The Navajo memorise over 700 insects to three levels of classification, along with all their characteristics. And that’s just insects!
All non-literate cultures memorise a huge amount of information beyond the spiritual and historic – usually the only topics referred to when talking about oral tradition. My interest is in the vast store of practical information: animal and plant classifications, uses, properties – thousands of them. Navigation across vast areas without charts, complex genealogies, astronomy, timekeeping, geology, land management, resource locations and rights, animal husbandry, farming practices, laws, ethics … it goes on and on.
How on earth do they remember so much stuff? Their very survival depends on it.
They use song, dance, stories, mythology and combine all the methods into an intricate knowledge system. And they use a vast array of physical memory aids as described in my books The Memory Code and Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.
In order to better understand the memory methods used by non-literate cultures, I have instigated 33 experiments using devices which mimic the topologies I have found in indigenous memory systems. I am astounded how effective these are. It is also giving me insight into the different way my memory works when I use these methods. They integrate, mish and mash together and feed each other. My thinking becomes more dependent on images and emotions and less on words. It is weird and wonderful and close to impossible to describe in writing.
I am also trying to mimic the genres of knowledge valued by indigenous cultures, but translate them into my contemporary world. It is essential I store information which I value. It is the value placed on the knowledge stored which justified the huge expenditure of effort required to create and use the memory palaces of oral cultures around the world, including the prehistoric memory locations, such as the stone and timber circles of the British Neolithic and the ancient mound monuments along the Mississippi.
After a few years of work now, the bank of experiments is getting huge and complicated. Before I did this, I really hadn’t grasped the complexity and integrated nature of the mnemonic technologies of indigenous cultures. They all used a range of technologies constantly. I am now doing that as well. I can never match knowledge systems based on hundreds, if not thousands, of years of refinement, but I can grasp the totally different ways of thinking and knowing these devices offer me. And I am having such fun with it!
Some people use the term ‘memory palaces’ for the sets of locations. That works well for large spaces like buildings, gardens and streetscapes. I also use the term ‘journey’ because that is the term used by eight time world memory champion, Dominic O’Brien, and it best describes exactly what it feels like.
Large memory spaces
The ‘art of memory’ or ‘method of loci’ is the most effective memory method ever devised, which is why it can be found in one form or another in every non-literate and pre-literate culture . The massive memory spaces used by indigenous and pre-literate cultures are the landscape, streetscapes, buildings and the skies.
I have set up 4 journeys – that is memory paths where I walk through a physical space in which each location has been encoded with some piece of knowledge. By walking the journey in my mind, I can list all locations and then recall the information, starting anywhere, then moving backwards or forwards.
See also: Uluru as a set of memory locations
1. Countries of the world journey – in population order in 242 locations.
I have included the countries and independent protectorates as pre the Wikipedia list of countries by population. The locations start with China. By the time I reach Pitcairn Islands, I have walked around my garden and house (120 countries) and then down to the local shops and home, about a kilometre. With the countries in population order, I can estimate the population of any country in the world. I am adding capitals, politics, wars, people, geography – and anything on the news. The theme is infinitely expandable.
2. Prehistory journey – from 4,500 million years ago until 3000 years ago.
Walking from the front gate around the block, I walk through time, past the first plants, the first microfauna, nod hello to the dinosaurs, early hominids, modern humans, and see them spread across the world. Using geological and archaeological eras, the cretaceous and holocene, oligocene, upper paleolithic … are in all place.
3. History journey – from 3000 years ago, that is 1000 BC until 1900.
Walking a different and rather large block, neatly divided into 25 year segments, I can see that Great Zimbabwe was flourishing when King John was in England, nod to Augustine and Alexander the Great as I pass, see the Roman Empire split and watch two parallel paths … I add to this journey almost daily. By the time I get home, Victoria is on the British throne, Keynes is off and running and I am ready for the 20th Century. I could speak for hours on history without any notes nor any preparation. I have over 500 events and people in place. I add more locations and greater depth to each item constantly.
4. 20th Century journey
This journey is around the garden and house, overlapping with the countries. Each year from 1900 to the present is allocated one location. A major event becomes the primary hook and other things, including when family were born and books published, are added in. It is all about testing the concept of integrating disparate domains of knowledge.
5. Chemical elements and the Periodic Table
In each of the first 118 locations of the memory palace with the countries and the 20th Century is one of the chemical elements in order of their atomic numbers and incorporating their properties as represented by the periodic table. So there are three items in each location: a country, an element and a year. It is also the set of locations I use for any temporary memory project such as a speech (see 33 Ephemeral memory spaces).
