A number of readers of The Memory Code have asked for the specifics of how to start a contemporary memory palace to memorise a particular set of information. Australian Aboriginal songlines are complex versions of the ancient Greek memory palaces – but far more ancient – grounded in Country and enabling layer upon layer of information to be added.
As a result of all the questions about the practicalities of using memory techniques, I wrote Memory Craft.
Before Memory Craft was published, 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.
A good 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. However, I would suggest that five locations per room is far more effective.
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.
Let’s consider doing the countries of the world (as I do in this palace) in population order. I use the list from the UN on Wikipedia.
The order varies slightly depending on the last census, and my list reflects when I put this palace in place, a decade ago. But it is the relative sizes which matter, so I am not constantly changing it.
The list 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.
Bangladesh is number 8? Why have I heard so little about it? The moment you have hooks in place, you will want to know more about the countries whose names are now familiar and linked to your home territory.
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 I ever hear about Cape Verde make me see little green men from the moon wearing capes. Such is the life of a mnemonist!
Kath’s email in full:
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.