Singing the knowledge – Yanyuwa kujika

A wonderful collaboration between the Yanyuwa people and Monash University is online and enables us to glimpse the singing tracks of their culture. The Yanyuwa live 0n the Gulf Carpentaria in Northern Australia.

Animations of the songs can be seen at the Monash Country Lines Archive.

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As described in his 2010 book, Singing Saltwater Country John Bradley has mapped over 800 km of singing tracks in a three decade long association with the Yanyuwa people of Carpentaria.  The sung pathways through Country are referred to by the Yanyuwa as kujika and described as a ‘Yanyuwa way of knowing’ and as the ‘key to rich, complex and intricately related knowledge systems’. For one kujika, Bradley recorded over 230 verses, with knowledge stored in layer upon layer, the more complex knowledge gained with initiation into higher levels. Every detail of the landscape is described and stored in the sung narratives. Fixed in place by the very landscape they describe, the kujika act as the link connecting all songs in a sequence.

This is the method of loci in its most expansive form. Every aspect of the knowledge is encoded in these songs. This is one of the few glimpses of primary orality available in the world today, when this method of knowing almost certainly served every human community for tens of thousands of years.

The complexity of Australian Aboriginal knowledge has been hugely underrepresented until recently. We need to ensure it is understood before it is lost forever.

Bradley wrote about the experience of learning an Australian Yanyuwa kujika:

So much knowledge was being presented to me, at many levels and intricately interrelated. I was struggling to find words for much of the material as it was deeply encoded and dependent on other knowledge.

…I was amazed by the detail of this kujika, especially of the different species of sea turtles, their life cycle and habitats; it was a biology lesson in sung form.

The first stage of the Tigershark Dreaming  and then the second represent just a tiny part of the Manankurra kujika. Part One is linked to the image above, with part 2 below. Further songs are available at the Monash Country Lines Archive.

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Although there is clearly a spiritual dimension to the kujika, it is so beautifully clear that these songs give an intensie knowledge of the geography for navigation and identification and behavioural details of the animals in each microenvironment. The techniques of treating the cycad seeds to take them from deadly to edible are also mentioned. These are a rational people with great depth of knowledge.

It is the singing tracks and the depth of pragmatic knowledge which is the basis of all I write about in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

 

Adding the Dowitcher – a comparison of memory aids

A small wading bird landed in a lake and started a twitch unlike any before in Australia. Social media went into overdrive, as bird watchers scrambled to travel for hours in the hope of a glimpse of the one long-billed dowitcher among the sharp-tailed sandpipers at Lake Tutchewop, between Swan Hill and Kerang in northern Victoria.

"Long-billed Dowitcher"
The long-billed dowitcher and sharp tailed sandpipers. Photograph with permission of Paul Dodd. Lots more stunning photographs on his website: http://paul.angrybluecat.com/Trips-and-Locations/2014/Lake-Tutchewop-Nov-2014/

Why all the excitement? This is the first record ever of a long-billed dowitcher in Australia. A new tick, a lifer, for every twitcher who managed to see it. They turned up in droves.

Readers of this blog will know that one of the memory challenges I have undertaken is to memorise the 407 birds in Victoria using a memory board. The list in my head is in taxonomic order with family names in Latin. So what happens when a new bird inserts itself in the middle of one of my existing families?

If I’d used one of the standard mnemonic methods, such as creating a rhyme for all the birds, I would have real trouble adding in a newcomer. What would happen if they found a new king between Richard I and John and needed to add him into the famous mnemonic for the monarchs of England:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard two;
Harrys four, five, six… then who? …

More complex memory methods, such as using an acronym or a linked sequence of items (the Link Method)  would also let me down here. It is very difficult to add in a new comer into the chain.  By using the complex of indigenous methods as I do, adding the dowitcher was a breeze.

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My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand.

