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.
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.
The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. I want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales to our location in rural Victoria.
The staff (L to R): Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steel, Damian Kelly
Lynne Kelly gives the opening address.
Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the 20 largest countries in the world to different abstract art works.
They managed to link the creation at left to Thailand.
The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.
At the end of the workshop they could still name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.
Alice ran workshops on Winter Counts and Memory boards.
The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.
Lisa Minchin (below right) encoded the local wattle species to her memory board.
Rumour has it that her very patient partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.
The Orality Centre will run the first workshops using indigenous memory methods on Saturday 17 June 2017. All details are on The Orality Centre site including the link for bookings. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Click HERE or on the image to go to The Orality Centre.
Would we reduce the impact of failing memory, and maybe even of dementia, by formally keeping people in contact with their personal memory devices – song, dance, story, art and landscape?
The many questions I receive about my research on memory tend to fall into three categories:
* How can I memorise better?
* What are the implications for education?
* And is there anything we can do about loss of memory with ageing?
The research focus for us at The Orality Centre will initially concentrate on these three questions.
Reader John Seed wrote a fascinating comment on the post titled Starting a contemporary songline. I have answered some of the post there, but wanted to reply to part of it as a post of its own. John wrote:
I’m fascinated by your book and the possibility that it might help my own fading memory. Do you find that your overall memory has improved alongside your ability to remember those particular things – countries, plants, for which you’ve built a songline/palace? My memory has been atrocious for years but this doesn’t prevent me from memorising long poems and the like. …
Speaking of workshops, are your workshops about building memory palaces? If so, I’d dearly like to attend one.
I am in my mid 60s. My overall memory has improved massively since I have been using the memory methods – not just the things I am consciously memorising. I am not sure of the reason, though. I suspect it is a combination of factors. I am more confident about my memory but I also set up hooks constantly and make links. I look for them now. Anything I want to remember, I make a funny or wild or quirky link. The more I have been doing this, the more a habit it has become.
As for the workshops, the answer is ‘yes’. I am involved in developing a whole range of workshops through The Orality Centre (TOC) to be starting very soon. Of course the main one will be about memory palaces, but we will also soon be running a workshop on making Personal Winter Counts. The idea is to create a memory device, tried and tested by Native American cultures, which will offer hooks for every year of your life. By maintaining the stories and links throughout life, the hope and belief is that this will provide a permanent memory device to help keep memories alive in old age. There are more details about Winter Counts and the planned workshop below.
What would happen if we embed our stories in memory palaces around our homes, and link them to music and dance and mnemonic objects, right through life? These are the memory systems used by our ancestors for thousands of years. If we use them deliberately throughout life, might this delay the onset of dementia? Or at least reduce the impact? Might living in our memory palaces keep those memories alive?
I have asked members of various indigenous cultures and the reply seems to indicate that by performing the rituals, the repeating of stories and linking to the memory devices, singing the songs and performing the dances, the impact of dementia is reduced. But these are only anecdotes asked in casual conversation. Enticing though it is, that is not evidence. We will be exploring recent research, making contact with experts in the field while following the experiences of those who participate in the workshops.
There have been quite a few reports recently which indicate that the brain retains its links to music and place when other intellectual capacities are failing. This is a few of them.
What if the songs they connected to were more than tunes and tales of love? What if they were songs recording critical information? What of that connection was also reflected in physical memory palaces? Would that make the ‘reconnection with life’ that the Music and Memory people talk about even more effective?
Personal Winter Counts
The Plains Indians of North America use memory devices referred to as Winter Counts. Named because the start of the year is taken from the first snow fall of the year, the animal hides or other fabrics are adorned with a new image each year representing the most signficant event of the year. Other events from that year are then linked to the key event and the stories recalled regularly to ensure the history is not forgotten.
Lone Dog’s Winter Count
Lone Dog recorded his calendar on buffalo hide for the Dakota Nation, each pictograph signifying an outstanding event from 1800 through 1871.
