Reader Response: memorising birds and then more …

Peregrine falcon (c) Damian Kelly

Reader Jonno Roche wrote such interesting emails that I asked permission to quote our conversation here. This is an edited version of the conversation, but left long because I found what Jonno had to say absolutely fascinating:

“I found the idea of the different scales of memory spaces from handheld objects to landscapes just fascinating. …  Anyway, I was inspired. My real question was where to start. I enjoy bird watching in a relaxed kind of way. I find it adds a real sense of depth and vitality to any landscape to notice who lives there, so a list of birds seemed a good place to start.

Great egret (c) Damian Kelly

For a variety of reasons, my best option was a mobile memory tool, and eventually, I decided on a set of tarot cards. Firstly I already own a copy, but more importantly, they give me 78 nicely ordered points broken into convenient sections, they are dense in imagery, highly mobile, and easily replaceable. The only real downside is that I get slightly embarrassed pulling them out in public, because I don’t want anyone thinking I am angsting fruitlessly about my future, when really I am just daydreaming about birds. Still, it’s a small price to pay.”

 I was intrigued to hear how Jonno was using a set of tarot cards for the birds as I use tarot cards for other memory purposes and the African memory board, the lukasa, for the birds as described in the post Memorising Birds.  It is absolutely fascinating to see what other people doing with their memory spaces.

I must admit to having the same issue with using the tarot cards in public. I love Jonno’s expression ‘angsting fruitlessly about my future’. He continued:

“So I made a list birds of Tasmania and Australia’s South East coast. Within a week, I had memorised the order and names of 76 different bird families. I needed an etymological dictionary to help me with the names, because otherwise, they were just so many meaningless noises to me. The translations are often so delightful (Bloody feet, Thick headed, Bald faced pointy beak) that they really add to the imagery. I have one family per card, expect a few very large families which spill over two, just because I ended up with a couple of extra cards. I am now filling out the families with individual species. By the time I am finished, I will have over 300 birds listed.

Superb fairywren (c) Damian Kelly

I am surprised at just how vividly and easily I am able to recall a list which until now seemed impossibly complex.”

I was astounded how fast Jonno had managed to commit the family names to memory using the cards. I took a great deal longer. Jonno also talked about doing little stylised sketches of the cards which is reminiscent of the way indigenous people draw as they tell the story and then either destroy the drawing or just throw it away because it is the process of drawing that fixes things in memory. I find the rhythms of drawing, singing the family names, actions I have for particular families and the characters I have given them all interact to make the information memorable.

Jonno continued to astound me. A fortnight later he wrote:

“I can now recite the complete list of 76 families with 322 individual species. … Although I really appreciated how easy it was to simply add a bird to a family list, some of the cards became a bit overcrowded. There are several cards which have the family and just a single representative, but one has the family name and eighteen birds embedded in it. They fit, but it is not very comfortable. I have found that the ideal size for a block of information is a heading and four to five associated points.”

What fascinated me is that Jonno had come to the same conclusion as I have, that four birds is the most that fit comfortably at a location. For any families of five or more species, I add a little landscape journey for that family putting four birds in every house.

The Ancient Greeks also labeled every fifth location to keep track of things, so maybe that is a natural division for the human brain. Jon continued:

Still, I was really using the birds as a way to explore the process, and I have found it fantastically successful. Because I now have an ordered way of thinking about birds in general, my mind tends to naturally rest on them when there is nothing more pressing to think about.

With it being human nature to see what we think about, I suddenly find I am seeing birds everywhere and in far larger numbers than previously. Also, because I have such a rapid way to categorise them, I can identify them much faster and more confidently than before, even if it is just being able to identify to a potential group of two or three and then use a reference to come to a decision later on.”

I love that Jonno wrote that he can now identify faster. I couldn’t identify before because I didn’t know what was possible. This is part of explaining why these methods are not rote learning, but again it is so hard to explain to someone who has not tried it.

Despite having no information in the list on what the birds look like or what their habits are, I find that just being able to name the bird is usually enough to be able to automatically recall this extra information if I know it. I also have a smallish but slowly growing group of birds which I can identify just by their calls, which adds a whole lot to the experience.

So I am greatly enjoying my bird list.”

But Jonno didn’t stop there!

“While I was about half way through my bird list, I needed to impress some people at work. I decided that since the original intent of these techniques was to recall information which your livelihood depended on, I should probably put some work stuff in there.”

Jon described how he had encoded course summaries for his work in clinical governance to the same set of tarot cards.

Blue faced honeyeater (c) Damian Kelly

“I found I had room for three short courses in the deck. One was on efficiency principles (major arcana), another on implementing organisational change (most of the minor arcana), and a third on basic negotiating techniques (The last 11 cards of the minor arcana). … Memorising the work stuff is much harder than the birds. The ideas are very conceptual – ‘Measure sources of resistance’ for example as opposed to, say, ‘Blue faced honeyeater.’”