The overlap doesn’t matter. The stories get all mixed up – location 5 has Einstein’s theory of relativity all mixed up with Brazil and the element Boron. Sometimes the stories become interwoven. Any information I want to withdraw comes out fine. I have also inscribed a mnemonic sequence for the 20th Century to a Winter Count, experiment 6. This is testing the efficacy of multiple references to the same information. Again, it causes no problem; my brain seems to happily encode an item of information naturally to one of the memory devices and only occasionally link it to both possible locations.
Memorising the periodic table
6. Kalimna songlines – natural history
I have created two songlines as close as I can to my understanding of indigenous singing tracks. Through this I am trying to understand more about the way knowledge works in the reality of the Australian bush. I am using walking tracks in Kalimna Park near home. I walk the tracks and have a series of locations along each track as my ‘sacred sites’. I am incorporating songs and stories from some of the knowledge systems above, especially birds, mammals and trees. I am using short songs for other animals, geology and other plant groups.
Critically, I am using a weekly walk of my songline to create an annual calendar which will in part inform the cave art, experiment 10.
I am modelling my thinking of the songlines on quotes of Australian Aboriginals and their songlines. For example, from the Rrumburriyi Tiger Shark’s kujika of the Yanyuwa people:
We sing this spring waters there in the north and we come ashore at Yulbarra. We come ashore and we sing the people at Yulbarra. We sing the paperbarks swamp and then onwards and northwards we sing the messmate trees and then we climb up onto the stone-ridge country and we sing the cabbage palms, and then we come to that place called Rruwaliyarra and we are singing the blue-tongued lizards and then the spotted nightjar, the quoll and the death adder, and we sing that one remains alone–the rock wallaby–we are singing her, and then we sing the messmate trees.
Source: “Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria”, John Bradley, Allen & Unwin, 2010, pp. 81–2.
7. Skyscapes – Indigenous cultures around the world
Indigenous cultures universally use the stars, constellations and movements, along with the planets and sun as skyscapes to tell stories which encode knowledge. Literate cultures do as well – creating characters out of imagined shapes when groups of stars are linked by imaginary names known as the constellations. I am using the skyscape to create a set of characters representing the indigenous cultures around the world, with the sequence of astronomical bodies loosely matching the way the cultures relate geographically. I have a long way to go on this one.
8. Stone row – classification of animals
I used a sequence of 35 large edging stones in my garden, linking them to the classification of animals. A few stones cover many of the phyla, while the majority of stones are reserved for the vertebrates, insects and arachnids. I am not going below families here. Genus and species are reserved for the mammals (experiment 8) and birds (experiment 13) of my state. Using the natural stones as memory spaces, I soon found that the huge variety of indentations and crevices, bumps and lichen on the surface formed patterns, and worked wonderfully as memory spaces. I do hope to add all the spider families in my state as well, given my adoration of these gorgeous critters.
9. Posts and poles – mammals
Given the prevalence of carved and decorate posts and poles in non-literate cultures, I figured I had better include one. I am using the post on the corner of my studio verandah. I am basing it on totem poles which told of Raven or the Loon in North West Coast Native American and Canadian First Nations people. I am encoding the 139 species of Victorian mammals in families and with scientific names in taxonomic order. They are sequenced down the pole by family. Of course, now that the structure is in place I can add identification, distribution and behaviour. The sex lives of antechinus are particularly wild.
10. Cave art – natural seasons and a terrestrial calendar
I want to gain a closer understanding of the interaction of all the elements of the natural world. I am using the seasonal flowering of the plants, arrival of migratory birds and as many other features as I can to create a calendar linked entirely to terrestrial events, as many mobile cultures do. I am then adding in astronomical observations, weather conditions and anything else I can which forms part of the natural annual cycle. The ‘cave art’ is being drawn on boards which can be displayed around my Garret, the studio where I write.
Portable memory spaces
Portable memory devices are just tiny versions of the concept of memory spaces embedded in the landscape or skies. Examples include the Australian churinga/tjuringa, the African lukasa, the Native American song boards, the Ojibway birchbark scrolls, winter counts, Pacific genealogy staves, highly decorated pages of medieval manuscripts and so many more. An object covered in apparently enigmatic motifs can be a powerful memory device. Hard to believe? Impossible – until you try it. I use a variety portable memory devices, all designed to imitate indigenous and early literate memory methods.
I am hugely assisted in these experiments by colleague, Tom Chippindall, an art curator, conservator and luthier (he made musical instruments). Tom has worked in many creative areas gaining a vast range of invaluable practical skills. He is replicating traditional mnemonic technologies for me and others so that we can apply them in contemporary contexts.