The Wajaje Winter Count provides the early history of the southern Teton Lakota tribes. Beginning with the center glyph, it documents the years 1758- 1759 through 1885-1886.
I have used a TOC-WinterCount to record the years from 1900 until 2013 (I must update it!) with one major event for each year.
TOC- is the prefix we are using at The Orality Centre to indicate that we are using the mnemonic technology of indigenous cultures but in no way claiming that our versions are the same as the sacred items of indigenous people.
At the TOC-WinterCount workshops, TOC staff intend to talk about the memory methods of the Plains Indians and make personal TOC-WinterCounts with attendees, each symbol representing a year of our lives. An image of the key event will be there for each year on a piece of canvas which is easily rolled and stored. The stories linked to that event, to that year, should be retold and recalled regularly over life just as the Lakota and Dakota did for their community.
Please contact me if this workshop appeals. Although we will run it initially in Victoria, Australia, we may well work virtually across the country and even around the world.
There were many highlights during the month of travel in the US and UK for the publications of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books additions of The Memory Code respectively. I expected seeing the two lukasas (more correctly, the plural is nkasa) at the Brooklyn Museum to be one of them. My day there exceeded all expectations.
There are none of the West African Luba memory device known as lukasa in Australia to the best of my knowledge. Despite having read everything I could on them and replicated the technology to act as my own field guide to the birds of Victoria, I had never seen the real thing. I have now!
Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Islamic World, Meghan Bill, took me to the storage area where she had the lukasas ready for me. It was sensational to see and hold the real thing.
Research shows that both the front and backs of the lukasa were used as memory spaces. The pattern on the back proved to be very naturally moved through in order when Meghan and I tried stroking it. That pattern is also found on British Neolithic Grooved Ware and Australian Aboriginal shields. It is a pattern which works for humans; they did not share this knowledge between vastly seperate societies. It simply worked so they used it.
The use of lukasa as memory boards has been a fundamental part of my understanding of portable memory devices. This was an incredibly important moment for me.
You will notice other items in the photo below with Meghan. She had Yoruba divination trays for me to examine (which are also memory devices) and then took me to the Museum’s amazing collection of Pueblo kachina. And the amazing Paracas Tapestry is there as well! That was a discovery to make my heart sing. And there was Nasca pottery and … more posts to come.
Reader Jonno Roche wrote such interesting emails that I asked permission to quote our conversation here. This is an edited version of the conversation, but left long because I found what Jonno had to say absolutely fascinating:
“I found the idea of the different scales of memory spaces from handheld objects to landscapes just fascinating. … Anyway, I was inspired. My real question was where to start. I enjoy bird watching in a relaxed kind of way. I find it adds a real sense of depth and vitality to any landscape to notice who lives there, so a list of birds seemed a good place to start.
For a variety of reasons, my best option was a mobile memory tool, and eventually, I decided on a set of tarot cards. Firstly I already own a copy, but more importantly, they give me 78 nicely ordered points broken into convenient sections, they are dense in imagery, highly mobile, and easily replaceable. The only real downside is that I get slightly embarrassed pulling them out in public, because I don’t want anyone thinking I am angsting fruitlessly about my future, when really I am just daydreaming about birds. Still, it’s a small price to pay.” I was intrigued to hear how Jonno was using a set of tarot cards for the birds as I use tarot cards for other memory purposes and the African memory board, the lukasa, for the birds as described in the post Memorising Birds. It is absolutely fascinating to see what other people doing with their memory spaces.
I must admit to having the same issue with using the tarot cards in public. I love Jonno’s expression ‘angsting fruitlessly about my future’. He continued:
“So I made a list birds of Tasmania and Australia’s South East coast. Within a week, I had memorised the order and names of 76 different bird families. I needed an etymological dictionary to help me with the names, because otherwise, they were just so many meaningless noises to me. The translations are often so delightful (Bloody feet, Thick headed, Bald faced pointy beak) that they really add to the imagery. I have one family per card, expect a few very large families which spill over two, just because I ended up with a couple of extra cards. I am now filling out the families with individual species. By the time I am finished, I will have over 300 birds listed.
