The Memory Code – Pegasus Books

cover-tmcI am delighted that the Pegasus Books edition of The Memory Code is now available for pre-order from Pegasus is publishing for North America (US and Canada) while Atlantic Books are publishing for the UK and Europe. Both are using the same cover and publishing initially in hardback. This is so exciting!

These editions follow the Australian edition from Allen & Unwin.

The blurb from the book says:

The discovery of a powerful memory technique used by our Neolithic ancestors in their monumental memory places―and how we can use their secrets to train our own minds

In ancient, pre-literate cultures across the globe, tribal elders had encyclopedic memories. They could name all the animals and plants across a landscape, identify the stars in the sky, and recite the history of their people. Yet today, most of us struggle to memorize more than a short poem.

Using traditional Aboriginal Australian songlines as a starting point, Dr. Lynne Kelly has since identified the powerful memory technique used by our ancestors and indigenous people around the world. In turn, she has then discovered that this ancient memory technique is the secret purpose behind the great prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge, which have puzzled archaeologists for so long.

The henges across northern Europe, the elaborate stone houses of New Mexico, huge animal shapes in Peru, the statues of Easter Island―these all serve as the most effective memory system ever invented by humans. They allowed people in non-literate cultures to memorize the vast amounts of information they needed to survive. But how?

For the first time, Dr. Kelly unlocks the secret of these monuments and their uses as “memory places” in her fascinating book. Additionally, The Memory Code also explains how we can use this ancient mnemonic technique to train our minds in the tradition of our forbearers.

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

Starting a contemporary songline – Countries of the world

A number of readers of The Memory Code have asked for the specifics of how to start a contemporary songline to memorise a particular set of information.

Walking my songline with Epsi

For example Naomi wrote:

So Lynne – ‪#‎songlines‬ – time to get down to nuts and bolts. I have just read your chapter walking us through your memory line walking Epsi. How did you do it? Given that you are experimenting with oral memory did you carry a list that you wanted to memorise? Or gradually add to it like building a wall – one item at a time? Obviously it now resembles something organic, evolving and expanding as necessary – but how did you seed the memory line? Thanks in advance.

Kath wrote in part (the full email is at the end of this post):

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. …  For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

Of the 25 memory experiments, the best starting point is using the landscape as a set of memory locations – the classical technique known as the method of loci. Walking the path – be it around the house or garden, around the block or through the bush – enables you to fix the locations. The easiest is to start with a room. I put ten locations in each room of the house – five from the door (included) to a window, then five more more back, including the window and out the door.

So the first ten locations I use are in the front door (which I think of as 0 to match the multiples of 10 for all the doors) and the first location is the (1) sofa, (2) bookcase, (3) desk, (4) corner piece, (5) window, (6) ornament shelf, (7) TV, (8) little table and (9) picture on the wall. The door out of that room goes to the corridor and is number 10. Then the first location in the next room is number 11.

So if I was doing the countries of the world (as I do in this palace) in population order, it goes (1) sofa-China, (2) bookcase – India, (3) desk – USA, (4) corner piece- Indonesia, (5) window – Brazil, (6) ornament shelf – Pakistan, (7) TV – Nigeria, (8) little table – Bangladesh and (9) picture on the wall – Russia. I then head around all the rooms, around the garden, out the front gate and around the block for 242 locations (I include independent protectorates and countries) finishing with Pitcairn Islands when I am nearly back home from getting the shopping.

Ideally to mimic non-literate cultures, I would use no writing. Unfortunately, I have no elders to teach me the songs and stories and the links to the locations, so I must get my information in the way it is handed on in my life – in writing. For countries, that is a list of the countries and independent protectorates in population order. For history, that is the way I want to divide up the walk into dates. For my stone row, that is the author I want to associate with each stone, my set of authors being structured in chronological order.

I then start assigning data to locations. One you have a location – place in a room, a fence post, letter box, tree or gutter, house or shop – then associating the key information to it will initially take a few minutes. You will get quite fast at it, but don’t push too hard at first. Meditate upon the images, have fun, create stories, imagine people out the window, look for shapes in the wood grain or stone, scratches on the letter box, shapes in the branches or on the trunk of a tree …. You will find something which links either to the concept or event you are trying to associate or to a pun on the words.

Attached the item – let’s say Cape Verde to a shop. If, like me, you naturally associate the word ‘verde’ with green, you find something green to focus – in my case a green window ledge. That little ledge will always jump out at me when I look at the shop in question. Everything about Cape Verde is associated with green – such as little green men from the moon wearing capes – the more outrageous the better. You will have no trouble adding layer upon layer of information. The capital of Cape Verde is Praia, pronounced pry-er. So my little green men are prying in the shop window – their leader, the Chief Pryer, is now my main character.

