over 10 pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos: Julia with her 15 nkasa and their box (click on images to see details).

Julia first encoded the 15 classes in a landscape memory palace.

She had trained in the technique in Turkey together with her friend, Deniz Soyarslan. As many of the images which are used within the dance classes make a reference to the landscape, the friends decided to practice the actual technique in the landscape near Tekirova. She and Deniz made cards of notes for all the aspects of each class they needed to remember in sequence.

When Julia and Deniz started the landscape journey, they knew the content of the 15 classes, but could not recall what happened where or the sequence within each of the classes. Julia described what happened when they created a memory palace with a location for each of the classes in the Turkish landscape:

‘When we planted the memory trail, we couldn’t remember the sequence or the correlations between different parts of the pedagogy. We couldn’t place the images. But as soon as we had planted the sequence, it was like a 3D embodied mapping process. The progressions and correlations kind of popped out of the landscape. That was the moment I said to myself: this works.”

“What really excites me about this memory method is the possibility of repair, of embodied relational connection. Making memory trails offers the possibility of deepening human relationships within the environment.”

For Julia, the movements will always have a home in that precious Turkish landscape.

‘I made nkasa back in Sweden because I couldn’t take the landscape with me. I made them in the memory of the landscape, imagining the landscape. The strongest memory of all is still those places on the memory trail.’

‘I had shells and other bits and pieces collected in Turkey which I could use to make them. The nkasa enable me to add detail to each landscape location.’

Above:  Julia describes seventh lukasa in the sequence. ‘In this class, there is a movement study about the whole body curling and uncurling. At this location in landscape there were poppies. Their movement as the stems uncurl was so appropriate. I added the curl to the board which reminds me directly of the landscape. I chose the red bead because it reminded me of the poppies.’

Above: Nkasa 4 and 14.  These two boards both have shells from the Turkish beach with the centre exposed. Julia chose these as they create an image of the spine for two movements which relate directly to the skeleton.

Born in Australia, but having lived in a range of countries overseas, Julia described how her understanding of Aboriginal relationships to the landscape has changed since using the landscape is a memory palace.

“I love that landscape in Turkey. I loved it before but it is a part of me now. Planting memory in the landscape is also a process of the landscape taking root in oneself. That was a real eye-opener. I have a tiny little inkling now of indigenous connection to Country. It’s just a sprouting seed of understanding, not an ancient forest.”

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Posted in indigenous memory systems, lukasa, memory, memory board, memory devices, mnemonic devices, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Asian narrative scrolls – I want to know more!

Last week I had the most exciting surprise. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has a Japanese narrative scroll on display. I want to find out all I can about these gorgeous artworks. Please let me know if you can help!


I am convinced a contemporary form of these artworks could be a wonderful memory device to use in education. These long scrolls from China, Japan and Korea (that I know of so far) tell stories through the most gorgeous images.

I remember from my studies in education and from experience in the classroom that mode shifts aid memory massively. A mode shift is basically taking information in one format and changing that format when recording it. That change forces you to engage deeply with the information. You can read and take notes without really concentrating, but if you have to change written information into images, or aural information into your own words, or written information into song, then you will remember it.

I believe that changing information into a narrative in pictures would work a treat. There are some written annotations as well. The narrative could be done in quick sketches or, even more wonderfully, a beautifully illustrated scroll. I am planning to do a contemporary version as one of My Memory Experiments.

Would these scrolls also work as a way to provide information to students in a highly memorable form? You really need to engage with them to know what is going on. The way these scrolls were once used suggests that is exactly the case. From the little I know so far, they were carefully preserved in boxes and brought out to be ‘read’ as they were slowly unrolled. All the detail makes them so intriguing, it would be bliss to study them.

The NGV scroll is over eleven metres long. Below is a detail from it along with its little sign. There is a bit more on the NGV website.

I first saw a Chinese narrative scroll, also called a handscroll, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about a decade ago and have been longing to find out more ever since. I saw them again in February and was more delighted by them than ever. I had no idea we had one in Australia – I suspect there are more for me to stumble over. I sincerely hope so!

