Art as a memory device

I get the most wonderful emails from readers. This one particularly delighted me because of the stunning painting attached.

How good is that?!? There are more of Eric Wert’s paintings on his website.

Eric wrote (quoted with permission):

“I recently heard your interview with Sean Carroll on Mindscape and want to say, as I’m sure many others have, that your discussion of memory and culture was eye-opening. I thought you might be amused by an experience I had with the Mindscape podcast which was unusual in itself, but was then surprisingly punctuated by your (incredible) interview.” [If you haven’t discovered Sean Carroll’s podcast then you are in for a treat!]

“I’m an artist from Portland, Oregon, US and my paintings can take months to make, so I’m always looking for good listening material to keep company in the studio. I found Mindscape while starting my last big painting, and inhaled most of the episodes- listening to one after another. Loved every minute, but hearing so many interviews in a day is not so great for retention. I regretted blowing through them so quickly, and felt that I couldn’t recall them very clearly (having been concentrating hard on my project while listening).

When the painting was done, I put it aside for a week to dry before varnishing. When varnishing, you have to touch every square inch of the painting, and when I did this, parts of the conversations came back with incredible clarity- to the point where I felt I could hear the particular voices of different guests depending on which part of the painting I touched. It was a very strange experience, almost like the voices were locked in the painting! The mnemonic effect doesn’t seem to work if I just look at it… only when I get up close and touch a particular spot. It was actually quite eerie, but I was doubly surprised when I later heard your discussion of memory being so closely linked to objects and locations. My experience seems to confirm this, as my recall was so much more powerful than say, having taken notes during a lecture (admittedly not a strong suit for me). I wonder if this effect will still be there over time, and I wonder what memories are locked in my other paintings in peoples homes around the world.

It’s so interesting to think that there may be methods of storing and accessing memory that are so different from the way it’s commonly taught, or may differ dramatically between people. So, attached below is a small image of the painting that somehow contains all of these podcasts, like some sort of Stonehenge. Thanks again for your inspiring work, I look forward to reading your books!”

I replied about my experiment using Bruegel’s painting, Children’s Games. as a memory palace as I have written about in this post. Eric commented in his reply:

“I love the idea of using an existing painting as a tool for encoding memory, and Bruegel is one of my very favorite artists – if nothing else it must be a treat to have an excuse to study his work.

It was a genuinely striking experience for me to hear your interview discussing cultural artifacts as practical memory tools. I have such powerful memory experiences with paintings, both my own, and those that are owned by others or visit in museums, but have never discussed this with anyone, or heard anyone other than Proust talk about paintings, or other artifacts in this way.”

Now to find out what Proust said. Does anyone know?

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Posted in art, memory, Memory Craft, memory methods, memory palace, mnemonic devices, The Memory Code | Tagged | 2 Comments

Adding layers to a memory palace & The Eastern Curlew

I had a lovely time at the Stories of Influence writers’ festival at Lake Tyers in Gippsland, Victoria. With indigenous and non-indigenous participants, the role of story and art in all sorts of cultures dominated the weekend’s activities.

After delivering a worksop and talk on memory methods, I was part of a panel about writing. One of the highlights of the festival was meeting Harry Saddler, sitting next to me on the panel.

Harry is the author of the fascinating book, The Eastern Curlew. This book and meeting Harry gave me a terrific opportunity to add another layer to my bird field guide, which I have encoded to a lukasa.

The same approach works for layering any new knowledge. You need the memory structure (memory palace, songline, memory board …) in place first. I have described the lukasa before. It is a memory board adapted from those used by the African Luba people. It functions just like a miniature memory palace.

I use this lukasa as a field guide to the birds of Victoria which I use all the time when out birding. I don’t need it with me – it is all in memory. I first encoded all the bird families and species. Now I am adding all sorts of information about each species. Layer upon layer.

The Eastern Curlew is in the Sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. My story for the 25 species is about a band playing at a beach party. The Sand Pipers. I remember the family name by imaging that you have to pass under a pole (the old limbo dance) to get in. The tell you to sco-low-[to]-pass.

The family is associated with the red bead on the bottom, to the right hand end of the lukasa. The Eastern Curlew is the 9th species – all the curlews are curly haired attendees at the party.

