A new book – Memory Craft

Great excitement! I have just signed a contract with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, to do a new book. The working title (may not end up being the real title) is Unlocking the Memory Code. Publication date is probably early 2019. There is a lot of work to do first! Edit: it became Memory Craft.

This book is all about using the most effective memory methods from across cultures and throughout time. It is all about how we can use these methods to enhance our lives every day.

One of my great pleasures is encoding layer upon layer in my new lukasa, designed to record the history or writing. Ironic, isn’t it? This beautiful object was made for me by Tom Chippindall.

The vast majority of the emails and messages I receive are about the indigenous memory methods and how we might apply them in contemporary life. The extraordinary memory skills of our ancestors have been gradually lost with the invent of writing and even more so with the prevalence of information technology. Many readers are concerned about this and want to redress the trend by using their memories much more effectively.

I am simply astounded every day by what I can memorise and the way I can then build on the knowledge which is so firmly grounded in the memory devices. I am able to see patterns and the big picture in ways which are just not possible without this basic knowledge at my fingertips. It is also wonderful fun!

Throughout the book I will look at the changes in memory techniques over the millennia and discuss the possible impact on education and on memory loss with ageing. Recent research in neuroscience explains exactly why the memory methods of indigenous culture are so effective. I will report on the science and celebrate indigenous intellect. I will also emphasis how much everything is to remember when it is brought to like through stories and vivid characters.

As indigenous and early literate cultures were masters of memory, so it is from them that we can learn the most. I am adding to the lessons from oral cultures discussed in The Memory Code to include medieval memory systems, ideas from the Renaissance and from ancient Chinese and Japanese handscrolls. I will also look at mnemonic tricks from contemporary times.

The topics to be covered in Unlocking will include the most successful examples from My 40 Memory Experiments which have now been adjusted to reflect the questions I am most often asked.

I am learning a foreign language (French) despite having failed dismally to do so at school.  I am using a range of methods to memorise vocabulary and grammar and going really well. And even taking on Chinese (Mandarin).

I have devised a system for memorising names and faces by adapting the concept of a medieval bestiary.

I memorise temporary lists when we are out birding, going shopping or given verbally using a visual alphabet, adapted from those used during the Renaissance.

I am continuing to memorise more details about all the countries in the world and constantly adding to my walks through pre-history and history. I use the field guide to the 412 Victorian birds from memory constantly as husband Damian and I go birding often.

I am attending art classes every week to create the most beautiful contemporary adaptions I can manage of the bestiary, visual alphabet and Chinese hand scrolls. I am becoming addicted to everything about art, especially watercolour. I am using a version of the Inca knotted string khipu (quipu) to record the history of art. As many researchers suggest, the khipu is really nearer to writing than a pure mnemonic device.

I am also creating a personal ‘winter count’ based on the stunning mnemonic skins of the Plains Indians of North America. The one pictured below if the famous Lone Dog’s winter count. I am astonished how little of my life I could remember chronologically until I started this project. How much will this object help me hold onto my identity into very old age?

And every day I train for the Australian Memory Championships. Being old (I’m 65) does not mean a fading memory. I can now memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 12 minutes – way down from the 35 minutes just a month ago. I can memorise long strings of random numbers in decimal and binary and many other useless but surprisingly enjoyable feats.

Life is very good and I have all the readers of The Memory Code to thank!












Writing – the complication of definitions


What is writing?

Specifically, when does what I call a mnemonic object really constitute a written device?

It all depends on definitions.

Let’s start with the most controversial question it the area – is the Inca khipu a written or mnemonic device?

quipu khipu
Khipu as displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Lynn Dombrowski, under Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike.)

This knotted cord device is the most adaptable portable memory device that I have found so far. In combination with their landscape pathways known as ceques, the khipu was the reason the Inca could maintain a vast empire in South America without writing. That is, if you define, as I do, the khipu as a mnemonic device.

But it isn’t simple. I have also found it less memorable in my experimentation than the landscape locations forming songlines or the portable devices such as the African lukasa. Was it ever intended to be fully memorized? Was it much closer to a written script? 

In The Memory Code, I use the narrowest definition of writing, that of a script which represents the sounds to a degree that an independent reader of the same culture will reproduce the exact words inscribed by the writer. Hence, there needs to be an alphabetic script, or at least one in which syllables can be represented, for me to call the symbols on a physical media ‘writing’.

urton-khipu-bookGary Urton, in his fascinating book, Signs of the Inka Khipu, defined writing as:

the communication of specific ideas in a highly conventionalized, standardized manner by means of permanent, visible signs.

However, he goes on to define ‘true writing’, a term he acknowledges as inflammatory and ethnocentric and wants dropped. Urton wrote:

I would also like to subscribe to the qualification that the forms of writing that accomplish the most highly specific level of denotation of ideas are those in which the signs of writing denote the sounds of the language community in question.

Urton, among many others, would prefer the terms glottographic (sound based) and semasiographic (non sound based) with further qualifications.

Using Urton’s definitions, I am happy to consider the two khipus I am using in my experiments as written devices although I may find that I start to  memorise them much as I do the other devices. That isn’t the case yet, but all these experiments take years. More on that in a future blog.

But what about those who consider all indigenous inscriptions to be writing?

Again, I hand over to Gary Urton, who talks about the description of wider definitions which include dance and music, images on textiles and ceramics as writing thus:

However, I think such signing devices are best classified as icons bearing conventional but highly abstract, context-specific meanings. Referring to such productions as writing, while perhaps satisfying what I would argue are essentially politically motivated programs or agendas promoting inclusiveness and multiculturism (to which I am sympathetic), renders the concept of writing virtually meaningless and (more to the point) useless for analytical purposes.

I think we can only conclude that there is a continuum from devices which are clearly mnemonic to those, like this blog post, which are clearly writing and that a very specific division between writing and mnemonics isn’t possible. The people who created the symbolic forms were more interested in storing and communicating information than they were in my future struggles with definitions.

History is usually defined as the study of the past where there are written records. Before written records, it is prehistory. Consequently, the division between history and prehistory is similarly blurred. Such is the reality of studying the human past.

I am going to give Urton the final word here. He wrote that

the point on which differentiation between different types of signing/ recording systems would turn … is that of need, rather than intelligence. (His emphasis).

Quotes are taken from Gary Urton, Signs of the Inka Khipu, (2003), University of Texas Press, pp 26-8.

See also:

My 25 Memory Experiments