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):



Memory methods of the Inuit and Yao

I get the most amazing emails from readers of The Memory Code. I wish I was more diligent in sharing them here. This week brought in a fascinating reference to the wooden carved maps which were used by various Inuit cultures in Greenland.

He’s Got the Whole Coast In His Hand by Raina Delisle

The article includes:

As he visualized paddling along the east coast of Greenland in an umiak, Danish explorer Gustav Holm held in his hand generations of navigational know-how. It was the 1880s—long before Siri and satellites were around to lead the way—and Holm was palming a chunk of wood about as long as an iPhone 7. Carved by a Greenlandic Inuit man, this precious piece served as a tactile map, its toothy edges representative of the fjords, headlands, and obstacles of the unforgiving coastline. As Holm ran a finger along the map, he felt a semicircular groove—a sign that he and his party would have to go overland with their boats if they made it that far north. This was just one of several subtle cues he could glean from the map that would help make an exploration safe and successful.

As Holm observed, the Tunumiit people of eastern Greenland had a sharp eye for nature and could accurately describe a place they had visited once, even 20 years earlier. The man who produced the carving was especially skilled, and created two others that accompanied it. A knobby stick about as long as a Super Big Gulp straw represents the islands off the coast, and a thicker, wand-like carving corresponds to a peninsula, with ridges and mounds that mirror the relief of the mountains.

(For the rest of the article, click on the image or here.)

Unfortunately, I have no idea how long a ‘Super Big Gulp straw’ is. I remember reading about these devices when I was doing my PhD research and marking them as one of the hundreds of must-get-back-t0 topics. I have the references still, so I will get back to them thanks to this reminder.

I am also certain that the Inuit associate songs and further knowledge with their wooden maps. If anyone knows more, please let me know!

A World of Sound by Kyle Holton

Kyle has been writing to me about his own experiments with the memory devices described in The Memory Code. I was intrigued to read his interpretation of the influence of colonisation on oral tradition from his first-hand experience of the Yao in Mozambique.

The article starts:

For eight years, I lived in a village called Nomba among the Yao people in northern Mozambique. They were a semi-oral culture that used language like a tailor uses needle and thread. Conversations were stitched together with mythic allusions, parables, and aphorisms. Banter was an art form. Libraries of knowledge existed in the heads of the elders. Ancestral lines, wisdom, and folk stories were sung. The memory and knowledge of their culture was passed along through song recited during religious festivals and rites of passage. Specialized knowledge about farming, foraging, and medicinal and cooking recipes was archived through oral traditions.

To read the whole article click on the image or here.







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!












The theft of a Zimbabwean heritage

“… the feeling of realising that just because your culture had no written text does not mean they did not pass down large amounts of knowledge is revolutionary.”

The above was in an email from Fadzai which brought tears to my eyes. If she was the only reader of The Memory Code, it would have been worth all the work. It was a privilege to meet Fadzai and her daughter in London in February.

This is her story.


This evening I made a journey from Watford (near London) to Birmingham and I decided to listen to an audiobook to alleviate the tedium. I am hoping to improve my ‘artificial memory ‘ and find usable techniques to permanently remember large amounts of information, not just party tricks like decks of cards. It was in that hope that I downloaded ‘The Memory Code’ (using Audible). I have just arrived in Birmingham, so am nowhere near finished but I felt I had to write to you. I am so excited! I am excited not only because what you write about could be of practical use, but also because you reveal some profound truths.

I am from Zimbabwe and have very little, and only surface knowledge of my culture. It was systematically destroyed, partly by belittling it. It has been drummed into generations that before the English came we were dirty, stupid, illiterate (not non-literate) savages. Our ‘witch doctors ‘ peddled superstitious nonsense, our dances showed us to be licentious and the missionaries told us many of our practices were demonic.

When my grandmother died she said to make sure nothing ‘traditional’ was done at her funeral to be sure nothing ‘satanic’ happened so she could make it to the Christian heaven. Now as I approach middle age, I find out that there is more to it. Now you write and show that the fact we did not write things down, or invent central heating does not mean we are stupid. We had our own ways. Sadly they are largely lost but as you say, our forefathers would have died out long ago if they were stupid. And the fact that I have the same DNA but not the same knowledge shows that it is not some sort of ‘instinctual knowledge’ as was explained to put us almost on the level of animals. …

One of my favourite books is called Tigana. It is of the fantasy genre and not likely to win any literary acclaim but it affected me deeply. (Sorry to give a spoiler!) In a magical war, one prominent city was defeated and most of its population killed. The true pain was that the entire memory of the place was removed from the consciousness of everyone else. It became as if the city of Tigana had never existed. The vanquished king and the few survivors had to witness this, and though once from a great city they were now considered to be vagabond itinerants. I feel empathy for the characters because those events seem analogous to Zimbabwe’s fate, and the fate of many other oral cultures. Because, as you pointed out, the initiated are gone, the stories, histories and knowledge is also largely gone, only intermittent patches of these survive in a limited form. …

My maternal grandfather was a minister in the Dutch Reformed church, and as you can imagine of a minister’s daughter, my mother brought us up in a very religious way. … The family apparently adopted their surname some generations prior, when they adopted Christianity, to signify ‘they had now overcome death’. My paternal grandfather’s father (I believe) was the first to embrace Christianity. Their previous surname means ‘many deaths/many funerals’. There was apparently a curse on the family wherein for generations, the firstborn son of the family would always die as a child. My father, their firstborn son, was named ‘Tichaona’, which literally means ‘We shall see’. As in ‘We shall see if adopting Christianity lifts the curse’. He is still going strong in his sixties. My father’s survival was taken as evidence of the power of Christianity and cemented my Grandmother’s Christian faith and led her to funeral request. Many in Zimbabwe ‘hedge their bets’ and have both traditional and Christian rituals for funerals and it is a point of pride in the family that she did this. I never got to know her, unfortunately, even though my middle name is her name. We lived abroad for many years, and when I met her as a pre-teen, she had recently suffered a stroke and I was scared of her. I avoided being near her and she died in my late teens. I am deeply ashamed of this now, and although I have forgiven my younger self, it will not bring back her stories. She named my father’s first born son. My brother’s name is ‘Tinashe’, it is almost a talisman, warding off the evil eye and any curses, as it means ‘We have God here’.

I only speak Shona as a second language and often find it hard to understand. My parents did this with the best of intentions, they felt that by not teaching me Shona they would be putting me and my siblings at an advantage. My mum and dad would speak to each other in Shona, we would join in the conversation in English, speaking to each other in English. I know they were well-intentioned, but the result has been that I am a stranger in the Shona community as well as a stranger in the English one and am a perpetual observer, with no place that I ‘belong’.

Listening to your theory about Stonehenge and the oral mnemonics has opened up something in me. I cannot express it. The trendy phrase ‘paradigm shift’ feels a bit inauthentic, but the feeling of realising that just because your culture had no written text does not mean they did not pass down large amounts of knowledge is revolutionary. I once watched ‘Roots’ where Kunta Kinte had a genealogist recite a long list of his African ancestors, but I understood it to be some sort of ‘trick’ or ‘quirk’ not suggestive of a system of retention of knowledge.

Some general Zimbabwean cultural information you may find of interest if you do not already know it.

One tradition we have retained is that of ‘totems’. Even modern Zimbabweans know what their totems are (mine is ‘heart’) and they are passed down from father to child. The significance is not clear, but it creates an ‘affiliation’ between people of the same totem, which crosses family or ‘clan’ loyalties. Special permission is needed to marry someone of the same totem and people are not supposed to eat the thing their totem is. Easier for those of ‘Elephant’ totem, harder for those of ‘Leg’ who are supposed to eschew drumsticks, and leg cuts of meat! It is for this reason I don’t eat haggis and black pudding, as they apparently have hearts in them. I claim ignorance as a defence when it comes to sausages and burgers!

Family Roles:
Within a family there are the same roles as within a western family; mother/father, child, spouse, grandparent, aunt/uncle. However, for a woman ALL of her sisters’ children are also her children, and for a man ALL the children of his brothers are his own. You are thus to consider the children of your mother’s sister or father’s brother as your own nuclear siblings. Your ‘aunt’ (mother’s sister) is your mother and your ‘uncle’(father’s brother) is also your father as much as your own parent is. It is even considered bad form to make distinctions, in the way a parent would be frowned upon if he says of a child he had raised from birth ‘that’s not my real child, it’s only a stepchild’. The interaction is as is usual between a western mother-child, siblings etc. The interesting part it’s the other side. If a man has a daughter, his own sister is considered an ‘elder sister’ to the girl and her role is to be a guiding force HOWEVER, never to disclose ‘secrets’ to the child’s parents, so similar to the sanctity of a priest’s confessional, or a client-solicitor privilege- This role is ‘Tete’. A woman’s brother has the same role for her sons and is called ‘sekuru ‘grandfather’- even though he is an uncle. With a girl and ‘Tete’ (i.e. her father’s sister) as they are ‘sisters’, Tete’s children are her children and they address her as ‘mother’, even though in English they are ‘cousins’. So for me, Tete’s children call me ‘mother’ but they call my brother ‘uncle’. It can get quite confusing but is taken very seriously. It can often cause offence when diaspora Zimbabweans return and do not express the ‘proper affection’ for a ‘child’, who to them is a cousin, or veneration for a ‘grandfather’ who to them is also a distant cousin. It is in fact a very empowering role for women. When one acts in the capacity of ‘Tete’, for example, you have authority over a man who may be chronologically older or of higher social standing. This is usually exercised in family disputes, marriages etc. Conversely, one gets to be a ‘grandchild’ and cossetted even if you are elderly, and your ‘grandfather’ is some decades younger than you. It allows people to wear different ‘hats’ at different times, and to take on different perspectives at the same time. Three factors are leading to its demise. Firstly, Urbanisation and distance – I do not really feel sisterly affection for second cousins I have rarely seen but am genuinely touched that they will be elated to see you and (sometimes literally) kill the fatted calf in your honour. Secondly is that some roles have been deliberately misinterpreted leading to abuse. One relationship exists which is ‘junior wife’. It is intended as a ‘protective’ role but has been exploited by some paedophiles. Thirdly, it is the general lack of understanding of the meaning of the roles and their function, together with westernisation which has led to many of them falling into disuse.

As you rightly pointed out, the initiated are now few and far between, if at all any still remain. Into the vacuum left by these elders have come charlatans. Confidence tricksters who prey on the superstitious and charge high prices for ‘spells’, ‘good fortune’ etc. and are eschewed by anyone educated. Anyone who has studied the power of placebo can well understand the healing function they could have had. And the in Europe, the old wives’ brew of willow bark tea for pain was eventually synthesised into Asprin and I have no doubt the healers did similar things in Zimbabwe. An aunt once put some sap on a wart my brother had and it fell off a few days later!. I watched an episode of ‘Call The Midwife’ which I generally enjoy very much. They were in 1960s South Africa to help the poor, ignorant and helpless people deliver babies and treat disease. When pictures such as these are painted they do not take into account that traditional practices were wiped out, and the structures which would have addressed these problems no longer existed. The creation of a cash economy meant that people now needed (and wanted) to participate in the western economies. Men had to work miles away in the mines and in the cities. The girl who would have been trained to be a midwife was now a housemaid somewhere, and her garden-boy husband would have been the one with knowledge of how to dig wells. Deprivation and diseases caused by cramped living conditions which would not have existed for their ancestors are now considered part and parcel of being African.

Great Zimbabwe:
The thing most Zimbabweans have great pride in is Great Zimbabwe. It is from that the country gets its name and it means ‘Great house of stone’. It is an example of great architecture, and the function of some of the structures are still unknown. The remarkable thing about it is that the bricks have an interlocking structure, almost like Lego and have lasted for so many centuries, intact, without any sort of mortar, or cement. This type of construction has not been seen anywhere else. One hateful argument sometimes put forward is that the city must have been built by aliens, or non-indigenous people, as black Africans did not have the intellect to construct such a thing. In ancient times there was trade between Zimbabwe and the north. The name Shona, in fact means ‘Gold’ in a western language (I think in Portuguese?) and they were so named as they were producers of gold (and continue to do so to this day). In the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe there was found, tantalisingly, ancient Chinese pottery, suggesting interaction even with them.

Bonus – Conspiracy theory
I watched a documentary on Youtube, some years ago, I can’t remember the title. As you may know, the legend is that the Biblical King Solomon had a relationship with the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopians believe the queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian queen, and their religion states that she bore King Solomon’s son. In Zimbabwe, there have been for many generations African Jewish people. They observe many of the Jewish dietary and religious practices. There is an argument that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, some fled, together with the Ark of the Covenant to the Ethiopian Jews. They then migrated southward, ending up in Zimbabwe. The theory also argues that the Ark of the Covenant was in fact a large drum, carried on poles, and inside it was the ‘Holy of Holies. It was carried into battle and the sound of it being played struck terror into Israel’s enemies. This drum was at one point exhibited in the Harare National Museum. Some have argued that the misfortune that Zimbabwe has suffered is due to not returning this ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to Jerusalem.

You mention that ‘The key factor is the way indigenous memory systems ground the basic structure of information and then build it up layout by layer using all the range of memory techniques.’ I now wonder if the traditional childrens’ stories we have in Zimbabwe about ‘Rabbit and Baboon’ may be an element of this. You are right to harness the power of aural learning. We all know word for word the lyrics of pointless songs, anchored by catchy tunes. Using this capacity for useful information is something that should be embraced. The United Nations protects what it terms ‘cultural rights’ in its International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

I greatly appreciated Fadzai taking so much time to write at length. I also appreciated learning more when we met.

So much has been lost. It is so sad that indigenous intellect has not been appreciated and the vast store of knowledge is now mostly gone.


Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

My new essay is now available free from open access academic publisher, Rounded Globe.

Download here: Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

The description from the Rounded Globe website:

“Non-literate cultures depend on their memories to store all the information on which their survival depends, both physically and culturally. They effectively memorise entire field guides to the thousands of species of flora and fauna along with navigational charts, genealogies, astronomy, history, geology and the ethics and laws by which they live. How do they manage to remember so much information when they are dependent on the same fallible memory as you and me?

This essay will explain the mechanisms by which indigenous cultures know their world and how specific information can be remembered accurately over millennia.

The memory methods in question declined in use as literacy made them seem redundant in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but this essay will argue that we have lost a valuable skill, just as Socrates predicted we would. In the last part of the essay, ways are suggested of reinstating oral technologies alongside literacy, thereby providing a powerful platform for lifelong learning.”

Announcing The Orality Centre

I am absolutely delighted to announce the formation of the Orality Centre which will be based in Etty Street, Castlemaine, on the site which was previously the senior campus for Castlemaine Secondary College (CSC) before the whole school was combined in their new buildings.

The location of the Orality Centre in Etty St, Castlemaine

Judith McLean will be Deputy Principal of CSC in 2017. More commonly known as Rex, she has 10 years experience teaching in remote Aboriginal communities and will take a leading role in the Orality Centre. Rex comes from a secondary mathematics and  science teaching background but has a wealth of experience learned from the Elders she worked with.

Paul Allen is an artist and art teacher who has secured an Arts Victoria Grant for me to work as and artist-in-residence implementing the ideas from The Memory Code at Malmesbury Primary School, only 25 kilometres away. He will also have a leading role at the Orality Centre.

I could not ask for two more impressive teachers to establish this project. There has been and overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to my research from educators from early childhood right through university and continuing education for adults.

The concepts we have talked about in the rather excited meetings to date have centred on ideas like how we can use art, music, vivid characters, storytelling, songlines and an array of mnemonic devices to enhance the regular curriculum: Mathematics, Science, Humanities, Languages and bringing Art and Music right into the middle. We have no intention of adding new subject, just making learning in the existing classes even better.

There has been a great deal of interest from people working with with indigenous students and students with dyslexia, ADHD and higher academic ability among many themes. There’s also been interest from those who feel that these traditional memory technologies may have significant implications in improving memory retention in the elderly.

I have had so many requests for workshops about all these topics, that I am absolutely thrilled that now we have the staff and home to establish the Orality Centre. I am really looking forward to working with the educators, artists and musicians who have already spoken to me about getting involved.

Thank you to Rex and Paul for making this happen!


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

Singing the land, signing the land

Singing the land, signing the land is written by Helen Watson with The Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and David Wade Chambers. Because the Yolngu community were so heavily involved, the content is an accurate reflection of the way they want their knowledge conveyed to the world.

This work was hugely influential on my thinking right from the start of my research journey. One click on the image and you will be there.
Yolngu knowledge


The Memory Code is published

I have been overwhelmed, delighted and, I must admit, astonished by the reaction to the first few days of The Memory Code being released. Thank you to everyone who has written to me in response to the radio interviews. Here are two ABC interviews available online:

Conversations with Richard Fidler (1 hour)

(c) ABC

Conversations with Richard Fidler is also available on Soundcloud.

Life Matters with Ellen Fanning (20 minutes)