I want to find out everything I can about these gorgeous items. If you know more or can point me to resources, please add a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Is the Bayeux Tapestry effectively the same thing? Are there other examples? So much to learn!SaveSave

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Posted in Chinese handscroll, Japanese narrative scroll, memory devices, mnemonic devices, Narrative scroll, National Gallery of Victoria, Oishi Matori, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

A new book – Unlocking the Memory Code

Great excitement! I have just signed a contract with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, to do a new book. The working title (may not end up being the real title) is Unlocking the Memory Code. Publication date is probably early 2019. There is a lot of work to do first!

This book is all about using the most effective memory methods from across cultures and throughout time. It is all about how we can use these methods to enhance our lives every day.

One of my great pleasures is encoding layer upon layer in my new lukasa, designed to record the history or writing. Ironic, isn’t it? This beautiful object was made for me by Tom Chippindall.

The vast majority of the emails and messages I receive are about the indigenous memory methods and how we might apply them in contemporary life. The extraordinary memory skills of our ancestors have been gradually lost with the invent of writing and even more so with the prevalence of information technology. Many readers are concerned about this and want to redress the trend by using their memories much more effectively.

I am simply astounded every day by what I can memorise and the way I can then build on the knowledge which is so firmly grounded in the memory devices. I am able to see patterns and the big picture in ways which are just not possible without this basic knowledge at my fingertips. It is also wonderful fun!

Throughout the book I will look at the changes in memory techniques over the millennia and discuss the possible impact on education and on memory loss with ageing. Recent research in neuroscience explains exactly why the memory methods of indigenous culture are so effective. I will report on the science and celebrate indigenous intellect. I will also emphasis how much everything is to remember when it is brought to like through stories and vivid characters.

As indigenous and early literate cultures were masters of memory, so it is from them that we can learn the most. I am adding to the lessons from oral cultures discussed in The Memory Code to include medieval memory systems, ideas from the Renaissance and from ancient Chinese and Japanese handscrolls. I will also look at mnemonic tricks from contemporary times.

The topics to be covered in Unlocking will include the most successful examples from My 36 Memory Experiments which have now been adjusted to reflect the questions I am most often asked.

I am learning a foreign language (French) despite having failed dismally to do so at school.  I am using a range of methods to memorise vocabulary and grammar and going really well.

I have devised a system for memorising names and faces by adapting the concept of a medieval bestiary.

I memorise temporary lists when we are out birding, going shopping or given verbally using a visual alphabet, adapted from those used during the Renaissance.

I am continuing to memorise more details about all the countries in the world and constantly adding to my walks through pre-history and history. I use the field guide to the 412 Victorian birds from memory constantly as husband Damian and I go birding often.

I am attending art classes every week to create the most beautiful contemporary adaptions I can manage of the bestiary, visual alphabet and Chinese hand scrolls. I am becoming addicted to everything about art, especially watercolour. I am using a version of the Inca knotted string khipu (quipu) to record the history of art. As many researchers suggest, the khipu is really nearer to writing than a pure mnemonic device.

I am also creating a personal ‘winter count’ based on the stunning mnemonic skins of the Plains Indians of North America. The one pictured below if the famous Lone Dog’s winter count. I am astonished how little of my life I could remember chronologically until I started this project. How much will this object help me hold onto my identity into very old age?

And every day I train for the Australian Memory Championships. Being old (I’m 65) does not mean a fading memory. I can now memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 12 minutes – way down from the 35 minutes just a month ago. I can memorise long strings of random numbers in decimal and binary and many other useless but surprisingly enjoyable feats.

Life is very good and I have all the readers of The Memory Code to thank!