I then add details about the Eastern Curlew to the character in the story. The fantasy and the real facts just make it memorable. My brain never confuses the two. It does play with the images, though!

See that Eastern Curlew feather that Harry is holding? He showed me the wear on the edges. That feather flew with the curlew for over 10,000 km. They are the most extraordinary migrators – from here in southern Australia to Russia and suchlike. Incredible.

The migration behaviour has just fleshed out my Eastern Curlew character at the beach party. He now flies in from a great distance to get to the party – as do many of the other species. I am slowly adding details of the migrations to the family members – those who stay here to breed (some wild things go on at this beach party) and those who travel great distances to do the same thing.

The more that you play with the knowledge in your memory palaces, the more beautiful, imaginative, fun and informative they become.

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Posted in Eastern Curlew, Harry Saddler, lukasa, memory board, Memory Craft, memory palace, mnemonic devices, The Memory Code, The Memory Whisperer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Spanish “Stonehenge”

There are so many sites nicknamed with the tag “Stonehenge” that I have not had time to explore them all. When the “Spanish Stonehenge” hit the news in recent weeks, I was pointed to the reports by many readers of The Memory Code. They could all see so many of the signs that this site was used as a memory palace, a restricted knowledge site.

Many pointed me to the article linked to the image above, 5,000-Year-Old Temple Emerges from Underwater in Spain by Ashley Cowie in Ancient Origins.

People see the same properties as Stonehenge in monuments well separated in space and time because there is one single common factor and that is the way the human brain memorizes information.

The Spanish Stonehenge is more likely a dolmen than an open circle – that is a covered, restricted space. I explain in The Memory Code why restricted spaces are essential for elders to retain accurate information over long time spans. That is why all non-literate cultures have them. Labelling a site as a “temple” leads to assumptions that the space had a single religious purpose, and often that its primary purpose was for burial. Indigenous cultures do not separate the spiritual from the mundane. It is Eurocentric thinking which limits interpreting the purpose of monuments to religious and the ubiquitous ‘ritual’ purposes.

Cultures without writing are dependent on memory to store all their knowledge. Without exception, every indigenous culture I studied right around the world used a similar range of memory techniques. These have evolved everywhere because they match the way the human brain stores information, as described in Memory Craft. We are all working with the same brain structure.

Memory palaces are the most effective mnemonic technology known and used in some form by non-literate cultures across the world. In a memory palace, information is associated with each location in sequence. The engravings within the dolmen, on each of the megaliths, would create a perfect memory palace.

Dolmens are assumed to be burial places. Although burial may be one purpose, all non-literate cultures use restricted performance spaces for initiated elders to ensure knowledge is preserved accurately, especially pan-generational knowledge of survival strategies in time of severe resource stress. The few remains, if any, found in most dolmens, would indicate a location for an elite, such as the knowledge elders. Knowledge and power correlated in oral cultures.

Restricting the songs and stories which encode information avoids corruption of data caused by the so-called Chinese whispers effect. A combination of public and restricted performance spaces is implied here by the open and restricted spaces. This combination is found in oral cultures around the world.

Placement of ceremonial structures near rivers is also a constant all over the world. Large gatherings need water and food, trade routes, while rivers are critical landscape features. Vivid stories, as represented in mythology, are a fundamental method for making abstract and mundane information memorable. Without a continuous culture linked to the monument, there is no justification for interpreting the engraving as a serpent, as a protector.

The idea that such monuments are “thought to have been temples of sun worship” because of astronomical alignments is also demeaning to indigenous cultures. The term ‘worship’ implies that non-literate cultures live in a fog of superstition. They simply would not have survived if that was the case. All the cultures I researched, and talked with, were hugely pragmatic and used the movement of the sun to create a calendar to ensure optimum use of resources and maintain their ceremonial cycle. That is not to deny a spiritual aspect, but to deny an exclusively sacred purpose. Ceremonies are an imperative to ensure practical and cultural information is performed regularly so that it is retained and conveyed.

