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! Edit: it became Memory Craft.
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 40 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. And even taking on Chinese (Mandarin).
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!
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.
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.
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…)
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
There has been a great enthusiasm from readers of The Memory Code to learn to create memory devices and implement them in their own lives. Twenty people gathered for the first workshop at Castlemaine Library on a Saturday morning. The goal was to learn two different methods inspired by indigenous knowledge experts.
The first technology was to imitate the memory board known as a lukasa from the Luba people of West Africa. Variations of memory boards are found all over the non-literate world. The first stage was to select pieces of wood which had interesting grain which could be used to enhance the visual location of each bead. Then about 120 beads were selected from a large selection, for looks and for touch. Each person chose the beads which most appealed to them. These were then glued onto the boards and left to dry.
We then spent about half an hour creating a memory palace in the participants’ homes. They started encoding the countries of the world in population order to locations within their houses. One has reported back that she got the first 80 in within a week! The information about the countries in each location is infinitely expandable. See Memorising the Periodic Table for the method.
We then returned to the lukasas. Each participant had their own ideas about what information they were going to encode to their memory boards. These varied from birds, plants, Australian Prime Ministers and chemical elements to human anatomy. Each worked out the structure of the data they were using – some from sheets I had already prepared, some from lists or books they had brought. We have no elders to teach these things so have to rely on written records as the starting point. This followed the method I talked about in Memorising Birds.
The feedback has been fantastic. People have really engaged with the methods and discovered, as I have, that having information in memory enables you to see bigger patterns, to have the information readily available and ask new questions. And it’s so much fun!
A number of readers of The Memory Code have asked for the specifics of how to start a contemporary songline to memorise a particular set of information.
For example Naomi wrote:
So Lynne – #songlines – time to get down to nuts and bolts. I have just read your chapter walking us through your memory line walking Epsi. How did you do it? Given that you are experimenting with oral memory did you carry a list that you wanted to memorise? Or gradually add to it like building a wall – one item at a time? Obviously it now resembles something organic, evolving and expanding as necessary – but how did you seed the memory line? Thanks in advance.
Kath wrote in part (the full email is at the end of this post):
I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. … For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.
Of the 25 memory experiments, the best starting point is using the landscape as a set of memory locations – the classical technique known as the method of loci. Walking the path – be it around the house or garden, around the block or through the bush – enables you to fix the locations. The easiest is to start with a room. I put ten locations in each room of the house – five from the door (included) to a window, then five more more back, including the window and out the door.
So the first ten locations I use are in the front door (which I think of as 0 to match the multiples of 10 for all the doors) and the first location is the (1) sofa, (2) bookcase, (3) desk, (4) corner piece, (5) window, (6) ornament shelf, (7) TV, (8) little table and (9) picture on the wall. The door out of that room goes to the corridor and is number 10. Then the first location in the next room is number 11.
So if I was doing the countries of the world (as I do in this palace) in population order, it goes (1) sofa-China, (2) bookcase – India, (3) desk – USA, (4) corner piece- Indonesia, (5) window – Brazil, (6) ornament shelf – Pakistan, (7) TV – Nigeria, (8) little table – Bangladesh and (9) picture on the wall – Russia. I then head around all the rooms, around the garden, out the front gate and around the block for 242 locations (I include independent protectorates and countries) finishing with Pitcairn Islands when I am nearly back home from getting the shopping.
Ideally to mimic non-literate cultures, I would use no writing. Unfortunately, I have no elders to teach me the songs and stories and the links to the locations, so I must get my information in the way it is handed on in my life – in writing. For countries, that is a list of the countries and independent protectorates in population order. For history, that is the way I want to divide up the walk into dates. For my stone row, that is the author I want to associate with each stone, my set of authors being structured in chronological order.
I then start assigning data to locations. One you have a location – place in a room, a fence post, letter box, tree or gutter, house or shop – then associating the key information to it will initially take a few minutes. You will get quite fast at it, but don’t push too hard at first. Meditate upon the images, have fun, create stories, imagine people out the window, look for shapes in the wood grain or stone, scratches on the letter box, shapes in the branches or on the trunk of a tree …. You will find something which links either to the concept or event you are trying to associate or to a pun on the words.
Attached the item – let’s say Cape Verde to a shop. If, like me, you naturally associate the word ‘verde’ with green, you find something green to focus – in my case a green window ledge. That little ledge will always jump out at me when I look at the shop in question. Everything about Cape Verde is associated with green – such as little green men from the moon wearing capes – the more outrageous the better. You will have no trouble adding layer upon layer of information. The capital of Cape Verde is Praia, pronounced pry-er. So my little green men are prying in the shop window – their leader, the Chief Pryer, is now my main character.
Do I have everything written down? No. I only have the list of countries in descending population order, their capitals and the population. Once I have the concept linked to the location, I add more just from memory. I hear or read that Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa, so I imagine Pryer landed from the moon, trying to get to Africa – he missed. He keeps jumping from island to island, but never getting to the mainland. On the news, it was reported that Cape Verde was a very poor country, but has achieved political and economic stability. That is unusual in Africa, so I add that to the story because Pryer can’t take over through money nor politics. He tries, though. That leads to some interesting questions about the nature of colonisation, the original Portuguese colonisers and slave trading, and the story gains more depth. And so it goes on.
You don’t need to add the information to the sequence of locations in any particular order, because the sequence is grounded in the landscape. You can never run out of space or story to add an infinite amount of information to every single location.