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Posted in Allen & Unwin, Australian Memory Championship, history walk, illuminated manuscripts, indigenous memory systems, khipu, lukasa, memory, memory board, memory devices, memory palace, memory sports, middle ages, mnemonic devices, orality, quipu, Renaissance, The Memory Code, visual alphabet, Winter Count | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Dorset Culture and polar bears

I receive fascinating emails every day from readers of The Memory Code. Every now and then someone goes a lot further. Rob Smith was one of those people. He carved an absolutely delightful polar bear in the manner of the Dorset  of Igloolik in Canada, who lived between 700 and 2,500 years ago. And then he sent it to me as a present. How lucky am I?

This story highlights the way indigenous art forms are so often assumed to be fantastical rather than critical objects of importance to rational knowledge. My bias is showing in this post!


Rob’s exquisitely carved bear is an exact replica of the objects found in one of the few Dorset graves, as reported in the article Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada referenced at the end of this blog.*

The tiny ivory plug holds the ochre in place which is stored in the small cavity in the bear’s neck under the wooden plug. Rob did an ivory plug as well, as some bears had ivory plugs. They would not have both at the same time. My little bear is 12 centimetres long.

Writer and archaeology enthusiast from Toronto, Ontario, Eve Richardson, pointed me to the following report from the Canadian Museum of History about the Dorset Culture and their many representations of polar bears.

Clicking on the image will take you to the full article

http://www.historymuseum.ca/blog/spotlight-on-research-decoding-dorset-polar-bear-effigies/

Fascinated by the Dorset bears, Matthew Betts, contacted Ian Stirling, a Scientist Emeritus with the Canadian Wildlife Service and expert on polar bears. Betts wrote:

I sent him multiple photographs of the carvings, and he quickly determined that the Dorset were depicting polar bears in natural poses — and, moreover, that almost all of the art showed polar bears in hunting stances related to stalking and hunting their preferred prey, seals.

Betts continued with a new question:

These insights were novel because previously the polar bear carvings had been interpreted as portraying bears in fantastical poses, representing “spirit” bears moving between spiritual realms. Some had even been interpreted as “flying bears.” What did this new information mean for the interpretation of Dorset spirituality?

By always focussing on the spirituality – which is the area which differentiates us most – we cloud our respect for the intellectual achievements we respect so highly such as that of scientists like Ian Stirling. Betts concludes:

I believe the polar bear effigies may have been used to remind and teach the Dorset the proper methods of hunting seals — using stillness, stealth and cunning. The carvings may also have been used in a ceremony to draw hunting prowess from the effigies and the polar bears they represented, to increase the hunter’s chance of success.

Given my personal bias, I want much more acknowledgement of the likely depth of knowledge of the bears and the environment encoded with the oral tradition of the Dorset Culture. I want the hunters’ likely increase in success to be linked to their ceremonies in which their rational knowledge and well-honed hunting strategies were conveyed.

Meanwhile, my little Dorset bear sits on my desk to remind me not only of the intellect of indigenous cultures but also what wonderful readers I have!

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* The article which Rob Smith used to aid the carving of my precious little bear:

Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada
Niels Lynnerup, Jørgen Meldgaard, Jan Jakobsen, Martin Appelt, Anders Koch and Bruno Frøhlich, Arctic, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 349-358.

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The Dwarfie Stane / Stone

Reader Jimmy Dalek wrote to me about one of my favourite places on the planet – the Dwarfie Stane on wonderful Orkney. The stane or stone (both spellings are widely used) is a huge block of red sandstone about 8.5 metres long. It was hollowed out using the only tools available to Neolithic people: stone tools, deer antler picks, and a great deal of human effort over a long time.

Situated on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, this remnant of the British Neolithic is usually referred to as a ‘tomb’ – but the evidence is minimal. I have linked to the Wiki article about it below so you can see the accepted wisdom.

I think the Dwarfie Stane had a totally different purpose – that of a restricted meeting place – a critical component of all oral cultures.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Dwarfie Stane is the acoustics. I sat cross-legged and chanted in it and was blown away by the effects. Stunning acoustics might be a coincidence, but it certainly doesn’t offer much to dead bodies in a tomb. I believe that it was deliberate. Acoustic enhancement is one of my Ten Indicators of a Mnemonic Monument.

