Candlebark School and Memory Systems

I am still bowled over by what a skilled teacher with really amazing students can do with the ideas in Memory Craft. The Year 3/4 teacher at Candlebark school, Nat, had heard about my work from her husband, Paul, who had heard an interview about The Memory Code. She invited me to give a workshop at the school – I had no idea how overwhelming it would be. Photos by Nat and Damian Kelly – all with permission of the parents and school.

Nat had already introduced the students to aspects of my work and they really understood how association and memory works. After talking briefly about Indigenous cultures and memory systems, with particular emphasis on Australian First Nations cultures, we made memory boards – each student creating a memory device for a topic they had chosen to investigate in detail. We modelled these on the African lukasa of the Luba people. I recycle beads from the MAAW (Mount Alexander Animal Welfare) Op Shop (Charity Shop) taking all the broken jewellery that they would normally have to discard. Students pin these to boards to represent their chosen topic.

The care students took chasing the right bead for each item in their sequence of information was wonderful to watch. That time is invaluable – it fixes the association between the bead and the knowledge. One white bead with red in the middle represented a heart while a black and white one was a panda. The panda-encoding students was particularly pleased with his choice from a variety of black and white options. The heart-shaped bead was perfect, he explained, because he loves pandas.

A week later, I did the same workshop with first year Cultural Astronomy students at the University of Melbourne under the guidance of Associate Professor Duane Hamacher. There was the same enthusiasm, the same careful selection of beads, the same ability to explain why a particular bead was chosen. The only difference was the complexity of the data encoded – the university students encoded 88 constellations and the meanings of the names. Back to Candlebark…

Having pinned the beads to the boards, often rearranging them a few times, students then used glue guns to fix them permanently.

Damian appeared at the end of the session and was soon surrounded by enthusiastic kids wanting to explain their lukasas (technically, the plural is nkasa) to him.

But the excitement of the lukasa workshop was just the start! Katy, a maths specialist teacher, had taken my Rapscali Tables concept and run wild with it. Students had pre-tested on tables and then illustrated the ones they didn’t know – making them instantly memorable.

7 x 3 = 21. Heaven x tree = plenty sun. The student’s personal character, her rapscallion, is now in a story she has created which starts with the rapscallion in heaven, then with a tree and ending with plenty of sun. Here I am being told the story.

4 x 8 = 32. The story has to take the rapscallion from the door to a gate and end up with a dirty shoe. For some students, it is the story they really embellish.

And some students are incredibly artistic and embellish with art. I was astounded by these examples.

But I was unprepared for the most amazing part of all. I had seen students making lukasa before. I had seen Rapscali tables at work. But I had never experienced students performing a songline through the bush and ending up at a woodhenge.

A few weeks later, the students led a group of parents, siblings, Principal John Marsden, and others up to the bush above the classrooms. They started by telling us – through performance – about how incredibly long Aboriginal people had been in Australia and how we were following their knowledge system based on sacred locations along a sung knowledge trail. We stopped along the trail to hear about 12 different civilisations in chronological order – ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, Romans and Greeks (arguing who pinched what and who was the greatest) – to the present day. There was terrific creativity and humour in the performances, but the basis was solid knowledge – and these students now have grounded this sequence in hooks on which to hang so much more learning.

Arriving at the henge, painstakingly built by Nat, Paul and year 3/4 parents, students took to the 12 posts representing the civilisations.

This was surprising. I had always assumed – without realising the assumption – that the ancient knowledge keepers would have progressed around the henge posts or stones much as I do around a memory palace. It hadn’t occurred to me that there may be experts on each topic, ‘owning’ each post or stone and the knowledge it represented. Is there any way the archaeology could ever tell us if this is the case?

Various performances told us more about the civilisations and what we have learnt from them to inform contemporary life. And they performed their multiplication tables, also linked to their woodhenge! Finally, we were reminded that Australia’s First Nations people had been there long before all of the other cultures and are still here as dynamic cultures today.

After the students had left, I stayed in their woodhenge for a while totally overwhelmed by what had happened. Never have I been more convinced that this is the way Stonehenge and the British Woodhenge and all the other Neolithic monuments would have been used. Never have I been more convinced of the value of Indigenous memory systems for education. And never have I been more convinced that there is an incredible younger generation just longing to learn.

Other classes at the school will use the Woodhenge and the trail through the bush for different topics in the future.

Thank you so much Nat, for being such an incredible teacher and John Marsden, for creating a school like Candlebark which allows students to learn with so much creativity.

Songlines: the power and promise

The last 5 months have been flat-chat working on a new book at the invitation of Margo Neale who is the Head of Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director, all at the National Museum of Australia. It is a huge honour to have my work on Indigenous knowledge systems recognised by someone I admire so highly.

Songlines: the power and promise -cover.

Ours is to be the lead book in the First Knowledges series, published by Thames & Hudson, with the National Museum of Australia (NMA). It will be published in October 2020.

Thames & Hudson’s page on it: https://thamesandhudson.com.au/product/songlines-the-power-and-promise/

Margo curated the hugely successful Songline: tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the NMA in 2017 / 18. It is now touring, first to Perth and then internationally. There is a stunning catalogue for that exhibition. (click to go to NMA page)

Our book will add a different perspective, explaining the power of songlines for Aboriginal people and the promise for non-indigenous readers – a lot of memory things! The book offers insight into the same topic – songlines – from two very different perspectives that interweave beautifully.