And everything you ever hear about Cape Verde from now on will make you see little green men from the moon wearing capes. I promise. Sorry about that!
Kath’s email in full: Dear Lynne,
I am partway through your fascinating book, which I borrowed from the new books’ shelf at Yass Library last week. I read Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’ many years ago, and found that very interesting too. Before that, I had never heard of songlines nor learnt much of Aboriginal culture, other than the pathetic smattering we received in primary school in the 1970s and 80s.
However, like most things I have read in my life, I have forgotten most of the book! I therefore found your explanation of your memory experiments both amazing and inspiring.
I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. For instance, my main hobby/interest outside of work is tai chi and qigong. (If you are not familiar with the term qigong, pronounced chi-goong, it loosely translates as ‘energy cultivation’ or ‘energy work’. Tai chi is one form of qigong). I have read a lot about the subject, which I practise for about two hours each day, but like everything else, the information goes into my mind and almost straight out again. Each week my teacher, who is a veritable font of information, tells us more, which also goes into my notebook and then straight out of my head.
The knowledge of the art of tai chi, which is rooted in Taoism, is incredibly deep and complex; it’s the kind of thing that once you start learning, you realise there’s no end to it. I was reflecting that it’s a bit like the encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous societies that you write of. Much of the knowledge is stored in the movements themselves and the guiding principles behind the movements. But much is also written down, or presented as symbols or drawings. Like you were saying about the ‘simplified’ versions of Dreamtime stories in books for non-indigenous readers, there are levels upon levels of knowledge. You might hear the teacher say the same thing every year for ten years, and each time you hear it, you understand it in a different way or on a deeper level, depending on your amount of experience and knowledge. Some of the knowledge is also ‘secret’ in that it can only be told orally from teacher to student, and not written down. I never knew why, but from your book I can now guess that it’s to prevent corruption of the knowledge/Chinese whisper effect.
So I guess what I am asking, if you are able and willing, is for a few pointers on how I can begin to memorise and therefore gain a deeper understanding of this complex art.
For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.
All the best, and I am looking forward to continuing your book. Kath
I have been asked so many fascinating questions since I started this blog. One is about the way memorising can help understanding. I can best explain with an example from one of my experiments. This about a general understanding of history starting from knowing very little indeed.
My history walk involves walking from home to the corner (1000 BC to 0 AD), then in four 500-year sides of the block until 1900. (OK, mathematical pedants, the last one isn’t 500 years). Each side is then be divided into 25 year spans. So I can date any event I have encoded in the walk to within about 15 years just by remembering where the location is. I can encode an exact date if I want to, but usually I don’t bother. Ten years here or there is good enough for the understanding I want. I have no intention of attempting to be a quiz champion!
This is more about a general understanding of history than in depth historical study.
I could try memorising a timeline chart. Or even constructing one, but I now it will end up overloaded with text. My walk through time can have a huge amount added and it doesn’t get crowded, because I only extract what I want to think about.
Now let me go and stand somewhere. I’m (mentally, not physically) over on Templeton Street, about half way up the third block. It is the year 1200.
I have just walked past King Richard I, with a lion in his tree. (All Richards are located in trees, the lion gives me Lionheart.) But he’s a quarter of a house behind me, so about 10 years ago. Right on the corner is King John. So he has just come onto the British Throne. Robin Hood is there, too. Up the lane is Great Zimbabwe at its peak, the amazing civilisation in Zimbabwe which is now only ruins. The Ancestral Puebloan cultures have been going for centuries at their amazing sites at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde over in America’s southwest. I can see that Chaco is starting into a decline. Oh, and Genghis Khan is on the rampage. (He’s the tall rusty garden ornament with evil looking claws.)
As I walk the next thirty metres or so, I greet Albertus Marcus, see the Magna Carta being written, witness the demise of King John and Henry III take the throne, greet Thomas Aquinas and watch the Mongols invade Russia. Looking ahead I can see that the next few decades will see the start of the Ottoman Empire. We’re still in the Song Dynasty over in China (that started down at the church gate where I imagined hearing hymn singing in Chinese), and Marco Polo is heading out there (China, not the Castlemaine church).
Glancing up to the corner at 1500, I can see a lot of wars ahead, but also the Renaissance coming, Vasco de Gama reaching India and Christopher Columbus heading out to the New World … with so much in between.
So at this moment, here on the corner of Randall Lane in Templeton Street, it is 1200 AD and I can just look around me and see all the locations I have encoded. I can see the whole world, what has been and what is coming. I don’t have to memorise any dates, or the order of events. It’s all embedded in the landscape.
Can you imagine the questions arising in my mind? Why did little Spain and England head off and take over so much? Why did the Puebloans stay in their own domain and not take over? Thousands of questions and the Big Picture in which to think about them. This leads to adding more and more into the Big Picture, be it more information on any of the events and people I already have encoded, or adding more events, countries and people. I have hooks for everything already fixed in the spaces. I just have to hook the data onto the trees, doors, gates, walls, ornaments, cracks in the pavement, marks on the road … plenty for everything.
I haven’t studied history since the early years of secondary school. My historical knowledge was appalling when I started this task. Now I can’t get enough of it!
This sort of analysis happens with all my memory spaces, massive and miniature. More of those in future posts.
Does that start to answer the question about the way understanding and higher level thinking is linked to memory systems?