I am surprised at just how vividly and easily I am able to recall a list which until now seemed impossibly complex.”
I was astounded how fast Jonno had managed to commit the family names to memory using the cards. I took a great deal longer. Jonno also talked about doing little stylised sketches of the cards which is reminiscent of the way indigenous people draw as they tell the story and then either destroy the drawing or just throw it away because it is the process of drawing that fixes things in memory. I find the rhythms of drawing, singing the family names, actions I have for particular families and the characters I have given them all interact to make the information memorable.
Jonno continued to astound me. A fortnight later he wrote:
“I can now recite the complete list of 76 families with 322 individual species. … Although I really appreciated how easy it was to simply add a bird to a family list, some of the cards became a bit overcrowded. There are several cards which have the family and just a single representative, but one has the family name and eighteen birds embedded in it. They fit, but it is not very comfortable. I have found that the ideal size for a block of information is a heading and four to five associated points.”
What fascinated me is that Jonno had come to the same conclusion as I have, that four birds is the most that fit comfortably at a location. For any families of five or more species, I add a little landscape journey for that family putting four birds in every house.
The Ancient Greeks also labeled every fifth location to keep track of things, so maybe that is a natural division for the human brain. Jon continued:
Still, I was really using the birds as a way to explore the process, and I have found it fantastically successful. Because I now have an ordered way of thinking about birds in general, my mind tends to naturally rest on them when there is nothing more pressing to think about.
With it being human nature to see what we think about, I suddenly find I am seeing birds everywhere and in far larger numbers than previously. Also, because I have such a rapid way to categorise them, I can identify them much faster and more confidently than before, even if it is just being able to identify to a potential group of two or three and then use a reference to come to a decision later on.”
I love that Jonno wrote that he can now identify faster. I couldn’t identify before because I didn’t know what was possible. This is part of explaining why these methods are not rote learning, but again it is so hard to explain to someone who has not tried it.
Despite having no information in the list on what the birds look like or what their habits are, I find that just being able to name the bird is usually enough to be able to automatically recall this extra information if I know it. I also have a smallish but slowly growing group of birds which I can identify just by their calls, which adds a whole lot to the experience.
So I am greatly enjoying my bird list.”
But Jonno didn’t stop there!
“While I was about half way through my bird list, I needed to impress some people at work. I decided that since the original intent of these techniques was to recall information which your livelihood depended on, I should probably put some work stuff in there.”
Jon described how he had encoded course summaries for his work in clinical governance to the same set of tarot cards.
“I found I had room for three short courses in the deck. One was on efficiency principles (major arcana), another on implementing organisational change (most of the minor arcana), and a third on basic negotiating techniques (The last 11 cards of the minor arcana). … Memorising the work stuff is much harder than the birds. The ideas are very conceptual – ‘Measure sources of resistance’ for example as opposed to, say, ‘Blue faced honeyeater.’”
Critically he wrote: ““There is such a huge gap between birds and workplace efficiency that they can comfortably occupy the same space without getting mixed up.”
Jonno has really got hooked on this memorising and has further ambitions which he described at length – this is the gist:
“Once I get all of this information settled in I would like to memorise a book. … I am aiming to memorise Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’ … I have a few ideas for using a lukasa board type arrangement to map out star patterns and attaching a calendar and practical gardening information to them.”
A fortnight later, Jonno wrote again describing why memorising is not something that requires additional time:
“It is very neat how this information meshes into everyday things. It really does slot into the idle minutes of the day. Outside of little snippets that I use, I run through the deck from start to finish each day for both the birds and the course list, but this tends to happen when I am walking from place to place, or waiting for the kids to go to sleep, or am otherwise not really doing anything. Unless I am actively pressing to learn something in a hurry, it doesn’t displace anything from my day.”
