Guest blog: experiments with memory

I am getting a lot of emails from readers which is so rewarding. Some are trying out the memory methods and are as astounded as I was about how effective they are.

A memory palace - From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.
From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.

Barry described his experiences. I will hand over the blog to him as he writes so well I don’t want to change a thing:
________________

I thought you might get a kick out of hearing how your work has impacted someone. It’s certainly had a powerful effect on me!

I’ve always been interested in the mystery of prehistoric civilisations, and of Australian indigenous culture before its catastrophic disruption by the Europeans. Your book has changed the way I see all of that. Myths and legends are not childish fantasies, but are multilayered storehouses of information! Astonishing, and yet, in retrospect, so obvious!

Anyway I could rave for ages about the insights into human history you’ve given me, but I will resist. I’ve been happily raving to practically everyone I know.

Of course, your book is a double-whammy — not only casting a new perspective on non-literate culture, but also painting an intriguing picture of the potential of using these long-neglected memory systems. I’d encountered memory palaces before, but they always seemed like too much hard work, and perhaps of dubious worth beyond remembering long shopping lists and playing cards.

Charged with new enthusiasm, I decided to make some memory journeys of my own. I too normally have a rather vague and temporary kind of memory. Here’s what I’ve tried:

First memory path

I live in a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and often walk to my office in town — about a 10 minute journey. I took note of potential sites and took photos of them all. Then I added them to a spreadsheet and gave them all unique names. I then worked to be able to remember each in order.

Following your principle of marking 5s and 10s, I added special markers to every 10th item. Every 5 spots I make special by imagining them as extremely cold. This worked well, as any story I add is enhanced by the dramatic cold. I can easily remember where the “cold” sites are.

This path is now 118 stations long. I’ll make it longer but it will involve a lengthy hike into the outskirts of town where landmarks are further apart.

Periodic Table of Elements

As a test, I decided to memorise the elements. It’s not something that I particularly need, so I figured if I messed it up it wouldn’t matter. It took about three weeks, but I got there. The marker system makes it easy to jump to any point by atomic number. It piqued my interest and I bought a little pocket book about the elements, which I’m now using to add interesting facts to the stories.

Countries of the World

I liked this idea and decided to emulate it, using my existing memory track. I was worried that the Elements would interfere but to my surprise they made it even easier! Each station is now ready-made with extra meaning and personality that makes them distinct; so the countries and the elements just seem to reinforce each other without getting confused.

I’m still working on this one. I’m up to Bolivia (the Monkees singing “Daydream Believer” in a South American accent, compressed into a Ball of Ears and rolling around. It’s also the station for Lead, and fishing lines with lead sinkers are casting their hooks into the ears and pulling them around painfully).

I do like this journey, because the countries of the world are mentioned all the time, and now when I hear their names I think of their special place and I have a chance to add to it.

Ukulele Chords

I’m sick of not being able to remember the chords when I jam with people. I normally have to look them up on my phone. Now I just have to think for a moment and I have the chord I need.

I made a small circuit in my garden, with 12 stations, each representing a musical note. Each station has a totem animal to remind me of the note, eg “B flat” is Beetle. Each station has two stories, one for the minor chord and one for the major. The major story is high up, the minor story is low down or underground. I turned the finger positions for each chord into 4 numbers and converted them into words using a version of the “major system”. This gives me the basis for each story.

I guess I eventually I won’t need this system as I’ll have learnt it by rote.

(BTW did you know that the etymology of “rote” is unknown, and may have the same origin as “route”? Interesting…)

Future Plans

Next I would like to learn something about the natural world. such as all the known edible native plants of Australia. I don’t really want to make another great big memory trail, so I thought a portable memory device might be the way to go. If you can provide any guidance in the construction and use of lukasa-style devices I’d be very grateful.

Other ideas:
major stars by constellation
bones of the human body
muscles of the human body
planets and moons
geological time
history
trees of Australia
birds
fish
Spanish vocabulary
software design patterns (I’m a software developer)
That’ll do. I hope you found my account of adventures in memory land of value!