I describe the way I memorise the birds in the post Memorising Birds. Each bead on the memory board (based on the African lukasa) represents a family. I traverse the beads in a set order. I can sing the 82 family names: Dromaiidae, Anatidae, Megapodiidae, Phasianidae, Podicipedidae … 82 of them. As I sing them, I can see the memory board in my mind, I know it so well. Mythological stories associated with each bead tell me how many species there are in the family. If there are more than 4, I use a journey, the method of loci, to memorise all the members of the family, again in taxonomic order. I had difficulty believing this would work when I first read about the lukasa. I now know that it is amazingly effective.

I had to add a new bird, the dowitcher. It is Scolopacidae, along with the 25 sandpipers, stints, godwits and the like in the family. The house along my sandpiper songline with the godwits and sharp-tailed sandpiper (the birds most like the dowitcher) has two small palms in front which I have linked to the two godwits. I needed something new, and soon noticed a third small palm, mostly hidden by other bushes. That palm was, within a minute, linked to the dowitcher. Hear the word ‘dowitcher’ now and my brain instantly sees that palm which allows me to locate the bird in the taxonomy. Into the ‘mythology’ I have already created around that location, I encode everything I learn about the dowitcher.

Using a range of mnemonic technologies system reflects the way non-literate cultures encode such a vast store of information about animals, plants, laws, navigation, astronomy, timekeeping and all the other practical knowledge I talk about in Indigenous mnemonics. It seems as if it would be confusing, but it isn’t. It seems as if it is more work than just memorising by constant repetition, but it is far far easier and far more robust.

I love this stuff!

Stone circles in Jordan – are they memory spaces?

Thank you to all the people who have pointed me to this news story on LiveScience and asked my opinion about whether they are memory spaces in the way I believe the British circles to be. [click on the image for the full story]

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Assessing stone circles and other ancient monuments as memory spaces must be made with care. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that all ancient structures which aren’t clearly domestic or defensive served the needs of a knowledge elite. But the Jordanian circles are not like those built in the British Neolithic which I have analysed so thoroughly and am writing about in my books. The Jordanian circles are continuous walls, a few feet high, not a series discrete stones. They had no openings, but people could have just stepped over the wall.

There are eleven ancient “Big Circles” around 400 meters in diameter and many smaller ones across the Middle East.  Analysis suggests the circles date to over 2,000 years ago, possibly much longer. Without any reasonably accurate dating, the link to other aspects of the archaeology is speculative, so analysis becomes difficult.

Professor David Kennedy, from the University of Western Australia, is quoted as saying that the ‘purpose of the Big Circles is a mystery. It seems unlikely that they were originally used as corrals, as the walls were no more than a few feet high, the circles contain no structures that would have helped maintain an animal herd and there’s no need for animal corrals to have such a precise shape.’

However, the Big Circle pictured ‘was positioned in such a way that it could give someone standing inside it a “panoramic” view of a basin that would have held crops and settlements’ which ‘may have played an important part in the location of the enclosure’. This degree of reference to the landscape is a useful indicator that it may be a knowledge site.

Another valuable piece of information is that ‘the creations were part of a landscape rich in stone structures’ [which] … ‘come in a variety of shapes, including “Wheels” (circular structures with spokes radiating out); Kites (stone structures that forced animals to run into a kill zone); Pendants (lines of stone cairns that run from burials); and walls (mysterious structures that meander across the landscape for more than a mile — or up to several thousand meters — and have no apparent practical use)’.

I will ignore the Kites, because they have an apparent utilitarian purpose. Without dating showing the Pendants are contemporary with the circles, nor the nature of the burials, I can’t use them at this stage. The walls, being labour intensive structures with ‘no apparent practical use’ are right up the alley my theory likes to trot.

The article also links to other fascinating articles. It refers to the Nasca lines, which will be covered in my next book, Ancient Memory Spaces. These I already know have the whole suite of features I look for in a memory site. The Jordanian stone circles article above also links to another LiveScience article on ‘medicine wheels’ in Jordan:

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Tantalising? Oh yes!

