Would we reduce the impact of failing memory, and maybe even of dementia, by formally keeping people in contact with their personal memory devices – song, dance, story, art and landscape?
The many questions I receive about my research on memory tend to fall into three categories:
* How can I memorise better?
* What are the implications for education?
* And is there anything we can do about loss of memory with ageing?
The research focus for us at The Orality Centre will initially concentrate on these three questions.
Reader John Seed wrote a fascinating comment on the post titled Starting a contemporary songline. I have answered some of the post there, but wanted to reply to part of it as a post of its own. John wrote:
I’m fascinated by your book and the possibility that it might help my own fading memory. Do you find that your overall memory has improved alongside your ability to remember those particular things – countries, plants, for which you’ve built a songline/palace? My memory has been atrocious for years but this doesn’t prevent me from memorising long poems and the like. …
Speaking of workshops, are your workshops about building memory palaces? If so, I’d dearly like to attend one.
I am in my mid 60s. My overall memory has improved massively since I have been using the memory methods – not just the things I am consciously memorising. I am not sure of the reason, though. I suspect it is a combination of factors. I am more confident about my memory but I also set up hooks constantly and make links. I look for them now. Anything I want to remember, I make a funny or wild or quirky link. The more I have been doing this, the more a habit it has become.
As for the workshops, the answer is ‘yes’. I am involved in developing a whole range of workshops through The Orality Centre (TOC) to be starting very soon. Of course the main one will be about memory palaces, but we will also soon be running a workshop on making Personal Winter Counts. The idea is to create a memory device, tried and tested by Native American cultures, which will offer hooks for every year of your life. By maintaining the stories and links throughout life, the hope and belief is that this will provide a permanent memory device to help keep memories alive in old age. There are more details about Winter Counts and the planned workshop below.
What would happen if we embed our stories in memory palaces around our homes, and link them to music and dance and mnemonic objects, right through life? These are the memory systems used by our ancestors for thousands of years. If we use them deliberately throughout life, might this delay the onset of dementia? Or at least reduce the impact? Might living in our memory palaces keep those memories alive?
I have asked members of various indigenous cultures and the reply seems to indicate that by performing the rituals, the repeating of stories and linking to the memory devices, singing the songs and performing the dances, the impact of dementia is reduced. But these are only anecdotes asked in casual conversation. Enticing though it is, that is not evidence. We will be exploring recent research, making contact with experts in the field while following the experiences of those who participate in the workshops.
There have been quite a few reports recently which indicate that the brain retains its links to music and place when other intellectual capacities are failing. This is a few of them.
Alive Inside is a documentary about the non-profit project Music and Memory made by film maker Michael Rossato-Bennett. This is a sample one of the patients working with the late Dr Oliver Sacks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG7X-cy9iqA. The Music and Memory website is here: https://musicandmemory.org.
What if the songs they connected to were more than tunes and tales of love? What if they were songs recording critical information? What of that connection was also reflected in physical memory palaces? Would that make the ‘reconnection with life’ that the Music and Memory people talk about even more effective?
Personal Winter Counts
The Plains Indians of North America use memory devices referred to as Winter Counts. Named because the start of the year is taken from the first snow fall of the year, the animal hides or other fabrics are adorned with a new image each year representing the most signficant event of the year. Other events from that year are then linked to the key event and the stories recalled regularly to ensure the history is not forgotten.
Lone Dog’s Winter Count
Lone Dog recorded his calendar on buffalo hide for the Dakota Nation, each pictograph signifying an outstanding event from 1800 through 1871.
The Wajaje Winter Count provides the early history of the southern Teton Lakota tribes. Beginning with the center glyph, it documents the years 1758- 1759 through 1885-1886.
I have used a TOC-WinterCount to record the years from 1900 until 2013 (I must update it!) with one major event for each year.
TOC- is the prefix we are using at The Orality Centre to indicate that we are using the mnemonic technology of indigenous cultures but in no way claiming that our versions are the same as the sacred items of indigenous people.
At the TOC-WinterCount workshops, TOC staff intend to talk about the memory methods of the Plains Indians and make personal TOC-WinterCounts with attendees, each symbol representing a year of our lives. An image of the key event will be there for each year on a piece of canvas which is easily rolled and stored. The stories linked to that event, to that year, should be retold and recalled regularly over life just as the Lakota and Dakota did for their community.
Please contact me if this workshop appeals. Although we will run it initially in Victoria, Australia, we may well work virtually across the country and even around the world.