Do I have everything written down? No. I only have the list of countries in descending population order, their capitals and the population. Once I have the concept linked to the location, I add more just from memory. I hear or read that Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa, so I imagine Pryer landed from the moon, trying to get to Africa – he missed. He keeps jumping from island to island, but never getting to the mainland. On the news, it was reported that Cape Verde was a very poor country, but has achieved political and economic stability. That is unusual in Africa, so I add that to the story because Pryer can’t take over through money nor politics.  He tries, though. That leads to some interesting questions about the nature of colonisation, the original Portuguese colonisers and slave trading, and the story gains more depth. And so it goes on.

You don’t need to add the information to the sequence of locations in any particular order, because the sequence is grounded in the landscape. You can never run out of space or story to add an infinite amount of information to every single location.

And everything you ever hear about Cape Verde from now on will make you see little green men from the moon wearing capes. I promise. Sorry about that!


Kath’s email in full:
Dear Lynne,

I am partway through your fascinating book, which I borrowed from the new books’ shelf at Yass Library last week. I read Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’ many years ago, and found that very interesting too. Before that, I had never heard of songlines nor learnt much of Aboriginal culture, other than the pathetic smattering we received in primary school in the 1970s and 80s.

However, like most things I have read in my life, I have forgotten most of the book! I therefore found your explanation of your memory experiments both amazing and inspiring.

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. For instance, my main hobby/interest outside of work is tai chi and qigong. (If you are not familiar with the term qigong, pronounced chi-goong, it loosely translates as ‘energy cultivation’ or ‘energy work’. Tai chi is one form of qigong). I have read a lot about the subject, which I practise for about two hours each day, but like everything else, the information goes into my mind and almost straight out again. Each week my teacher, who is a veritable font of information, tells us more, which also goes into my notebook and then straight out of my head.

The knowledge of the art of tai chi, which is rooted in Taoism, is incredibly deep and complex; it’s the kind of thing that once you start learning, you realise there’s no end to it. I was reflecting that it’s a bit like the encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous societies that you write of. Much of the knowledge is stored in the movements themselves and the guiding principles behind the movements. But much is also written down, or presented as symbols or drawings. Like you were saying about the ‘simplified’ versions of Dreamtime stories in books for non-indigenous readers, there are levels upon levels of knowledge. You might hear the teacher say the same thing every year for ten years, and each time you hear it, you understand it in a different way or on a deeper level, depending on your amount of experience and knowledge. Some of the knowledge is also ‘secret’ in that it can only be told orally from teacher to student, and not written down. I never knew why, but from your book I can now guess that it’s to prevent corruption of the knowledge/Chinese whisper effect.

So I guess what I am asking, if you are able and willing, is for a few pointers on how I can begin to memorise and therefore gain a deeper understanding of this complex art.

For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

All the best, and I am looking forward to continuing your book.


Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I was fascinated by an email I received from Susannah Walker in the UK a few days ago. But first, a little background. For many years, a small photo has sat on my desk. It was taken by my late mother, and has the name of the circle in her handwriting on the back. But I had done no more than acknowledge it as one of the thousand or so stone circles in Britain.

castlerigg-front castlerigg-back

Susannah wrote: I have been fascinated to hear about your book, The Memory Code and am very much looking forward to reading it when I go on holiday in a few weeks time.

Even reading the reviews, however, made me think of Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria. When I visited it last year, I noticed that the shapes of each of the stones mirrored the silhouette of the hills behind it, making the circle a representation of the wider landscape around. It clearly seemed to be deliberate, and your theory seems to be the perfect answer as to why. (As this article shows, I’m not the first person to have spotted this!).

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Click on the image above or here to go to the Visit Cumbria site on Castlerigg.

Susannah’s observation of the way the stones reflect the surrounding landscape is one of the Ten Indicators I use to assess whether a monument was possibly used primarily as a memory space. The descriptions online also note many of the other Indicators: astronomical alignments, a sequence of memory locations (the stones), and even the public and restricted spaces with the rectangular ‘sanctuary’ within the circle. Being Neolithic, there is no sign of a wealthy elite, and a great deal of effort has been invested for no obvious utilitarian purpose.

I love Castlerigg. Thank you, Susannah for making me take more notice of the precious photograph which has been on the desk all this time.