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?

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6 thoughts on “Art as a memory device”

  1. I’ve always wanted to commit poems to memory so that I’d have them with me wherever I go. What would you recommend as the best method? This morning I pulled ‘Memory Craft’ from my shelves and decided to encode a simple James Joyce poem to one of my hands. I’m going slowly – encoding a couplet a day to a place on my hand. Is there a better method? I can’t rely on my body parts forever!

    1. Hi Steve,

      Word for word memorising is much harder than using mnemonic prompts for information. I think using body parts would work, but I find bigger memory palaces better for large amounts of information. I would liken this to my experiment with memorising the first 1000 digits of Pi.

      I know that your hands and body come with you, but so will memory palaces. They will stick in your imagination. For Pi, each location in the memory palace is associated with an image, or little story with three parts, a person, their action and an object. You don’t need the details because you are memorising couplets.

      You can add onto whatever you have already encoded by then heading off for a walk.

      I started at the front gate of my home, and headed in a different direction from the History Walk I describe in Memory Craft. For the short overlap, I used the other side of the road. I added one Pi ‘image/story segment’ for each house, open land, side road, business, object … I cam across, adding a few locations per day. Walking to the next location from home meant passing and revising all of those I already knew. Any which didn’t come immediately to mind, I re-encoded. Eventually I knew the first ones so well that I took a short-cut and skipped to the section I knew less well. I ended up with about a kilometre of locations for the 1000 digits (1000 / 6 = 167 locations). I could have gone on further, just adding more and more for ever.

      A single location offers mroe detail. If the couplet has a word that is difficult, you can use a fence or door or tree or … to emphasise that word. You could put every word into details within the location, although I doubt that would be necessary.

      I’m not sure if that is a help, but that is how I would approach it.


  2. I have bought Lynne Book Memory Craft and was wondering if i have access to all her bestiaries for remembering names?

    1. Hi Mary-Anne,

      There is a Bestiary list in Memory Craft, but not all the images. It would have added hugely to the cost of the book.

      The entire Bestiary is available from my website:

      or the Kindle edition on Amazon:

      I am not only using it for memorising names, now that it is so familiar. I am using it for vocabulary, both in English and (adapted a bit) for Mandarin. I am in the process of creating a French Bestiary for vocabulary in French.

      Thank you for your interest!


  3. This is amazing and a wonderful verification of your work. It adds another depth to the ancient paintings and carvings around the world.

  4. A delightful story!

    Related, I was pleased to hear Sean give your episode a shout-out near the beginning of the latest one (episode 73 with Grimes). Grimes said that she particularly enjoyed episode 40 with Adrienne Mayor, and Sean said in that case she might like yours too. I agree with the association — both episodes show us ancient mythology from a new perspective, and I wonder what knowledge those Greek myths really encoded. (Probably not robots, I’m almost certain of that.)

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