Thanks again for your magnificent work.
Regards
Barry

______________

Thank you for your magnificent email, Barry!

Aboriginal affirmation at Coolum Beach

I was a guest at the inaugural Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writers Festival to talk about The Memory Code. I had no idea it would prove to be such an emotional time. The affirmation of my work by the Traditional Owners proved to be far more powerful than I could have expected.

coolum-welcome1We were welcomed to Gubbi Gubbi Country by Lyndon Davis and the Gubbi Gubbi Dancers. Festivals don’t start any better than this.

My time with Traditional Owner, Bridgette Chilly Davis (Dhdugga Kabi Kabi), was an emotional one for both of us and for the audience.

Bridgette talked about the songlines from the perspective of a Traditional Owner, what it was like to walk Country, to be in Country and to interact with the animals and plants in Country. She talked about the knowledge of the Old Ones and how it came to her so strongly when alone with them in the bush. She talked about the spiritual link, something I would not even pretend to be able to emulate.

I talked about the way that the songs, dances, stories and links to sacred places in Country act as an extraordinary memory aid to all the complex knowledge of the culture: animals, plants, genealogies, navigation, geology, seasonality and something I think I have greatly underestimated – the way it all links together. No animal is known without understanding its relationship to all the other animals and plants which inhabit that ecological niche and the seasonal cycle.

coolum-bridgette1 coolum-bridgette2

We answered a lot of questions from the audience, but throughout it was the connection to Bridgette and the Kabi Kabi knowledge which at times overpowered me. This is not the usual sensation of a science writer talking about a science book!

The most moving moment for me was when Bridgette told the audience “She really gets it! She really gets it!”. Members of the audience afterwards said they had listened to the Aboriginal stories and talk about Country many times but realised that they had not really understood that the connectives to Country was far more than just loving where they lived. My work acts as a segue to hearing what Bridgette was actually saying. How rewarding is that?

coolum-lyndon-davisLyndon Davis ran a session on Dreamtime story-telling talking about the Gubbi Gubbi stories and songs, all of them about Country, animals, plants, seasons and responsibilities for Country. One story tells of the way the pilot fish of the mullet leads the migration and must never be killed. The largest fish are left and the Maroochy River ran think with mullet. Of course, these laws are not respected by fishermen today and there are few mullet left. The timing of the fishing was linked to the behaviour of the sea eagles. The stories Lyndon told and performed all reflected the integrated pragmatic knowledge of our Aboriginal cultures. A second session with Lyndon was about the language and the way words reflect the behaviour of the animals, nature of the plants, calls of the birds and so on. And all is linked to place, song, story and mythology. Lyndon’s paintings also reflect the Gubbi Gubbi stories, in particular his use of the sea eagle and details in the designs.

coolum-daim-axe-helen-herbMy husband, Damian, is an archaeologist, and spent time examining an axe head with archaeologist Helen Coooke and Uncle Herb Wharton (for non-Australian, Uncle is a term of respect for Aboriginal Elders).

 

coolum-linda-kateThank you to the organisers for the invitation, in particular to Wendy O’Hanlon and Eileen Walder. Thank you also to the volunteers, especially Linda Morse and Kate Eagles.

 

Writing – the complication of definitions

page-writing

What is writing?

Specifically, when does what I call a mnemonic object really constitute a written device?

It all depends on definitions.

Let’s start with the most controversial question it the area – is the Inca khipu a written or mnemonic device?

quipu khipu
Khipu as displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Lynn Dombrowski, under Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike.)

This knotted cord device is the most adaptable portable memory device that I have found so far. In combination with their landscape pathways known as ceques, the khipu was the reason the Inca could maintain a vast empire in South America without writing. That is, if you define, as I do, the khipu as a mnemonic device.

But it isn’t simple. I have also found it less memorable in my experimentation than the landscape locations forming songlines or the portable devices such as the African lukasa. Was it ever intended to be fully memorized? Was it much closer to a written script? 