So to those wonderful folk who are so interested in my ideas – I only wish I could answer your questions about whether the Jordanian stone circles might fit the pattern for knowledge centres. After a quick check, I fear there is far too little for me available in the literature on these sites to assess. I need to know whether there are signs of public and restricted sites, whether there were individual burials dating from the time the circles were built, what the artefacts found were and whether any match the criteria for portable memory devices. And quote a bit more. But they are certainly on my list to follow up in much more detail!

Thank you for the pointer.

A conspiracy of archaeologists? I don’t think so.

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Is this stone final proof of a world wide prehistoric culture? Apparently there is an established archaeological community which ignores the results.

I simply can’t believe in a world wide conspiracy of archaeologists who oppose new ideas. I have good evidence that there isn’t.

I was asked to comment on an article on facebook because of my interest in prehistoric incised objects as part of my package of mnemonic technologies, memory aids used by societies who don’t write. The facebook comment summarised the lengthy article saying:

“By Steven & Evan Strong (4th Sept) – The discovery of the “Australian” stone is amongst the strongest evidence yet for a Stone Age global civilisation, and now, it is no longer possible for the established archaeological community to ignore the results. The angles drawn by the lines are astronomical values used to predict eclipses, and whatever tools were used are not supposed to exist in “Australia” until 1788… wakeup-world.com/2014/09/04/the-rock-that-may-rewrite-chapters-of-world-history

I am not going to argue against the conclusions drawn. It would take too long. The holes in the argument are massive. For me, the alarm bells went up immediately I read of the implied conspiracy of archaeologists world wide.

I can attest from personal experience that archaeologists at the highest echelons of their profession will listen if the evidence is strong and presented rigorously. I stumbled over a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and lots of other prehistoric monumental sites as an unexpected result of my PhD research into indigenous science, knowledge systems and memory methods. I have no qualifications in archaeology. Oh dear. And Stonehenge? No other site inspires so many irrational theories.

Slowly I put together my case. I checked it with archaeologists continually, quite happy for them to scream it down so I could return to my original PhD topic. I built up a huge bibliography of peer reviewed sources to justify every step of the argument, and 6 years later, La Trobe University sent the PhD thesis to eminent archaeologists for assessment. It passed with flying colours.

It took too much for me to make the argument within the word limits of a journal paper. It needs a book. My theory has now been reviewed rigorously by experts for Cambridge University Press including a detailed, and very positive, report from a British Neolithic specialist. My arguments have been assessed by archaeologists from Australia and experts in the US case studies, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Poverty Point in Louisiana. These archaeologists would have been sceptical of someone with no archaeological qualifications, and rightly so, but they still gave it a chance. I also addressed a large number of archaeologists at the massive dig at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney in August 2013 and more at Avebury. Every time, they were initially sceptical, as good scientists should be, but they listened and gave me a fair hearing.

So I find the idea of a conspiracy of archaeologists unconvincing.

What about the claim in the article that similar inscribed stones collected from continents apart showing a universality?  My work does argue that there is a universality in these objects because they work phenomenally well as memory aids and are part of a suite of mnemonic technologies. Not only aiding memory of knowledge of astronomy, as implied in this article, but also animal and plant classifications and characteristics, genealogies, navigation, resource rights, laws … lots of pragmatics plus history and religion. All integrated. But the similarity of these inscribed objects is not due to any universal culture. It is due to the similar ways the human brain works. Not surprisingly, cultures all over the world who depended on their memories to store all the knowledge of their society developed a similar suite of the most effective mnemonic technologies known.

Today I reeled off from memory from memory – 405 Victorian birds in taxonomic order with scientific family names and lots of details about ID, habitat and other aspects in the continually growing knowledge base. I used an abstract decorated device based on the African lukasa. [OK, I missed a few but I nearly got them all!]

I can’t wait for my book to be out so that the argument can be assessed in full and I can join the debate. It will be titled “Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture”, pub: Fall (US) 2015 by Cambridge University Press.

Post and stone circles – everywhere

These barrels mark the places where a massive timber circle once stood. Just like timber and stone circles all over the UK, Ireland and Western Europe. But where is it?

