Guest blog: experiments with memory

I am getting a lot of emails from readers which is so rewarding. Some are trying out the memory methods and are as astounded as I was about how effective they are.

A memory palace - From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.
From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.

Barry described his experiences. I will hand over the blog to him as he writes so well I don’t want to change a thing:
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I thought you might get a kick out of hearing how your work has impacted someone. It’s certainly had a powerful effect on me!

I’ve always been interested in the mystery of prehistoric civilisations, and of Australian indigenous culture before its catastrophic disruption by the Europeans. Your book has changed the way I see all of that. Myths and legends are not childish fantasies, but are multilayered storehouses of information! Astonishing, and yet, in retrospect, so obvious!

Anyway I could rave for ages about the insights into human history you’ve given me, but I will resist. I’ve been happily raving to practically everyone I know.

Of course, your book is a double-whammy — not only casting a new perspective on non-literate culture, but also painting an intriguing picture of the potential of using these long-neglected memory systems. I’d encountered memory palaces before, but they always seemed like too much hard work, and perhaps of dubious worth beyond remembering long shopping lists and playing cards.

Charged with new enthusiasm, I decided to make some memory journeys of my own. I too normally have a rather vague and temporary kind of memory. Here’s what I’ve tried:

First memory path

I live in a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and often walk to my office in town — about a 10 minute journey. I took note of potential sites and took photos of them all. Then I added them to a spreadsheet and gave them all unique names. I then worked to be able to remember each in order.

Following your principle of marking 5s and 10s, I added special markers to every 10th item. Every 5 spots I make special by imagining them as extremely cold. This worked well, as any story I add is enhanced by the dramatic cold. I can easily remember where the “cold” sites are.

This path is now 118 stations long. I’ll make it longer but it will involve a lengthy hike into the outskirts of town where landmarks are further apart.

Periodic Table of Elements

As a test, I decided to memorise the elements. It’s not something that I particularly need, so I figured if I messed it up it wouldn’t matter. It took about three weeks, but I got there. The marker system makes it easy to jump to any point by atomic number. It piqued my interest and I bought a little pocket book about the elements, which I’m now using to add interesting facts to the stories.

Countries of the World

I liked this idea and decided to emulate it, using my existing memory track. I was worried that the Elements would interfere but to my surprise they made it even easier! Each station is now ready-made with extra meaning and personality that makes them distinct; so the countries and the elements just seem to reinforce each other without getting confused.

I’m still working on this one. I’m up to Bolivia (the Monkees singing “Daydream Believer” in a South American accent, compressed into a Ball of Ears and rolling around. It’s also the station for Lead, and fishing lines with lead sinkers are casting their hooks into the ears and pulling them around painfully).

I do like this journey, because the countries of the world are mentioned all the time, and now when I hear their names I think of their special place and I have a chance to add to it.

Ukulele Chords

I’m sick of not being able to remember the chords when I jam with people. I normally have to look them up on my phone. Now I just have to think for a moment and I have the chord I need.

I made a small circuit in my garden, with 12 stations, each representing a musical note. Each station has a totem animal to remind me of the note, eg “B flat” is Beetle. Each station has two stories, one for the minor chord and one for the major. The major story is high up, the minor story is low down or underground. I turned the finger positions for each chord into 4 numbers and converted them into words using a version of the “major system”. This gives me the basis for each story.

I guess I eventually I won’t need this system as I’ll have learnt it by rote.

(BTW did you know that the etymology of “rote” is unknown, and may have the same origin as “route”? Interesting…)

Future Plans

Next I would like to learn something about the natural world. such as all the known edible native plants of Australia. I don’t really want to make another great big memory trail, so I thought a portable memory device might be the way to go. If you can provide any guidance in the construction and use of lukasa-style devices I’d be very grateful.

Other ideas:
major stars by constellation
bones of the human body
muscles of the human body
planets and moons
geological time
history
trees of Australia
birds
fish
Spanish vocabulary
software design patterns (I’m a software developer)
That’ll do. I hope you found my account of adventures in memory land of value!

Thanks again for your magnificent work.
Regards
Barry

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Thank you for your magnificent email, Barry!

Memorising and understanding history

I have been asked so many fascinating questions since I started this blog. One is about the way memorising can help understanding. I can best explain with an example from one of my experiments. This about a general understanding of history starting from knowing very little indeed.

timeline

My history walk involves walking from home to the corner (1000 BC to 0 AD), then in four 500-year sides of the block until 1900. (OK, mathematical pedants, the last one isn’t 500 years). Each side is then be divided into 25 year spans. So I can date any event I have encoded in the walk to within about 15 years just by remembering where the location is. I can encode an exact date if I want to, but usually I don’t bother. Ten years here or there is good enough for the understanding I want. I have no intention of attempting to be a quiz champion!

This is more about a general understanding of history than in depth historical study.

I could try memorising a timeline chart. Or even constructing one, but I now it will end up overloaded with text. My walk through time can have a huge amount added and it doesn’t get crowded, because I only extract what I want to think about.

Now let me go and stand somewhere. I’m (mentally, not physically) over on Templeton Street, about half way up the third block. It is the year 1200.

Mesa-Verde-National-Park

I have just walked past King Richard I, with a lion in his tree. (All Richards are located in trees, the lion gives me Lionheart.) But he’s a quarter of a house behind me, so about 10 years ago. Right on the corner is King John. So he has just come onto the British Throne. Robin Hood is there, too. Up the lane is Great Zimbabwe at its peak, the amazing civilisation in Zimbabwe which is now only ruins. The Ancestral Puebloan cultures have been going for centuries at their amazing sites at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde over in America’s southwest. I can see that Chaco is starting into a decline. Oh, and Genghis Khan is on the rampage. (He’s the tall rusty garden ornament with evil looking claws.)

As I walk the next thirty metres or so, I greet Albertus Marcus, see the Magna Carta being written, witness the demise of King John and Henry III take the throne, greet Thomas Aquinas and watch the Mongols invade Russia. Looking ahead I can see that the next few decades will see the start of the Ottoman Empire. We’re still in the Song Dynasty over in China (that started down at the church gate where I imagined hearing hymn singing in Chinese), and Marco Polo is heading out there (China, not the Castlemaine church).

Glancing up to the corner at 1500, I can see a lot of wars ahead, but also the Renaissance coming, Vasco de Gama reaching India and Christopher Columbus heading out to the New World … with so much in between.

So at this moment, here on the corner of Randall Lane in Templeton Street, it is 1200 AD and I can just look around me and see all the locations I have encoded. I can see the whole world, what has been and what is coming. I don’t have to memorise any dates, or the order of events. It’s all embedded in the landscape.

Can you imagine the questions arising in my mind? Why did little Spain and England head off and take over so much? Why did the Puebloans stay in their own domain and not take over? Thousands of questions and the Big Picture in which to think about them. This leads to adding more and more into the Big Picture, be it more information on any of the events and people I already have encoded, or adding more events, countries and people. I have hooks for everything already fixed in the spaces. I just have to hook the data onto the trees, doors, gates, walls, ornaments, cracks in the pavement, marks on the road … plenty for everything.

I haven’t studied history since the early years of secondary school. My historical knowledge was appalling when I started this task. Now I can’t get enough of it!

This sort of analysis happens with all my memory spaces, massive and miniature. More of those in future posts.

Does that start to answer the question about the way understanding and higher level thinking is linked to memory systems?