Thank you to those who have been asking about public lectures on my book tour for the publication of the North American edition of The Memory Code by Pegasus Books and the UK / Europe edition from Atlantic Books. There are lots of meetings and other exciting things happening, but below are the public events booked so far.
New York: Note that two events were advertised at the same location, different titles, an hour apart. I am not sure if it is two lectures or one! I’ll fix it here when confirmed. IT IS ONE LECTURE AT 3 PM.
Thursday 23 February, Cardiff University: The Memory Code, Archaeology seminar. This is an in-house seminar for the archaeology department, but there may be an opportunity for other archaeologists to attend. Please contact me for more information.
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!