Amazingly, once you have used the device for a while, you don’t need it physically present to be able to recall all the information. But the physical form remains very precious.
11. Winter count – Twentieth Century History
I use an inscribed leather scroll, based on the Native American winter counts created on hide. This has a single image for each year, starting at 1900. This overlaps with the 20th Century journey. I have built in redundancy, as do oral traditions. It is weird the way my brain oscillates between the two, using whichever seems to suit best at a given moment.
I am also creating a personal winter count through The Orality Centre, my TOC-WinterCount. This is a representation of my own life with a story for each year hooking the narrative of that year onto a main event.
12. Card deck – 52 Ancestors
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. I use an old deck of cards because I also use them for my magic routines – it suits my performance style. So much fun to be had in this world!
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.
I am also using these ‘ancestors’ as my card characters for entering memory championships.
13. Tarot deck – another 78 Ancestors
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. This deck blends with my standard card deck for my magic routines. (I don’t use my tarot deck for tarot, except when I decide to do readings using cold reading. But that’s another whole story – see The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal.)
Related post: My 130 Ancestors
14. Tarot Deck – Archaeology
I am also using my gorgeous medieval tarot deck to memorise a basic course in prehistoric archaeology with details of 78 Neolithic and Archaic sites around the world, with some reference to the eras before and after the transition to farming. The sites are encoded to the cards in chronological order so also fit with Prehistory walk. Playing with the details of the sites in this way, has really made me see the similarities I am looking for and the differences which make each site unique.
Two different genres of information on the one ‘device’ – ancestors and archaeology on the tarot cards? The first cross-references to History Walk, the latter to Prehistory and History, and both to Countries. No problem. It is never confusing. But it is almost impossible to describe what is happening in my head as the information pours in from different memory spaces. It is such a different, vivid, lively and reliable way of knowing.
15. Memory board / lukasa – Victorian birds
My ‘lukasa’ is a piece of wood with beads and shells glued on. Due to my work with The Orality Centre, devices adapted from indigenous cultures are named to indicate that they are not replicas, but using the mnemonic technology. I am using a TOC-Lukasa.
I have encoded the 82 bird families of Victoria, and into them the 408 birds in taxonomic order. I am close to being a walking field guide. My precious TOC-Lukasa is so familiar that I can list of the families and all their birds in order without actually having the board in my hand. With it there, it’s a breeze. I am adding layer upon layer of information – identification, behaviour, distribution, personal stories… I am only confident of calling a bird when I have an exhaustive list to check against – and it’s all in my head. And the characters morph in my imagination from the humans in the stories to the birds they represent. They may be more human if I am thinking about the story, many of which have ethical themes without me planning it that way. The birds are more birdlike when I am in the field. Both these traits – ethical themes and human/animal morphs – are widespread in indigenous stories, and it is just happening naturally as I add information.
Related post: Memorising birds
16. Memory board / lukasa – classification of plants
A new TOC-Lukasa is being made for me by Tom Chippindall in which the carving matches the Luba lukasa in the way the back is engraved in the pattern of a tortoise shell. This new lukasa will be used to memorise a classification of plants down to family level. Local species of trees are memorised through the song board in experiment 16.
17. Knotted strings – Inca khipu – History of Art
My old TOC-Khipu’ is across the back of a sofa. I structured the knowledge I want to encode, but I found when knotting the string that they ended up too short and tangled incredibly easily. Tom Chippindall is helping analyse the twisting techniques needed. We are studying the way the Inca created their cords and attached them and have started on a new khipu based on that knowledge.
I am sure Inca khipu were knotted according to the information they were to encode, so a great deal of time has been spent structuring that information and limiting it to a reasonable base structure. Unlike indigenous individuals, I don’t have elders teaching me the songs and stories using these devices. Although my knotted cord device is based on the Inca khipu/quipu, other cultures also used knotted strings in various forms.
I am using the khipu to record the history of Western art. I have found I wanted a sub-khipu just for Australian art as that is what I see most in the galleries here. I wonder if the Inca had sub-khipus? I am amazed how much I learned just structuring the story of art and the representational artists. This one I am starting from a knowledge base close to zero. How embarrassing!
This is the most adaptable of the portable devices and is much closer to writing than the other devices. But I am not sure how memorable it will be without the TOC-Khipu in hand. I shall find out with time. The khipu helped the Inca rule a huge Empire. Now I understand why.
18. Song board – anatomy, done with songs, dances and lots of big words
I am using a wood burning iron to decorate a memory board with the markings structured according to the various systems of the body and the associated anatomy. I feel that dances, pointing to the location of body parts or the movement of body fluids, will aid greatly. The song board is structured according to the songs, not to the information. It will also have indications of the rhythms and verses of the songs, as I understand is the case on the Native American song boards. A lot of work to do. Lovely research and lovely composing songs. This one is in its infancy. All dances are currently performed with no audience. Ever.