In The Memory Code, I use the narrowest definition of writing, that of a script which represents the sounds to a degree that an independent reader of the same culture will reproduce the exact words inscribed by the writer. Hence, there needs to be an alphabetic script, or at least one in which syllables can be represented, for me to call the symbols on a physical media ‘writing’.

urton-khipu-bookGary Urton, in his fascinating book, Signs of the Inka Khipu, defined writing as:

the communication of specific ideas in a highly conventionalized, standardized manner by means of permanent, visible signs.

However, he goes on to define ‘true writing’, a term he acknowledges as inflammatory and ethnocentric and wants dropped. Urton wrote:

I would also like to subscribe to the qualification that the forms of writing that accomplish the most highly specific level of denotation of ideas are those in which the signs of writing denote the sounds of the language community in question.

Urton, among many others, would prefer the terms glottographic (sound based) and semasiographic (non sound based) with further qualifications.

Using Urton’s definitions, I am happy to consider the two khipus I am using in my experiments as written devices although I may find that I start to  memorise them much as I do the other devices. That isn’t the case yet, but all these experiments take years. More on that in a future blog.

But what about those who consider all indigenous inscriptions to be writing?

Again, I hand over to Gary Urton, who talks about the description of wider definitions which include dance and music, images on textiles and ceramics as writing thus:

However, I think such signing devices are best classified as icons bearing conventional but highly abstract, context-specific meanings. Referring to such productions as writing, while perhaps satisfying what I would argue are essentially politically motivated programs or agendas promoting inclusiveness and multiculturism (to which I am sympathetic), renders the concept of writing virtually meaningless and (more to the point) useless for analytical purposes.

I think we can only conclude that there is a continuum from devices which are clearly mnemonic to those, like this blog post, which are clearly writing and that a very specific division between writing and mnemonics isn’t possible. The people who created the symbolic forms were more interested in storing and communicating information than they were in my future struggles with definitions.

History is usually defined as the study of the past where there are written records. Before written records, it is prehistory. Consequently, the division between history and prehistory is similarly blurred. Such is the reality of studying the human past.

I am going to give Urton the final word here. He wrote that

the point on which differentiation between different types of signing/ recording systems would turn … is that of need, rather than intelligence. (His emphasis).

Quotes are taken from Gary Urton, Signs of the Inka Khipu, (2003), University of Texas Press, pp 26-8.

See also:

My 25 Memory Experiments

Stonehenge – they moved their memory palace from Wales!

Thank you to the many people who sent me links to the various reports of this discovery and commented on how wonderfully it suited my theory on the purpose of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far.” Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist who led the study.

sh-bluestones
Click on image to go to University College London website and the full story.

I could not be more delighted by this discovery. In my recent Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and in my forthcoming book, The Memory Code, I offer a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and monuments around the world. The new findings in Wales fit the theory a treat.

My research is on the way non-literate cultures memorized vast amounts of practical information when they had no way of writing it down. All oral cultures used a combination of memory techniques and physical devices – their survival depended on accurate retention of practical information on plants, animals, navigation, genealogies, astronomy and timekeeping, seasonality, resource management, intertribal agreements and so on. The memory technology employed universally is the ‘method of loci’ or the ‘art of memory’, the use a sequence of physical locations to act as a set of mnemonic subheadings to the knowledge system. The information for each location is then stored in song and mythology, stories and dance – all kept in memory.

Stonehenge was built in the transition from a mobile hunter gatherer society to a settled farming community. Mobile cultures used a range of landscape locations to store information, such as the Australian Aboriginal songlines. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their buildings and streetscapes in the same way, attaching information to each location and then recalling it by walking, or imagining themselves walking through their memory sites. Modern memory champions refer to their sequence of locations as memory palaces.

What happened when hunter gatherer cultures started to stay in one place, an essential development if they are ever to farm? They were no longer moving between their landscape locations over the annual cycle but didn’t yet have a built environment. The simplest thing to do was to replicate their landscape sequence locally, such as with a circle of stones or posts.

The original monument at Stonehenge is now considered to have been a circle of stones or posts, possibly the Welsh bluestones. The huge stones in the centre, the familiar sarsens, didn’t come to the monument for 500 years after the first circles.