The idea reported that the elongated wavy engraving on the megalith at the entrance corresponds to the passage of the Tagus River is a very exciting development. A map of the river is exactly what would be expected. We have ample evidence from Australia, where we have a continuous oral culture dating back about 60 000 years, that art was often used as a memory aid to maps. The same can be found in cultures from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific.

One of those who wrote to me was Alyssa McMurtry, who also wrote Drought Has Revealed Spain’s Long-Submerged ‘Stonehenge’: Up close with the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal for Atlas Obscura.

Alyssa interviewed Angel Castano, the local historian. She told me:

From what he had previously learned about the menhir at the entrance, there was a snake carved into it that was assumed to be a serpent guarding treasures. Since that was a dominant theory, that’s what he was telling the media when the dolmen first emerged from the water. But after seeing the actual stone and consulting with the original drawings made by German archeologists who discovered it in the 20s, he figured he’d have to close an eye, spin around and use a whole lot of imagination to see a snake in the carving. However, in looking at what was supposed to be the snake, his intuition told him that it may be the Tajo River. He rushed to find an old map of the area before the river had been flooded, and just last night he realized that the squiggly line, once considered a snake, corresponds virtually “100%” with the course of the river. Below is an image he sent me using an old map and the original archeologists drawing of the menhir! I told him your theory and he liked it a lot. Although still unproven, I think his idea of it being a map, not an unjustified protector as you say, goes to show that when approaching indigenous artifacts from the lense of “how was this actually practical, how did it help them survive?” you can come up with a lot more compelling (and interesting) answers than assuming it’s all kooky religious nonsense!

Love it, Alyssa!

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Posted in archaeology, Dolmen de Guadalperal, indigenous memory systems, memory, Memory Craft, memory methods, memory palace, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mythology, Neolithic, Spanish Stonehenge, stone circles, The Memory Code, The Memory Whisperer | 2 Comments

Memory Craft – now in audio

I am delighted that the audiobook of Memory Craft is now published. It is available from Booktopia and Amazon.com.au (Australia) and Amazon.com for overseas, plus many other locations. The PDF for the images can be downloaded here.

Memory Craft audiobook

The audio book had the usual lovely boost on publication. Thank you so much to those who pre-ordered and gave it the lovely #1 Best Seller (in a category) icon! It would be lovely if it stayed there! (Image links to Amazon.com.au:

The book was read by actress Louise Siversen who also recorded The Memory Code. Many people thought it was me reading, she sounds similar. The difference is that she sounds professional! I went to the Wavesound studios to meet Louise and discuss pronunciation details. She is an absolute delight and I am very proud that she agreed to do Memory Craft.

The photo is of Louise and me in the studio.

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The Bestiary and Visual Alphabet

The Bestiary and Visual Alphabet is finally ready for purchase in printed or e-book format. All information in The Memory Whisperer Shop. It includes 73 original art works in high resolution and instructions of how to use for memorising names, lists, speeches and anything which uses words.

The Bestiary and Visual Alphabet

This book offers two totally new memory devices based on medieval memory techniques. The Visual Alphabet is the starting point, a sequence of animals and human characters. It is used to make information memorable by adding vivid images to whatever you are trying to remember. The sequence is perfect for memorising speeches, lists or anything where the order is important.

A double page from The Bestiary
A double page from the Visual Alphabet
The printed version is a little A6 book, just right to carry around.

The much more extensive Bestiary is used for memorising anything which uses words, especially people’s names. The Visual Alphabet gives a starting point for the first letter of a name, but the Bestiary offers the first two letters, so is a much more effective memory prompt. By imagining the beast interacting with the person as you chat, you will create an image which will point you to the name whenever you need it.

Presented with dubious quality poetry to look medieval, The Bestiary and Visual Alphabet is a practical memory tool for every day use.

Instructions from the book:

This memory aid starts with a medieval idea, the Visual Alphabet. This sequence of creatures gives a sequence of pegs with which to associate your information. You will always get them in order.