“… The two lists I have on my deck do not interact very much at all. I might be trying to recall cultural alignment in the workplace when a butcherbird leaps to mind, but they don’t really ‘move together.’ I guess this is because the two subjects just have no commonality at all, but I would suspect that as more information goes onto the cards, the stories will start to roll into each other more. I hope so. I think it would have a real ‘adventures of a cultural hero’ feel to it.”
And then a few days later, Jonno wrote again:
“I didn’t mean to write to you again so soon, but I stumbled on to a great success, and you are the logical person to share it with.
I had to do a 20 minute presentation at work to the senior managers justifying what I have spent the last year doing, so that I could then get them to agree to adopt my ideas, extend my project, and give us more funding. It was a very information dense 20 minutes with a lot riding on it. … I really didn’t want to use notes.
I was looking for a method of what I see you have called an ephemeral memory space. I didn’t want to use my tarot deck as I didn’t want short term information confusing it. I found your ideas on palmistry in the 33 experiments section of your blog very intriguing, but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it. Just at the right time, I read a fascinating article you linked to by Tyson Yunkaporta on building characters into the fingers. Based on these two sets of ideas, here is how I laid out a set of characters in my hands. Little finger – Kinship child Ring finger – Story mother Middle finger – Dreaming father Pointer finger – Ancestor teenager (niece/nephew) Thumb – Culture hero Each finger divides into five sections, and these represent different body parts of the character as follows. Nail – Head Finger pad – Hands Middle section – Torso Bottom section – Legs Ball of finger – Feet Although the gender of the mother and father are set, for the other characters, I have males on the right hand, and females on the left. Also to make them more distinctive, I imagine the characters on the right hand to be short and squat, while the characters on the left are tall and thin. This then gives me ten distinct characters to use as major points, and the sub points are represented by what they are doing with various parts of their bodies.
I spent a lot of time over the three days running over the speech and counting it off on my fingers as I went, while the various characters sprouted trees from their hands, developed talking feet and all the other crazy things that happen with this kind of imagery. In one interesting cross over, the character simply walked on to my imagination stage and held up the appropriate tarot card where I had embedded a bunch of stuff from the workplace efficiency course I mentioned in a previous email. …
I made little sketches to help make them more memorable. I also made a point of practicing under conditions of ‘controlled stress,’ like when I was making dinner while my two kids both held individual conversations with me.
Needless to say, the presentation was a raging success, and the only sign of me ‘reading from my notes’ was very subtle hand movements where I was counting information on my fingers.
Although I suppose it is technically possible to use this as a long term memory device, I think I will just keep this exclusively for short term situations like what I have just described. I am happy to have a set cast of characters that can have a crazy bunch of adventures for a week or two, and then rest for a while until the next ‘story’ comes along.
Anyway, once again, thanks for your ideas and I hope you liked the story.”
I loved the story. I loved everything about the long emails and our discussion which has been reduced quite a bit for this post. I have found it very exciting to see how someone else has taken the ideas from The Memory Code and implements them differently, yet the underlying principles are so similar.
I thank Jonno for permission to quote his words and look forward immensely to his next update.
Miroslav Kalous from Prague in the Czech Republic, wrote and asked:
I’d like to thank you for the idea of “large memory spaces” which is really thrilling and I’m on the verge of building my own ones (one related to history till 1900, one for 1900+ years, one for specifically “all things Egypt” as that is a major country-project I’ve begun dealing with now).
However, I would also like to ask you one question before I begin, very practical one: unlike you (from what I understood between the lines), I don’t live at a permanent place; probably in 2 years I am going to move, then live somewhere else for other 3 years, then perhaps settling down for a longer time span at one place. As an experienced mnemonist, do you think it makes sense to start building the spaces where I live now? But what happens when I (or you) move? Re-writing all the loci spots into new palace/memory space is probably not realistic… and I am too much of a newbie to mnemonics to know if you can operate with, i.e. two complementary places. Also, I suppose, when moving somewhere else you lose the (critical?) advantage of going through the space and using them as “flashcards” prompting active recall of the stuff stored in there.