I have argued in my PhD thesis and both books, that the bluestones were particularly suitable as memory locations because of the variety of textures and colours in their material made them visually so variable which is great for encoding information. I thought that the builders brought the stones and knowledge of the method of loci from Wales.

If Parker Pearson and his team are right, then they brought their entire memory palace!

I could not have hoped for a better development.

 

The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in July 2016 in Australia and later in the UK by Atlantic Books.

 

My 130 Ancestors

I received this comment on the My Books page today:

I’ve seen you over at the mnemotechnics forum. I wonder if there is a place where you’ve listed your 52 ‘ancestors’ for playing cards? I love the idea of my 52 characters being useful memorable items themselves – and possible pegs for further info.

Graham is talking about two of my memory experiments which I referred to in a discussion over on the mnemotechnics forum. These are the two experiments as I describe them on the page called My 40 Memory Experiments.

They are in chronological order because that adds more information to the memorisation. I’d be intrigued to know which characters people would chose, which they’d leave out and which they would add who I have not mentioned.

Standard card deck – 52 Ancestors

heirloom-deck-1
Part of the card deck. I use the old fashioned royal faces on the right.

The world memory champions memorise shuffled card decks by giving a character to each one and creating stories. My ancestors are in chronological order. I start with Homer and go to Oliver Cromwell, to be followed by the Tarot Ancestors below. I consider the method to being akin to the stories told by indigenous cultures of the pantheon of mythological characters.

For example, Attila the Hun is the 7 of Hearts. I call him Atilda the Honey. I imagine a tilda (~) as the horizontal bar of the 7, and he is a honey because it’s Hearts and all lovely. It is so ludicrous a nickname that it is memorable.

Having given historical characters to each card in my deck, I am using them to memorise  their roles, expanding to the historical events, contemporaries and the context of their lives. They are memory hooks for far more than just their lives. This has gone very well and I am now extremely interested in these people. Having a hook enables me to remember more about them than before. It now overlaps with History Journey and Countries. But it is not confusing, just each mnemonic device aiding the other.

Tarot deck – another 78 Ancestors

tarot-deck-1
Half the tarot deck

The 78 cards of a tarot deck are heavily illustrated, lending themselves to the creation of stories. I have encoded another 78 historical characters, from Blaise Pascal to Linus Torvalds. I’m now adding more layers of data to the structure.

The fact that image may not bear any relationship to the character is no problem. I just have to get imaginative to make the link.

I have chosen people who I think give me the best chance of covering a great deal of the influences on my culture. I am sure others would have chosen differently. I wonder how much my personal biases show.