The spider goddess Arachne throws her web over the Bird who is being attacked by the Cat being burnt by the Dragon who is also burning the Eagle who is just about to eat the Frog resting on the horn of a Goat being attacked by a Hydra. The Hydra is attacking an Imp who is attempting to kick the hat off a Jester who is attacking a Kitten just about to be eaten by a Lion. On the tail of the Lion hangs a little Marmoset who is secretly being watched by a Neanderthal linked by vine to an Owl who is being stalked by a Panther. The tail of said Panther and Quetzalcoatl are tangled as the feathered serpent attacks a Rat sitting on a Skull being bitten by a Toucan sitting on the tail of a Unicorn. Escaping all this mayhem, the Unicorn has a Vulture resting on its horn. He is eyeing off the Wombat who is being attacked by Xena the warrior woman standing on the horns of a Yak just about to be zapped by Zeus.

This list can be used to memorise anything with a sequence such as a speech, list of winners or even your shopping. It can also be used to memorise people’s names. Just note the letter that starts their name and associate that creature with the person in front of you. You may need to make further links to get the rest of the name if you don’t think the single letter will be enough.

As lots of names start with Ma or Ja or St, for example, you will do far better to associate the beast with the first two letters of the name using The Bestiary, based on the mediaeval books designed to memorise virtues and vices. You don’t need to remember the whole 264 at a single go. Just add in those you need gradually. Meanwhile, if you don’t know the relevant beast, use the Visual Alphabet.

As my artwork may well be insufficient for you to identify the beast I have added poetry, of sorts, to include its name. There were many letter combinations for which I could not find any beast and so became creative (or desperate).

The purpose of my Bestiary, fortunately, is not to be a great work of art nor of poetry. It is merely to be memorable and fun.

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Asking help from Classical Music buffs – Updated

During a discussion on the Art of Memory Forum, it was suggested that existing artworks could be used as miniature memory palaces. Indigenous cultures have used art as mnemonic, as was also the practice in medieval times.

I decided to test the idea using Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games. The Wikipedia entry gives 80 games as shown, so there are 80 obvious locations possible.

I have decided to encode classical composers. I have just started to listen to a lot more classical music than before, but know very little about the topic.

Original post included: Below is a list of 100 composers since the Baroque. So could I please have help reducing the list? Who can I eliminate at the stage without missing out on the major composers? Is there anyone missing?

After much debate and much discussion, I didn’t get to reduce it much, but there were a lot of changes. Below is the list I am working from now. Thank you to all those musical types who helped so much!

Baroque Period: 1600–1750
1 Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
2 Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
3 Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
4 Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687)
5 Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
6 Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
7 Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725)
8 Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1750)
9 Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
10 Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
11 Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764)
12 George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
13 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
14 Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Classical Period: 1750–1820
15 Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714–1787)
16 Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1806)
17 Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782)
18 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
19 Franz Xaver Sussmayr (1766–1803)
20 Bedrich Dionys Weber (1766–1842)
21 Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770–1827)
22 Niccolo Paganini (1782–1840)
23 Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)
24 Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792–1868)
25 Franz Peter Schubert (1797–1828)
26 Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (1797–1848)
Romantic Period: 1820-1900
27 Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
28 Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847)
29 Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
30 Frederic Chopin (1810–1849)
31 Robert Alexander Schumann (1810–1856)
32 Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
33 Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
34 Giuseppe Fortunino Frencesco Verdi (1813–1901)
35 Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880)
36 Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896)
37 Cesar Franck (1822–1890)
38 Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
39 Anton Joseph Bruckner (1824–1896)
40 Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)
41 Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
42 Eduard Strauss (1835–1916)
43 Charles-Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
44 Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
45 Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839–1881)
46 Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
47 Antonín Dvorak (1841–1904)
48 Edvard Hagerup Grieg (1843–1907)
49 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov(1844-1908)
50 Gabriel-Urbain Fauré (1845–1924)
51 Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
52 Sir Edward William Elgar (1857– 1934)
53 Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
54 Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
55 Achille-Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
56 Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
57 Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
58 Erik Satie (1866–1925)
59 Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
60 Sergei Vasilievitch Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
61 Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg (1874–1951)
62 Gustav Theodore Holst (1874–1934)
63 Charles Edward Ives (1874–1954)
64 Joseph Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
65 Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
66 Artur Schnabel (1882–1951)
67 Percy Grainger (1882 – 20 February 1961)
68 Zóltan Kodály (1882–1967)
69 Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
70 Alban Berg (1885–1935)
71 Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofieff (1891–1953)
20th Century: 1900–present
72 George Gershwin (1898–1937)
73 Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
74 Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
75 Samuel Barber (1910–1981)
76 Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912–1990)
77 Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
78 Dulcie Holland (1913–2000)
79 Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014)
80 Arvo Part (1935–)
81 Philip Glass (1937- )
82 Carl Vine (1954- )
83 Elena Kats-Chernin (1957-
84 Nigel Westlake (1958- )
85 Margaret Sutherland (1897–1984)
Back burner
1 Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613)
2 Witold Roman Lutosławski (1913 – 1994) (Polish)
3 György Sándor Ligeti (1923 – 2006)
4 John Adams
5 Carl Heinrich Biber (1681-1749)
6 Darius Milhaud
7 Luigi Cherubini
8 Zbigniew Preisner
9 Michael Nyman