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So where is the plaza with this familiar form of monument? Louisiana. USA. Constructed by hunter gatherer fishers amid their mounds and massive earth works (note the scale on the plan below!), the Poverty Point culture never farmed.

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Plan of the earthworks, mounds and post circles at the World Heritage Site of Poverty Point, Louisiana. Image (c) Lynne Kelly.

The Poverty Point Site consists of massive earthworks built  3,400 years ago: five mounds shown around six C-shaped ridges enclosing a huge plaza. Within the plaza, 25 – 30 timber circles were built, but were not all standing at the same time. Like all knowledge sites, it was constantly changed.

The geometric design of Poverty Point is unique – there is nothing like it anywhere else. It is a masterpiece. When constructed, the Poverty Point earthworks were the largest in North America, the major political, trading and ceremonial centre of its day.

Why did people in America’s southeast build monuments so reminiscent of those built by Neolithic cultures in the UK, Ireland and Western Europe?

Because this is the best way to create the necessary memory spaces if an oral culture is to settle and replicate a knowledge system once based in the broad landscape.

The image of the barrels marking the post circle from Jenny Ellerbe can be found on the Poverty Point World Heritage Initiative document which can be downloaded from the site – just click on the image below. The plan of the site has been adapted from that document as well.

poverty-point-websiteIt wasn’t only in Louisiana that post circles were built by Native Americans. One circle which has been reconstructed is in Illinois, at the mound building site of Cahokia. The ancient Native American city was active long after Poverty Point, from about 600 to 1400 AD. Archaeologists even name the timber circle Woodhenge after a wooden post circle in Wiltshire, England.

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Woodhenge: The reconstructed post circle at Cahokia, southern Illinois.

The oral cultures in North America and the European Neolithic were so far apart in both space and time that they almost certainly had no contact with each other. It is no coincidence that they used very similar structures at the ceremonial sites. These are practical monuments which served a very practical purpose. They are memory spaces used to aid memory of all the practical, scientific, historic and spiritual knowledge of the culture.

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Uluru as a set of memory locations

I’ve talked about the method of loci – a set of locations in the landscape used as memory aids – the most effective memory aid known. I believe that the singing tracks of the Australian cultures, the sacred trails of the Native Americans and sacred paths found in cultures around the world served the needs of memory in exactly the same way.

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Uluru, Central Australia. Photo: Ian Rowland.

The massive natural Central Australian monolith, Uluru, is easily visualised as mythological landscape with a path encircling the entire rock. The pathway around Uluru is nearly nine kilometres long. The many crevices and indentations around the base are each linked with stories. As I detail in my research and forthcoming books, the songs and stories of non-literate cultures are the means by which a vast store of information is retained, much of which is knowledge of plant and animal classifications and characteristics, navigation, weather, tides, a calendar, a pharmacopoeia, rules and ethics, genealogies all integrated with history and religion.

Australian anthropologist, Charles Mountford, described how almost every feature on the surface of Uluru (at that time referred to as Ayers Rock), is named, acting as a mnemonic for mythological story.

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It is so easy to imagine walking the rock, each crevice and point reminding you of a story and the encoded knowledge. Over years of learning, the amount of knowledge encoded in this sequence of locations would become vast.

The Anangu traditional owners describe Uluru as part of their knowledge system, Tjukurpa, which they explain has many deep, complex meanings including the law for caring for each other and their Country, the relationships between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land, the past, the present and the future.

It is not necessary for the Anangu knowledge specialists to be walking the rock to recall the stories. The sequence of sites is so well-known after years of learning that they can travel and part of the perimeter in their memories whenever they want. This is the art of memory exactly as described by the ancient Greeks.

 

 

Medieval memories – illuminated manuscripts

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I have always found the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to be some of the most beautiful artistic creations of all. It was only through the research on memory spaces that I discovered that some scholars consider their design to be intricately interwoven with the need to memorise the content. The manuscript pages were designed as miniature memory spaces.

I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at the glorious reproductions in books on illuminated manuscripts.