Jimmy sent the following message and photos:

I have just returned from a week in Orkney. I wanted to visit the Ness of Brodgar dig and see the stones, henges and cairns etc. So I did, with my beautiful friend. Last wednesday we got the ferry from Stromness to Hoy and we cycled to the Dwarfie Stone. I knew about it from Julian Cope’s book. The left hand chamber is bare with a slight lip on the floor the right hand chamber has a beautifully carved lip all round the front. I sat in this “main” chamber and hummed and sang some notes. When I got to just before the lowest I can go (I’m a baritone-ish) the whole slab hummed. Then stopped until I hummed it, then stopped. Then sang, it hummed etc.

In the space of a few minutes I had started to get the hang of it so in the hands of a master this would be an astonishing instrument. I came out after a while, grateful and knowing that this was where many students learned the song from the master. I say master because of the lowness of the notes required to make the stone hum. I tried higher notes but may not be as good with these as others. …

I realised that the difficulty in maintaining the vibration within the stone was probably caused by the damage to the roof and its consequent concrete repair compromising the sonic integrity of the stone.

p.s. It was barely audible outside the stone and thats without the large stone plug in position.

British Neolithic archaeology never ceases to astound me. I adore Orkney and its incredible Ness of Brodgar and many other Neolithic sites. Most of all, I adore the Dwarfie Stane.

Click here to go to the Wikipedia article.

 

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Posted in archaeology, British Neolithic, Dwarfie Stane, Dwarfie Stone, memory places, Memory Spaces, Neolithic, Orkney, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapscallions add character to aid memory

A Pueblo kachina ‘doll’ at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Characters make stories, and the information they encode, every so much more memorable.

Very early in my PhD research, I became aware of the universal use of a the critical role of stories about a pantheon of characters in all indigenous cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans also taught about using characters to tell stories when memorising information.

The Native American Pueblo Indians call their mythological characters ‘kachina’. I was entranced by these vivid and wildly varied characters and their representations in all art forms. They featured on pottery, in petroglyphs, had specific masks, danced at ceremonies and permeated all aspects of life. Most entrancing of all were the dolls used to introduce the characters to children. I was able to examine a range of these kachina at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I soon learned how much more memorable any information became when characters (real or mythological) populated the stories. Referred to in Western writing as mythological characters, ancestors and a range of other names, there really is no equivalent in Western culture. The most appropriate terms are those used by the cultures in question. For the Pueblo, they are kachina (katsina).

It is culturally insensitive to use terms which may imply that we are adapting kachina or any other indigenous pantheon to contemporary life, so the team at The Orality Centre decided to call our characters rapscallions. This in no way implies that all kachina or characters from other indigenous cultures are rascals. Starting with a rascal-like concept just worked well for children when wanting to give their new friend personality.

I have chosen my own set of ‘ancestors’ from history to tell the stories of my culture. I have linked these to cards because that gave me a physical representation of them. One of the students I have been working with from Castlemaine Secondary College has done the same thing.

Reuben has selected his 53 ‘ancestors’ from across a range of disciplines and linked them to the 53 cards (including the joker) of a deck. We have then placed them in a history memory trial of his own design, but more of that in a future post.

Although I have my set of real ancestors, I have also found that I wanted vivid ‘mythological’ characters that I could manipulate according to the data I was memorising. I have commissioned my lead rapscallion from one of my favourite artists, Suzanne McRae of Hip Hip Decay.

I am absolutely delighted with my new best friend, Rapscali. He performs the very best stories in my imagination!

With Paul Allen and Alice Steel at The Orality Centre, I have been exploring how best to use rapscallions with adults and students.

 

Our youngest advisor at The Orality Centre, Haku, is using a toy bear as a rapscallion.

 

Alice Steel has created rapscallions with her science classes. She has some as puppets ready to perform and others as small creatures created by the students.