Critically he wrote: ““There is such a huge gap between birds and workplace efficiency that they can comfortably occupy the same space without getting mixed up.” 

Jonno has really got hooked on this memorising and has further ambitions which he described at length – this is the gist:

“Once I get all of this information settled in I would like to memorise a book. … I am aiming to memorise Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’ … I have a few ideas for using a lukasa board type arrangement to map out star patterns and attaching a calendar and practical gardening information to them.”

A fortnight later, Jonno wrote again describing why memorising is not something that requires additional time:

“It is very neat how this information meshes into everyday things. It really does slot into the idle minutes of the day. Outside of little snippets that I use, I run through the deck from start to finish each day for both the birds and the course list, but this tends to happen when I am walking from place to place, or waiting for the kids to go to sleep, or am otherwise not really doing anything. Unless I am actively pressing to learn something in a hurry, it doesn’t displace anything from my day.”

“… The two lists I have on my deck do not interact very much at all. I might be trying to recall cultural alignment in the workplace when a butcherbird leaps to mind, but they don’t really ‘move together.’ I guess this is because the two subjects just have no commonality at all, but I would suspect that as more information goes onto the cards, the stories will start to roll into each other more. I hope so. I think it would have a real ‘adventures of a cultural hero’ feel to it.”

And then a few days later, Jonno wrote again:

“I didn’t mean to write to you again so soon, but I stumbled on to a great success, and you are the logical person to share it with.

I had to do a 20 minute presentation at work to the senior managers justifying what I have spent the last year doing, so that I could then get them to agree to adopt my ideas, extend my project, and give us more funding. It was a very information dense 20 minutes with a lot riding on it. … I really didn’t want to use notes.

I was looking for a method of what I see you have called an ephemeral memory space. I didn’t want to use my tarot deck as I didn’t want short term information confusing it. I found your ideas on palmistry in the 33 experiments section of your blog very intriguing, but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it. Just at the right time, I read a fascinating article you linked to by Tyson Yunkaporta on building characters into the fingers. Based on these two sets of ideas, here is how I laid out a set of characters in my hands.
Little finger – Kinship child
Ring finger – Story mother
Middle finger – Dreaming father
Pointer finger – Ancestor teenager (niece/nephew)
Thumb – Culture hero
Each finger divides into five sections, and these represent different body parts of the character as follows.
Nail – Head
Finger pad – Hands
Middle section – Torso
Bottom section – Legs
Ball of finger – Feet
Although the gender of the mother and father are set, for the other characters, I have males on the right hand, and females on the left. Also to make them more distinctive, I imagine the characters on the right hand to be short and squat, while the characters on the left are tall and thin.
This then gives me ten distinct characters to use as major points, and the sub points are represented by what they are doing with various parts of their bodies.

I spent a lot of time over the three days running over the speech and counting it off on my fingers as I went, while the various characters sprouted trees from their hands, developed talking feet and all the other crazy things that happen with this kind of imagery. In one interesting cross over, the character simply walked on to my imagination stage and held up the appropriate tarot card where I had embedded a bunch of stuff from the workplace efficiency course I mentioned in a previous email. …

I made little sketches to help make them more memorable. I also made a point of practicing under conditions of ‘controlled stress,’ like when I was making dinner while my two kids both held individual conversations with me. 

Needless to say, the presentation was a raging success, and the only sign of me ‘reading from my notes’ was very subtle hand movements where I was counting information on my fingers.

Although I suppose it is technically possible to use this as a long term memory device, I think I will just keep this exclusively for short term situations like what I have just described. I am happy to have a set cast of characters that can have a crazy bunch of adventures for a week or two, and then rest for a while until the next ‘story’ comes along.

Anyway, once again, thanks for your ideas and I hope you liked the story.”

I loved the story. I loved everything about the long emails and our discussion which has been reduced quite a bit for this post. I have found it very exciting to see how someone else has taken the ideas from The Memory Code and implements them differently, yet the underlying principles are so similar.

Rufous fantail (c) Damian Kelly

I thank Jonno for permission to quote his words and look forward immensely to his next update.

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14 Responses to Reader Response: memorising birds and then more …

  1. Avril says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Lynne and Jonno. It’s very interesting and inspiring to read other people’s forays into memorising information. Especially the work related information. I have a preconceived notion that boring work related info would be harder to retain. (My assumption that the course work was a very dry topic.)

    PS. Damian’s photos are fantastic!

    • lynne says:

      A pleasure, Avril. I am finding the way other people are implementing these ideas absolutely fascinating. I really appreciate Joono taking the time to write at length about them for me.

      Damian is chuffed that you like his photos!


  2. Geoffrey Hawson says:

    Thank you very much. I have found your book to give me a real understanding of indidinous culture, and put the dreamining and song lines to a realistic story.
    Is there any other card pack apart from a Tarot pack that could be used. As someone from a fundamentalist Christian background with a daughter and grandchildren still involved, I could not reissue having a pack be found on my person or in my home. Sounds week I know, but could poison the family relationship. Any options.