In the Middle Ages, the memory arts changed purpose from the oratory of classical times to become the domain of the monks wishing to memorise great slabs of religious tracts. Monks were expected to memorise, at a minimum, all 150 psalms, a task which took somewhere between six months and three years.

The heavily illustrated handwritten manuscripts were seen as a prompt for medieval memory when books were extremely rare and horrendously expensive. The words were enmeshed in images which match the classical recommendations for making information far more memorable: grotesque and violent acts along with fanciful beasts, strange figures, gross ugliness and extraordinary beauty. It was common to have each chapter start with a coloured initial, alternating between red and blue, with repeated letters each having their own design, such as in the Smithfield Decretal shown above.

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Around 331 A.D., the Roman historian, Eusebius of Caesare, created lists of chapter numbers indicating areas of agreement and of difference between the Gospel accounts in  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These chapter numbers were typically presented as elaborately decorated tables, designed to be memorised. The lists of numbers were written between illustrations of columns with arches above, replicating the classical Greek advice to use intercolumnar spaces as locations for memory images. The vertical spaces were then divided into small rectangular spaces each holding no more than five items, the maximum number suggested for retaining in memory for a single location.

A huge range of memory devices were recommended in the many treatises written during the Middle Ages for monks, and later for a whole range of students. Alphabets, the zodiac, bestiaries … so many different sequences were used for miniature memory locations, often illustrated in the elaborate medieval style. Much of the art decorating churches were also aimed to aid memory. More of that in future posts!

References:

Carruthers, Mary, The book of memory: a study of memory in mediaeval culture (2008), second edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Carruthers, M & Ziolkowski, JM (eds), The medieval craft of memory: an anthology of texts and pictures (2004), University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

de Hamel, Christopher, A history of illuminated manuscripts (1994), Phaidon, Oxford.

Yates, Frances, The art of memory (1966), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

 

Art: from orality to literacy

Art has a vastly different purpose in non-literate cultures than it does in literate ones.

Art in oral cultures is primarily a memory aid to the knowledge system while art in literate cultures is primarily aesthetic. A rash statement? I hope it’s one which generates debate.

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 Australian Aboriginal art, which may have been traditional or may have been produced for the Western market.

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Spider by Linda McRae, Possum by Ron King-Smith.

Too often I read that non-representational art in the archaeological context must have been for religious rituals, and interpretation is left at that. If the ‘primitive’ art is recognisable as an animal or scene, it is often assumed to be simply a repsresentation.

If the art is abstract, it is assumed to be due to some nebulous ritual. Except when interpreted by archaeologists who are very familiar with an indigenous culture, motifs are rarely, if ever, described in terms of the complex knowledge systems known from non-literate cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal and American Pueblo peoples.

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Spiral petroglyph, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

There are a wide range of resources which document the way non-literate cultures use abstract motifs as memory aids to the knowledge system. Often, the same abstract sign can signify a range of meanings depending on the context, ceremony and person reading the signs. It is essential that interpretation of traditional art of non-literate cultures, historic or archaeological, be considered in terms of the way in which art aids the way a vast corpus of knowledge is memorised.

Two books, among many, have been hugely influential in my thinking on this topic.

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Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Howard Morphy is a leading writer about the Yongu of northwest Arnhem Land, one of the Aboriginal cultures which has retained a great deal of their traditional knowledge and been willing to convey it to anthropologists such as Morphy. Among many other aspects, Morphy explains how a single set of abstract images can lead to a multiplicity of interpretations by the Elders depending on the situation.

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Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History covers the extraordinarily beautiful art of the African Luba people. It is claimed that their success as a culture in terms of longevity and range, was due to their memory devices, including the memory board known as a lukasa. Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts have edited this book on the Luba and their memory systems as well as written extensively on the topic themselves. Although the Roberts focus on the historical knowledge, they also refer to knowledge in a variety of genres including the pragmatic information which is my particular interest.

This topic fascinates me. I will be coming back to it many times in the future!

 

Memorising and understanding history

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.

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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.

Mesa-Verde-National-Park

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?