Visual Alphabets galore

Of all my memory devices, the Visual Alphabet is probably the one I use most after the The Bestiary.

Basically, it is a peg system – information is pegged onto each item in the sequence. The most familiar peg system is 1-sun, 2-shoe, 3-tree and so on. But 7 gives you heaven and so 11 gives you a problem. Nothing else rhymes!

In Medieval times, they also used visual alphabets. These were alphabets created using images of objects to link to ideas. One of the most beautiful is that of Giovannino de Grassi created in 1390.

I combined a number of Medieval techniques to create my Visual Alphabet, in particular making each image link to the next visually so I didn’t need to go back to the letter and alphabet each time. When I was at the Rat I knew that the Skull came next. If I can’t remember what is next, I can always think “R is rat and then comes S which is skull”. But I never have to do that, I know it so well. Here is one page of the six which are in Memory Craft.

I would have much rather have done the 26 characters as a sequence, rather than split them onto six pages, but that wouldn’t work for printing the book. In the above image, Quetzalcoatl is entwined with the teal of the panther for the previous page.

I have had a lot of emails from people who use either my Visual Alphabet or one of their own and find them incredibly effective. I was delighted to receive an email with images from Ann Bidstrup who runs Heart Art in Park Orchards. In last term’s Art for Well Being workshops the women created concertina books for their personal Visual Alphabets , here are twelve of them. They look wonderful.

I love them! I hear that they work really well.

Interestingly, these artists don’t include the letters, just the characters. I am going to try that. I originally designed my Visual Alphabet as a continuous image like these before I had to convert it to suit inclusion in Memory Craft. But I always included the letter. I now think that this may be better. I am going to do mine again as a concertina book like these.

I use my Visual Alphabet for all public speaking, for temporary bird lists when out birding [no need to carry a pen and paper – we record them when we get home]. I use it for to-do lists, shopping lists … anything temporary.

One of the sessions at my full day workshop for Independent Schools Victoria next year will include creating a Visual Alphabet and Bestiary. Along with memory palaces and memory boards and a lot more. Their workshops are open to anyone, not just teachers from independent schools.

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.

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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Playing with a visual alphabet

vis-alpha-a-b-c-d
I am struggling to know which of the (currently) 36 memory experiments to work on at any given time. At the moment, I am playing around with designing a visual alphabet along the lines of those used in the Renaissance. I’m not going to attempt anything like the Renaissance masterpiece in the top image!

Below are some versions from  the German Dominican Johann Host von Romberch who wrote about memory methods (among other things) around 1530.

rhomberg-grammatica
Here’s one of my first rough sketch for M:

m-marmoset-mine
I will be doing mine as a continuous strip in a ‘concertina’ booklet that folds out. I want the characters / animals in my visual alphabet to interact with the next or previous animal to give an easier link for memory (which the marmoset doesn’t at the moment).  I hope it will get to the stage I don’t need the letters, just the sequence of images. I want to use this as a memory aid for temporary lists, talks and so on.

I am using any animals or mythological characters I can come up with and playing with the way it will look with the illuminated letters. I am not totally happy with my list of animals / characters. I want more dynamic interaction between the character and the next in line. My artistic skills are limited but I shall just have to work at it!

A: Arachne
B: Bird of Paradise
C: Cat
D: Dragon
E: Emu (not really suitable)
F: Frog
G: Griffin (that’ll test my art!)
H: Hydra (lots of curvy snakes – that’s staying!)
I: Imp
J: Jester
K: Kingfisher (mmmm? maybe too sedate?)
L: Lion
M: Marmoset (I have that one working, so cute!)
N: Neptune
O: Owl (of course!)
P: Phoenix
Q: Quetzalcoatl (too obscure? Too like Phoenix?)
R: Raven
S: Spider (MUST be a spider, given my addiction)
T: Toucan
U: Unicorn
V: Vulture
W: Wyvern (or is that obscure?)
X: Xanthorrhea (plant, dull – HELP!!!)
Y: Yorkshire terrier (HELP, that was nearly as desperate as X)
Z: Zeus

Some of these have a mythological feel while others don’t. Does that matter? ANY suggestions and ideas very welcome.
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UPDATE – 12 December 2016:

Thank you for all the comments, messages and emails. I am updating some of the choices above:
E is staying as the emu because it has stuck so hard when I use the list.
G is now a Ghost, a woman in a long white dress (as is mandatory for ghostly women)
K is a Kiwi. I use the visual alphabet for memorising bird lists when we are out birding. So much easier than taking a notebook out constantly. It is very confusing when we see a kingfisher and it isn’t in the K-place. My drawings of kangaroos or koalas would simply make you all laugh – they are really hard to draw.
W – the argument below for a wombat is too convincing to ignore. Wombat it is.
X is Xerxes of Persia with his long curly beard. Not well known but far better than a Xanthorrhea plant which no-one has heard of anyway.
Y is now a yak. Of course. How silly of me (as was pointed out by a number of correspondents).

I start art classes this week to work on the visual alphabet, and the other memory experiments which need art, such as the medieval manuscript (I love being ludicrously ambitious) and the bestiary. My new teacher did advertise that he will help with individual projects. I suspect he didn’t mean medieval memory experiments.

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