Spades
A Homer 800 BC
2 Pythagorus 570 BC
3 Confucius 551 BC
4 Herodotus 484 BC
5 Socrates 470BC
6 Plato 428? BC
7 Aristotle 384 BC
8 Alexander the Great 356 BC
9 Euclid ~300 BC
10 Archimedes 287 BC
J Cicero 106 BC
Q Julius Caesar 100 BC
K Cleopatra 69 BC
Hearts
A Augustus 63 BC
2 Jesus 4 BC
3 Pliny the Elder 23
4 Ptolemy 90
5 Constantine the Great 272
6 Augustine of Hippo 354
7 Attila 406
8 Mohammed 570
9 Charlemagne 742
10 Averroës 1126
J William the Conqueror 1028
Q Genghis Khan 1162
K Thomas Aquinas 1225
Diamonds
A Dante Alighieri 1265
2 William of Ockham 1287
3 Petrarch 1304
4 Geoffrey Chaucer 1343
5 Johannes Gutenberg 1398
6 Mehmed the Conqueror 1432
7 Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui or Pachacutec 1438
8 Christopher Columbus 1450
9 Leonardo da Vinci 1458
10 Erasmus 1466
J Niccolo Machiavelli 1469
Q Nicholaus Copernicus 1473
K Michelangelo 1475
Clubs
A Sir Thomas More 1478
2 Martin Luther 1483
3 Henry VIII 1491
4 Charles V, Holy Roman Emporer 1500
5 John Calvin 1509
6 Miguel de Cervantes 1547
7 Francis Bacon 1561
8 William Shakespeare 1564
9 Galileo Galilei 1564
10 Johannes Kepler 1571
J Thomas Hobbes 1588
Q Rene Descartes 1596
K Oliver Cromwell 1599
Pentacles     1
1 Blaise Pascal 1623
2 Louis XIV of France 1638
3 Isaac Newton 1642
4 Gottfried Leibnitz 1646
5 Johann Sebastian Bach 1685
6 Voltaire 1694
7 Benjamin Franklin 1706
8 Carl Linnaeus 1707
9 Leonhard Euler 1707
10 Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712
knave Denis Diderot 1713
jack Adam Smith 1723
queen Immanuel Kant 1724
king James Cook 1728
chalices         1
1 Paul Revere 1735
2 James Watt 1736
3 Edward Jenner 1749
4 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749
5 Louis XVI of France 1754
6 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756
7 Napoleon 1769
8 Ludvig von Beethoven 1770
9 Jane Austen 1775
10 Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss 1777
knave Charles Babbage 1791
jack Michael Faraday 1791
queen Charles Lyell 1797
king John Stuart Mill 1806
wands           1
1 Abraham Lincoln 1809
2 Charles Darwin 1809
3 Otto von Bismarck 1815
4 Karl Marx 1818
5 Queen Victoria 1819
6 Florence Nightingale 1820
7 Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevski 1821
8 Gregor Mendel 1822
9 Louis Pasteur 1822
10 Leo Tolstoy 1828
knave James Clerk Maxwell 1831
jack Lewis Carroll 1832
queen Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840
king Frederich Nietzsche 1844
swords         1
1 Thomas Edison 1847
2 Alexander Bell 1847
3 Oscar Wilde 1854
4 Sigmund Freud 1856
5 Nikola Tesla 1856
6 JJ Thompson 1856
7 Emmeline Pankhurst 1858
8 Max Planc 1858
9 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859
10 Marie Curie 1867
knave Gerturde Bell 1868
jack Mahatma Gandhi 1869
queen Vladimir Lenin 1870
king Ernest Rutherford 1871
Arcana           0
0 Winston Churchill 1874
1 Joseph Stalin 1878
2 Albert Einstein 1879
3 Leon Trotsky 1879
4 Ataturk 1881
5 Benito Mussolini 1883
6 John M Keynes 1883
7 Neils Bohr 1885
8 Erwin Schrodinger 1887
9 Ramanujan 1887
10 Jawaharlal Nehru 1889
11 Agatha Christie 1890
12 Haile Selassie 1892
13 Mao Zedong 1893
14 Louis Leakey 1903
15 Georges Simenon 1903
16 Alan Turing & Paul Erdos 1912
17 Indira Gandhi & Nelson Mandela 1917
18 Rosalind Franklin 1920
19 Benoît B. Mandelbrot 1924
20 Martin Luther King 1929
21 Linus Torvalds 1969

Memorising birds

chough-400
White-winged chough. Photo: Damian Kelly.

I have now memorised the 408 birds of my state, Victoria, in taxonomic order. That means I can name each of the 82 scientific family names and all the birds in that family – all from memory. I am using a combination of methods used by indigenous cultures starting with encoding the families onto my memory board, an adaptation of the African lukasa.

I am then using stories and puns and weird images to encode the members of the families.

side-view-lukasa
My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand
whistling-kite-raven
A whistling kite (family Accipitridae) being chased by an Australasian raven (Corvidae). Photo: Damian Kelly.

Now that the structure is in place and I know all the birds, I am adding more information, much as indigenous cultures do as they move to higher levels of initiation. I’m adding memory aids to identification, distribution and other characteristics. I will soon be a walking field guide with a knowledge base which is becoming constantly more comprehensive.

A year ago, I would have sworn I couldn’t do this. Now it is fun and I am convinced I can memorise anything which can be structured in some way.

This is just one of the experiments in my 40 memory experiments.

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