I am modelling this on the Winnebago song board I examined at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University.
19. Memory board – spider families
I am a recovered arachnophobe who is now obsessed by spiders. I even wrote a book about them: Spiders: learning to love them. I only know a few of the families – numbering over 100 depending on the latest classifications. I want to know more. The destining feature is the eye patterns. I love the scientific names of the families. This will take time. It also links to my other blog: The Spiderblogger.
20. Decorated vessel – Victorian Habitats
Plants are a major knowledge genre in all cultures, so I can’t leave them out. I am encoding the native trees of my state, Victoria, and using them as the basis of studying habitats. I’ve started with the common trees which define each habitat: the eucalypts (gums, boxes, peppermints, ashes and mallees), tea-trees, paperbarks, wattles, banksias, she-oaks and cypress-pines. Then the bushes, and link to the birds and other animals – it all becomes integrated yet again.
I am using an imitation of my real Aboriginal coolamon, marked with a wood burning iron made for me by Tom Chippindall. The real one is too precious and I would feel uncomfortable using the actual design for my own experiment. This is the real coolamon:
21. Medicine bag
West African Mende healing specialists carry a bag of stones, each representing a particular illness, and which are manipulated as the elder asks the patient questions to lead to the diagnosis and treatment. I have experimented with a medicine bag and add to it an object representing each disease as I learn about it, a stone for kidney stones, a tiny doll for issues of pregnancy and conception. I am grouping the objects according to symptoms which is enabling me to see links between different genres of illness. I have found it a highly effective method, but still have a long way to go.
18. Genealogy staves – European Royal family genealogy
Genealogy staves are used in the Pacific widely, and in Africa for linear descent lines. Australian Aboriginal cultures do genealogies quite differently. It all gets very complex very fast and I really don’t understand how our Aboriginal cultures manage to memorise all the relationships so well without charts. I am playing around with this one but not got far at all. Yet.
I have chosen to do the European Royal families initially (with no idea quite how to do all the relationships between them. I have chosen this experiment rather than my own family because doing my own family offers nothing to readers of this blog or my other writings, because they can’t relate to it. Secondly, my own family history is rather short on generations and information due to the treatment of European Jews during WWII. To be honest, I really don’t want to go there.
Using European royal families also leads to lots of cross links with the Country Journey and History Journey, and so mimics indigenous systems.
23. Genealogy staves – Chinese Dynasties
I will very soon add in Chinese dynasties, Japanese rulers – the whole world. If only I had a few lifetimes left!
24. Hand astronomy
I am convinced that palm reading arose in the dim distant non-literate past from the more pragmatic use of palms as mobile mnemonic devices. It will take a lot more research to argue my case, though. Meanwhile, I am encoding the science and history of astronomy to my palms and the back of my hands (which I didn’t know very well at all). It is going well and works rather nicely with my skyscapes, history journey, countries and ancestor decks. It really isn’t confusing. I promise you. And the mnemonic device is always readily available.
25. PPOs – Poverty Point Objects – Greek and Roman gods
I aim to encode the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods to six distinct objects along the lines of my interpretation of the use of Poverty Point Objects in the Louisiana mound building site I cover in the books. All cultures have supernatural beings of some kind, so I’ve chosen the Greek and Roman version to memorise. I imagine the objects being arranged in different combinations, such as is known to have been done by the Yoruba with the 16 cowries or pine nuts, as in the experiment below. Seeds were used in various combinations as a mnemonic device by the Inca timekeepers as well, so it is the use of objects in combinations which is the basis of this experiment. With six PPOs, I can create fifty simple combinations for the various gods and their relationships. I can add various arrangements if I need more. This is one I shall play with to get a better understanding of using arrangements of objects to encode the stories of supernatural beings.
26. Sixteen cowrie shells –domesticates
This is another experiment with arrangements of small objects. It will imitate the 16 cowries mnemonic method of the African Yoruba. The mythological being brought into play depends on the number of cowries facing up in a toss of the cowries. One genre of information retained by the farming cultures is the management of domesticates, so I shall do the same. I’ll cover my domesticates – the plants in the garden, decorative and vegetable. The Yoruba method involves 16 mythological beings in hierarchical order – the mythological beings in my case representing each of the 16 plant groups from the garden. The second toss enables each of those ‘beings’ to be matched with 16 further options giving 256 combinations. [plus the option of all face down – it gets complicated]. I have given 16 attributes to each category I wish to memorise. These will include the history of the species, planting time, flowering / harvesting time, propagation, cultivation needs, pests, diseases and all the varieties.