I am also using rapscallions with classes at Malmsbury Primary School. They have created them in art and we are now using them to help with work right across the curriculum. I have no doubt that my understanding of the value of using rapscallions will just grow and grow. They are a universal in oral cultures so there must be a very good reason!

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Posted in memory, memory devices | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

I memorised a shuffled deck of cards!

I really didn’t believe that I would be capable of memorising an entire shuffled deck of cards, but today I did it!

It took 35 minutes to memorise the shuffled deck and then 25 minutes to reconstruct the order with a different deck of cards.

Those times would make all the experienced competitors laugh – but they would laugh kindly knowing what an important step this is.

Each card is given a character, action and object. Having memorised that over the last few months, I also need a set of ten empty memory palaces, each with 50 locations. I have most of those now in memory as well. Each group of three cards creates a weird combination of character, action and object, the strange image to be placed in a location in the memory palace. I am very new at the entire process, so thrilled that I managed to fill 17 locations with images for each group of three cards and not forget a single one. Nor did I forget the Queen of Clubs who was left over.

My head hurt terribly after the hour of intense concentration.

American science journalist Joshua Foer trained intensively for a year to win the 2006 United States Memory Championship and write his wonderful book Moonwalking with Einstein, a title drawn from the strange images created. In The Memory Code I wrote:

He set a new US record by memorising a shuffled deck of 52 cards in one minute and 40 seconds. To achieve this feat, Foer trained in his basement with earmuffs and goggles to reduce distraction. Foer talks about how much he enjoyed getting better and better at dreaming up bizarre, weird, raunchy, funny and violent images to store in his memory spaces. My training is not as intense. I could not deal with the pressure of competition nor memorise at high speed. Joshua Foer trained by having fun in his silent basement. I went out and walked the dog.

My precious little dog has since died of old age. And I train in ear muffs in my silent studio. I, too, love making up the weird stories. What I don’t know is if I can ever manage the pressure of competition nor gain enough speed to qualify. Cards feature in only two of the ten events, but I’ll write more about that in future posts.

I am being helped in my training by British memory expert Dominic O’Brien. We both believe that memory loss is not inevitable in later years. At 65, my memory is the best it has ever been. With all my memory experiments, I am gaining hooks to link anything I want to remember. Click on the image below to read more about Dominic’s adventures:

Memory competition could never be described as a spectator sport – a lot of people in a silent room barely moving. This is what it looked like at the World Championships in China in 2015:
Knowing how much work it has taken just to get to the stage of attempting to memorise an entire deck of cards, I understand why there are so few competitors in Australia. This was most of the field of memory athletes receiving instructions in Melbourne in 2016:

In November this year, I will be joining them!

See also Memory Sports: I am hooked.

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Posted in Australian Memory Championship, The Memory Code | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Wonderful memory workshops

The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. I want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales to our location in rural Victoria.

The Orality Centre staff

The staff (L to R): Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steel, Damian Kelly

Lynne Kelly gives the opening address.

Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the 20 largest countries in the world to different abstract art works.

They managed to link the creation at left to Thailand.

The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.

At the end of the workshop they could still name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.

Alice ran workshops on Winter Counts and Memory boards.

The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.

Lisa Minchin (below right) encoded the local wattle species to her memory board.

Rumour has it that her very patient partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.

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Posted in art of memory, indigenous memory systems, lukasa, memory, memory board, memory devices, memory palace, memory places, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mnemonic devices, mnemonics, The Memory Code, Winter Count | Leave a comment

Memory Workshops – The Orality Centre

The Orality Centre will run the first workshops using indigenous memory methods on Saturday 17 June 2017.  All details are on The Orality Centre site including the link for bookings. For further information contact info@theoralitycentre.org. Click HERE or on the image to go to The Orality Centre.

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Posted in art of memory, indigenous memory systems, lukasa, memory, memory board, memory devices, memory palace, memory places, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mnemonic devices, mnemonics, Orality Centre, The Memory Code, Winter Count | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments