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?

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!

Memory Craft – now in audio

I am delighted that the audiobook of Memory Craft is now published. It is available from Booktopia and Amazon.com.au (Australia) and Amazon.com for overseas, plus many other locations. The PDF for the images can be downloaded here.

Memory Craft audiobook

The audio book had the usual lovely boost on publication. Thank you so much to those who pre-ordered and gave it the lovely #1 Best Seller (in a category) icon! It would be lovely if it stayed there! (Image links to Amazon.com.au:

The book was read by actress Louise Siversen who also recorded The Memory Code. Many people thought it was me reading, she sounds similar. The difference is that she sounds professional! I went to the Wavesound studios to meet Louise and discuss pronunciation details. She is an absolute delight and I am very proud that she agreed to do Memory Craft.

The photo is of Louise and me in the studio.

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.

2018 Australian Memory Championships

I have been very slack in writing this blog. Apologies. I have been finishing my new book, Memory Craft, to be published on June 3, 2019. I have just completed the editing process with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, something I find very stressful and demanding. But it has finally gone to the typesetters. The final manuscript will be sent to me in a week or so for indexing and then it is done. My baby will be sent out into the world.

I competed in the Australian Memory Championships for a second time in November 2018, despite my writing in The Memory Code that I could never do it. But yet again, I found the pressure difficult to handle. By the end of the second day of competition, my brain was mush and my nerves frayed.

The competition was run by the IAM (International Association of Memory) and organised by Tansel Ali. There were ten events, including memorising shuffled decks of cards and long lists of numbers, both integers and binary. We memorised pages of names to match faces, dates of imagined events, images in order and lists of words. And all under strict time limits. It is really high pressure and I don’t handle pressure well at all.

Motoro Ohno

We had international guests, competitors from Japan, China and Indonesia. The entire competition was won by Motoro Ohno from Japan (pictured right).

The Japanese team was led by Takeru Aoki (at right in the picture below). Also part of the team was Hiroshi Abe (on the left).

Hiroshi is a Senior (over 60) and came with the express purpose of competing with me. He is higher in the IAM (International Association of Memory) rankings, and rightly so. But these competitions have a harsh side with the scoring. A mistake in a row of numbers of the suit of a card and you can end up with a score of zero for the row or the card trial. You need to make a decision. Do you go for speed and risk accuracy or take the careful way out and go slower, hoping to be more accurate.

Hiroshi Abe (Japan, Senior), Lynne Kelly (Australia, Senior) and Takeru Oaki (Japan, Open)

Knowing I don’t handle pressure well, I went far slower than I do in training, but was mostly accurate. Hiroshi was faster but had some accuracy slips and ended up scoring a few zeros. But the end of the competition, I had beaten him comfortably. I would not have managed it had he been on form!

I was the top Australian Senior again.

The Australian Memory Champion for the last two years, Anastasia Woolmer, was unable to compete due to illness. I was really disappointed to miss spending time with her again. She would have had tough competition from Zeshaan Khokhar who took the 2018 Australian Memory Champion title.

Lynne Kelly ( Australian, Senior), Zeshaan Khokhar (2018 Australian Memory Champion).

I now do most of my training on Memory League, a really fun way for anyone who wants to start playing around with memory competitions.

You can compete against others at your level, but I just compete with myself. Click on the images to try it out. You need to register but the first levels are free.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is memory-league-logo.jpg
The training screen. There are five events: cards, images, names, numbers and words.

All help for getting started is available through the super-friendly associated forum at Art Of Memory https://forum.artofmemory.com.

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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Fascinating wooden charts of the Tunumiit

So much of my work is about the incredible potential of hand held memory devices. These carved maps of the Tunumiit culture of Greenland combine the two methods I use most: the landscape and handheld devices. How logical is it to make a portable pattern for the sung landscape to use as a memory device for vast amounts of practical knowledge?

Why didn’t I think of that? I am now going to carve a piece of wood to match one of my landscape walks. Click on the images to get the whole story.

Holm wrote: “A native from Sermelik, called Angmagainak, who had never had a pencil in his hand and had only once visited the East coast, drew a fine chart for me covering the whole distance from Tingmiarniut to Sermiligak, about 280 miles.” They also provided him with incredibly detailed descriptions of terrain, flora and fauna, and, in some cases, local weather patterns and lunar and solar cycles.

There are examples from all over the world of the ignorance of the Eurocentricity doubting the intellect of indigenous cultures – of anything different from their way of doing things:

Some contemporaries of Holm doubted that Inuit people were capable of producing these types of maps, and that they were just the result of mimicry—classic Eurocentrism. In 1886, one Mr. Hansen-Blangsted argued in the French Minutes of the Meetings of the Geographical Society and the Central Commission that it was highly improbable that an “Eskimo” could possess the mental faculties to “invent” a three-dimensional wooden map. It was much more logical, he posited, that some shipwrecked European sailor taught the practice to the Tunumiit hunter—conveniently ignoring, of course, that no Western seafaring tradition had ever produced maps like this. Holm disputed Hansen-Blangsted’s racist claims and jumped in to defend the skill, memory, and intellectual capacity of the East Greenlanders he had gotten to know.

Thank you, Sue McLeod, for pointing me to this article.

 

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