27. Scottish carved stone balls (in wood) – song cycles
Tom Chippindall is creating copies of Scottish carved stone balls to explore exactly how effective these are as memory devices. I have many songs from different experiments above. I am taking the six most important to encode to a six knob ball ( the most common) as my first level of initiation. I am then using balls with more knobs for my higher levels and further songs. This experiment is working wonderfully well.
28. Medieval bestiary – names of people
The incredible medieval illuminated manuscripts, and much of the art work, were designed to be memorised, not just read. All sorts of devices were used to create memory spaces, including alphabets, page layouts and books about animals – the bestiaries. Copying the techniques from the Middle Ages, I am making a bestiary designed to help me remember names of people I meet – something I am notoriously bad at doing. An interesting experiment, but also one which is enabling me to try and be artistic. I’m loving it but this one I will take very slowly. I have joined the Calligraphy Society of Victoria and am taking art classes. Pictures will appear here when I finally produce something I am pleased with. No breath holding, please.
29. Medieval-style manuscript
In a wildly optimistic imaginative moment, I decided that I would create a medieval-looking manuscript and then adorn it with the glosses and drolleries, illuminations and fancy capitals in the form of those used in the Middle Ages to make the text memorable. I am going to write a history of physics. In my more rational moments, I wonder what on earth was I thinking. Calligraphy and imitating medieval art – how hard could it be? Oh dear.
I am using the narrative style of the church windows of church windows, such as that of the Fairford St Mary’s Church (pictured above left), the one complete medieval example in England. I will be using ideas from medieval writers such as Thomas Bradwardine who talked about grids and other layouts used for mnemonic purposes. I will also use the mnemonic layout of characters such as in The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, a fresco by Andrea da Firenze, c. 1365, in the Spanish Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence (pictured above right). Lots of research to do.
But mostly I want to add drolleries, the little humorous sketches medieval scholars added to the text to make it more memorable.
I am not going to attempt to replicate the exquisite art but create my own interpretation of the style. This may be my greatest disaster, but I’ll have fun!
The physics bit will be the easy part! I taught physics for many years, but did little of the history except from notes. I can recall the formulae and logic, but really struggle with the names, dates and historical contexts. I am longing to do this one – but I have just started with some rough sketches and lots of plans.
30. A visual alphabet
Again from medieval books, I am creating my own visual alphabet to use as a memory device to store sequences of data. This is still in the early days. I am enjoying designing my alphabet. I need to research more about how they were used in the Middle Ages.
See the post: Playing with a visual alphabet
31. String games – Aesop’s fables
Many cultures across the Pacific, and the Inuit, use string games to tell stories. I want to use them to tell Aesop’s fables. I am just starting this one. A long way to go but wonderful fun.
32. Klecks Decks
Alice Steel, a committee member at The Orality Centre, is creating card decks to be used as memory devices. I am using each card for a small set of data I wish to memorise. They are simply gorgeous. The first I am using to memorise the 9 Art Elements and 11 Art Principles from the Victorian VCE Studio Arts course.
33. Ephemeral memory spaces
I have gained a greater understanding of why indigenous people make ‘art’ works only to discard them after the ritual. The actual production is a very effective way of encoding the information in memory. I am drawing many of the items above to help memorise. And then I throw away my drawings. I use ephemeral methods for many of the topics above.
I am also using the first 20 or 30 locations of the memory palace in my house and garden – the one I use for countries, 20th century history and the elements of the periodic table – for speeches. Whenever I need to give a talk, I mimic the ancient Greek and Roman orators and put portions of the speech into the memory palace. It has worked superbly. I never use notes now.
I am now training for the Australian Memory Championships to explore the difference in the way the same memory systems work for a very different purpose. I have established 5 new memory journeys, each of 50 locations to use as temporary memory palaces. I am delighted to be under the guidance of eight-times World Memory Champion, Dominic O’Brien, for this new adventure. As I do not tend to handle pressure or speed well, I do not have hopes of taking out the championship, although I would love to set new Australian records for my division – Senior Female. As there have never been entrants in this division before, and I hope there may not be this year, I have high hopes of succeeding.
Each of these experiments can never be completed – there is an infinite amount of knowledge which could be encoded into them. The memory spaces just get richer and richer. Once the database structure – the set of initial locations – is in place, data can be added with ease. I just add to the stories and bizarre images in my head and more information is stored. I have well over a thousand locations in place in the landscape and many more on the portable devices.
Until I had tried this method, I would never have thought this was possible.