Songlines: the power and promise has a blend of Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices. It offers what Margo calls ‘the third archive’. Aboriginal people use songlines to store their knowledge, while Western cultures use writing and technology. Aboriginal people now use a third archive – a combination of the two, as so beautifully demonstrated at the Seven Sisters exhibition.

Margo and I believe that the third archive offers a promise of a better way for everyone to store, maintain and share knowledge while gaining a much deeper relationship with it.

I shall be writing much more about this book as we approach publication in November. I just couldn’t wait to talk about it now because I am so delighted to have such prestigious validation of all the ideas drawn from indigenous knowledge systems in The Memory Code and Memory Craft and the implications for archaeology in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.

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?

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.

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!

The Memory Code – In Chinese

I am delighted to announce that The Memory Code is now available in Chinese. I have only started learning the language, so I can’t read what this says, but I am really chuffed to see this Good Publishing Co edition.

It is available from (among others):

http://goods.ruten.com.tw/item/show?21823146912830

https://www.cite.com.my/product_info.php?products_id=731216

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Jim Rountree really understands my ideas

There have been lots of articles about The Memory Code. Lots of interviews and lots of talks. I was reflecting back on the past eighteen months as I head into the final stages of preparing the manuscript for the next book. There is one article which I keep returning to because it is from a magazine I hugely respect and a writer who got it so right, and wrote about it so well. Jim Rountree writes for Australia’s leading science magazine, Cosmos. Click on the images and you will get the full article. I have copied the start of the article below. It was originally published just over a year ago.

It is a real buzz as an author to have someone understand your ideas so well.The Memory Code

“Most of us know a place where sculpted rocks, majestic trees or perhaps the light give us a feeling the place is special. We sense something mysterious and wonderful – beyond the normality of everyday life.

Now, imagine you are young and visiting such a place. It is in the land of your people, a clan of hunter-gatherers. Your parents tell you the story of the place. You can see the marks left as mythical ancestors fought and played, acting out momentous, tragic events.

You will never forget this story, and you will never forget the place. They are locked together in your mind.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The ancestors roamed clan territory, leaving traces at every point. It’s easy to remember their bizarre, dramatic acts, which become inseparable from the marks they left behind on the landscape. Story and land merge in a mental map that means you always know where you are and what lies in every direction.

Now you are older and ready to be initiated. Back at the special place you learn there is more to the story. The ancestor turned into a millipede leaving those marks – one for each verse of a song you must now learn; many generations old, it holds vital information you can’t afford to get wrong.

Time passes – you are an elder. You know a thousand songs, chants, stories and dances. They tell about the animals – their life cycles, how they feed and breed, how to hunt them and the rules for dividing the kill. You know which plants you can eat and how to prepare them. The songs tell you the clues, on land and in the night sky, of the passing seasons, so you know when to move as game becomes abundant or plants fruit. The songs tell you the laws of your people and the gods and spirits you must appease. They contain your people’s history and relations with neighbouring groups.

As an elder you have authority, with others, to create new stories for events worthy of memory.

With so much to remember you have songs to list and a ceremonial cycle mapped to each of the locations you visit, so you can be certain that every story is regularly rehearsed.

Spread through your mind and the minds of others in your group is the total knowledge of your people. It is a repository of incredible detail, containing information of practical importance as well as the beliefs that define your understanding of the universe and your place within it. Without a written language, you must keep it ever alive and pass it on completely and accurately. So of course, you use the method by which it came to you, in interwoven branches of story and song that emanate from the landscape myths you learnt as a child. The whole of your country serves as a gigantic mnemonic device for this knowledge.

The trick of using stories tied to features in a location as a memory aid is no secret. Modern speed-memory competitors use the technique, linking each card in a deck to locations within a familiar place pictured in the mind’s eye – a so-called memory palace, a mnemonic device first used in ancient Greece and Rome.

Ethnologists have known for some time how preliterate societies told stories linked to their environments. We can see the method in oral cultures of Native Americans, Africans, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines.

Once all peoples must have used systems of this kind. In the Western tradition, for example, the Iliad was recited from memory.

In her latest book, The Memory Code, Australian science writer and La Trobe University oral history researcher Lynne Kelly stresses the effectiveness of the method to accurately remember and transmit vast amounts of knowledge. This sets the ground for her main thesis: that numerous prehistoric sites around the world had a primary function as memory aids, serving as knowledge centres for peoples transitioning from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural lifestyles. Her list includes henges, cairns and standing stones in Western Europe, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Neolithic temple complexes in Malta, Pueblo “great houses” in the southwestern United States and the giant, geometric animals cut into the Nazca Plain in Peru.

The basic idea is simple.” And the rest is on the Cosmos Website.

Thank you Jim Rountree for taking the time to really understand what I am on about. And thank you Cosmos for being the great magazine that you are.

Memory workshops and Mnemonic Arts classes

There is a one day workshop on Saturday April 7th. There are also mnemonic arts classes for school students. All takes places at the new Orality Centre offices. For more information, click on the images and you will head off to The Orality Centre website. Director Paul Allen and fellow staff member Alice Steel will be the tutors.

 

 

 

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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!

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