What a great question! I am so embedded in my landscape now that nothing would make me move. But as Miroslav points out, that is not practical assumption, especially for those much younger than me.
The first idea is to use public spaces which are unlikely to change. A quick check on Google images of Prague and – wow – what a stunning city! The bridges across the Vltava River, as in the image above, looked wonderful to use as a set of memory loci.
There are a huge range of other possible solutions. These are often discussed on the Art of Memory Forum under “Method of Loci” – my favourite forum on the Internet
One solution which was talked about in memory treatises written in the Middle Ages was to use an imaginary memory palace. One suggested way back then was to use Noah’s Arc as described in the Bible, but maybe something a little more contemporary is required.
Some people use sets of locations from their favourite films or books. It is a matter of creating the palace and a set of locations from that film or book using your imagination to add in extra locations or details. You would then, I expect, draw that memory palace and label it and keep it forever as your reference. You could even use Tolkein’s Middle Earth.
You could create your own imaginary world much as fantasy writers do. In fact, I have created imaginary worlds before when teaching science fiction and fantasy writing and I have just decided to try this as a memory experiment because I loved doing the maps and creating the worlds.
One quite common virtual memory palace is to use one from a video game. I’ve never tried this so I have no idea how it would work but I gather they can be very effective.
Another palace people use is this school or home from childhood and re-create these locations by drawing maps, just adapting any blurry remembering with imagination.
Commonly recommended in classical Greek and Roman, mediaeval and Renaissance times was using a famous building. Gothic churches were extremely popular and even designed with this use mind. Chartres Cathedral, as in the three images shown, is often discussed in these terms.
You can use any streetscape. I would imagine the National Mall in Washington, for example, would work a treat. With the White House and all the Smithsonian museums and plenty of images online, you could easily create a memory palace that could be infinitely adaptable by adding the internals of each of the buildings if you wanted to expand it. There are visitor maps online for all the buildings. See below.
This is really fun thinking about all the possibilities, but I’ve got far too excited about creating my own fantasy world to write more. Sorry! Gotta go and start drawing!
The Australian Memory Championship was won by woman for the first time in November 2016. Anastasia Woolmer self-trained intensely for only five months yet set two new Australian records out of ten events. She credits her background as a ballet dancer as invaluable preparation for the intensity of competition.
Anastasia secured her lead over Daniel Kilov when two of Daniel’s cards stuck together during the memorisation phase of the shuffled deck event. They’d already memorised lists of random numbers (on paper, spoken and in binary), random words, dates and events, faces and names (which had to be spelt correctly), and pages of abstract shapes.
Anastasia received her award from Senior Arbiter for the World Memory Championships and Convener for the Australian competition, Jennifer Goddard. Congratulating Anastasia is four times Australian Memory Champion, Tansel Ali.
I was trained as an Arbiter which was good fun and gave a great insight into the events and the demands of competition.
Zeshaan Khokhar, another strong competitor for the title, became only the the third ever Australian to memorize a shuffled deck in under two minutes, the first of three requirements for the title of International Master of Memory. He didn’t smile even amid the tumultuous applause from all present. This is a serious sport.
Chris Griffin set five records for his native New Zealand at his first time competing while Iraqi National and Australian resident Fadi Alzubaldi set eight new Iraqi records. Fadi wrote:
What attracted me to memory sports is training my brain to retain vast amount of information and improve my creativity. Knowledge and what brings with it from respect, prestige, authority and confidence is my main driver. Greatest influencers on humanity are thinkers. If I want to add something to this world, if I want to contribute, if I want to make the life of others better, if I want to discover, if I want to invent then knowledge and creativity is the solution. If I want to be remembered, then knowledge is the right path.
Greg Wills was the first ever senior competitor and so set ten new Australian records.
There was quite a lot of pressure for me to take him on next year. If nothing else, I will take out all the Australian Senior Female titles just by qualifying in each round – unless another senior woman comes on the scene. I assured everyone there that I had no intention of competing. I can’t handle pressure nor speed. No, I won’t compete. Not even considering it.