    • lynne says:

      I don’t think your reason for preferring not to use a tarot deck sounds weak at all. It is a different reason from mine, but I am uncomfortable using mine in public for much the same reasons as Jonno. I use them because I collect card decks so have a huge number to choose from. I particularly like the art work on the tarot deck and it allowed me to extend the 52 cards of the normal deck without getting confused by using the same names, such as 4 of Clubs. Neither of those are good enough reasons for anyone else to use a tarot deck.

      Your question is particularly good, no matter what the reason for preferring not to use a tarot deck. I use two decks, a regular deck and a tarot deck. In my 33 memory experiments I use the regular deck for my first set of ‘ancestors’ for the 130 ancestors experiment. I use the tarot deck as the second set.

      Using a regular deck has the huge advantage that the order is already clearly defined for you and already familiar. Using a tarot deck has the advantage of pictures on the cards which gives more to hook information onto. But you need to memorise the image for each of the cards. 4-wands, for example, doesn’t automatically tell you what image is on that card.

      If you want pictures on your card deck, though, there are hundreds of regular card decks with different images on each card. Some which would be really safe are Heritage Playing Cards who have a huge range. There are lots to be found in any games shop.

      Thank you for such an excellent question!


      • Geoffrey Hawson says:

        Thanks Lynne,
        I looked at Heritage and was not able to be sure if each card ( say 8 of hearts, clubs etc) had a different picture, but they were quick to get back to me and let me know that each was different.

        I am not sure reading your blog how to use say 52 cards for 52 items and then hang a whole group of extra items on each card. Do you have an explanation somewhere that I have missed.

        • lynne says:

          I have some Heritage cards, so knew that they did have a different picture on each. To add extra items, you just add them through the story you have attached to the card or details within the image. If it is a butterfly, say, then you can use some kind of pattern in the wings to remind you of something, the body something else, plant matter something else – but it is stories that link information. That all becomes easier once you try it. It sounds too vague until then.

          Don’t choose a deck that is all butterflies or all dogs, though, because you won’t get enough variation.

          Love to hear how you go.


  3. Emma says:

    Wonderful post – thanks to both of you! The juxtaposition of ‘cognition’ and creativity just put me in mind of how I suspect the brain would ‘prefer’ to work, and what amazing possibilities lie there. Your descriptions of the 4-5 point journey, prior to a landscape demarcation reminded me for some reason of how some people with synaethesia (perhaps mostly those with colour-number?) see numbers plotted out on spacial landscapes with curves and rhythms that significantly alter their recall of numbers from that of ‘norms’. (There is a very interesting video online somewhere by vs ramachandram on this topic).

    • lynne says:

      Thank you for your comment and link to other ideas, Emma. It is much appreciated. I think that why I find Jonno’s experience so interesting is the similarities he has implemented while coming at the memorising task using different tools. Of course, the common tool is the human brain and I think our memory experiments are tapping into commonalities we all share.

      I have seen a documentary and synaethesia but hadn’t thought about it in this context. More fun times ahead. Thank you!


      • Emma says:

        I must confess Lynne I came to your blog by accident (or serendipity?) while searching for another Lynne Kelly in Brisbane (who is a Buddhist teacher) – but your posts have such a creative and fascinating tune to them that you’ve inspired me to read more! (I also love birds and insects so that’s an extra buzz). 🙂

        • lynne says:

          So delighted that serendipity has brought you here, Emma! My interest in memory is through the memory methods of indigenous cultures. I am trying to learn similar information, but also am a science writer with a few natural history books published. So memorising field guides to the birds was an obvious choice for one of my experiments. I am also doing spiders because of a passion I have for them and so already have some of the terminology in my head. There are a huge number of them, but that would pale compared to the insects! I am doing the classification levels of all animals from the phyla, the major arachnid families, some of the genus and the species for the very most common. Even that is a huge task, but I do want to add insects as well one day. All I need is a few more lifetimes.

          Today I was working on the eucalypts while out birding and using the bird memory board for all the species. I don’t need it with me because I know it so well, s have the 408 species and details about them in memory. I also used an empty memory palace (a visual alphabet) to keep the list for today in memory to write down when we got back to the car. It means I don’t have to keep stopping to get out a pen and paper. Once it is written down, I forget that day’s list – I empty the visual alphabet ready to use next time I need it. All such fun. I want to memorise everything – I won’t get there but I am having wonderful fun trying!

          Thank you for calling in by accident,


          • Emma says:

            Well I’m just quite passionate about spiders and insects so have just ordered your book. Plus the Memory Code! (Just need to find some spare time to get my brain in to gear for that one). Very much looking forward to these.

          • lynne says:

            I do hope that you enjoy them!


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