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Memory Craft – I have the advance copy!

I am so excited that the advance copy of Memory Craft has arrived. Details of the contents can be found here!

Only a few weeks now until the June 3 publication by Allen & Unwin.

The launch will be help at Castlemaine Library at 5:30 pm on June 13. To be launched by Dr Duane Hamacher, with talk on memory methods. Booking will be available through their website very soon. If you are coming to the launch and want to join us for dinner afterwards, please contact me through the contact form and I’ll let you know what’s happening.

Memory Craft is available for pre-order through Book Depository (world wide) and Booktopia (Australia only) among others.

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Long corridors as memory palaces

Corridors are perfect to use as memory palaces – once they are decorated in a structured way. So why do we waste the corridors in schools and universities when they could become such valuable spaces? Usually, if there are any decorations, they are just nice pictures or random posters.

I was pointed to the Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing by a reader of The Memory Code. It is a superb use of a corridor as a memory palace.

Click on the image below to go to the Wikipedia entry about it.


I finally found a book showing the images and simply adore it. This covered walkway is found in the Summer Palace in Beijing. It dates from the middle of the 18th century. At 728 metres long, it is decorated with more than 14,000 gorgeous paintings. These tell stories – the entire structure acting as a sensational memory palace.


Why not use school and university spaces as memory palaces?

Instead of numbering rooms as dull old 1, 2, 3 … why not 5000 BC, 4000 BC, 3000 BC … and use the spaces between for images suiting that time period. Students will recall where they saw Stonehenge, for example, and associate it with the area around 5000 BC. Or number the rooms for the last few hundred years and illustrate more recent events chronologically?

How about naming the rooms by letter a, b, c … and add images for the words in a foreign language? Or new words in English?

Why not have the students do the images in art? All indigenous cultures integrate art as a key component of the knowledge system. Our even include small videos recording songs composed by students to store knowledge? The ever changing display will attract attention.

It is well known in educational circles that taking information in one form, say writing, and adapting it to another form, say images or music, makes it more memorable. You need to concentrate and know the information well to creatively adapt it. The only limits are imagination – and schools all have art and music teachers and a mob of creative types who can help set the imaginations of students on a wild spree.

A memory palace must be structured – not just an array of paintings or a set of songs. Without structure it is just another gallery display.

And while we are at it – why not use the school grounds as memory palaces as well – just like the Australian Aboriginal songlines and Native American pilgrimage trails? And none of this needs funding! We can do all of this within the art and music curricula as well as meeting the requirements for every subject in the school. We just need to stop separating knowledge into neat little packages – we need to integrate it.

But what I really want is my very own Long Corridor just like the one in the Summer Palace. Please!

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My TEDx talk is now live

Click on the image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9kpJtHI8jQ

TEDxMelbourne’s description:

Today, we explore whether memory still has a practical place in the world of big data and computing.

As a science writer, Lynne has written 18 books including The Memory Code. Her research showed that without writing, people used the most extraordinary suite of memory techniques to memorise massive amounts of practical information. This explains the purpose of monuments like Stonehenge, the Nazca Lines and the statues of Easter Island. Her next book, Unlocking The Memory Code explains the most effective memory methods from around the world and throughout time. Lynne shows how these can be invaluable in modern world. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

P.S. The next book is now called Memory Craft, but there was only the working title then!

Allen & Unwin’s description is here:

https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/self-help-practical/Memory-Craft-Lynne-Kelly-9781760633059



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