The Navajo memorise over 700 insects to three levels of classification, along with all their characteristics. And that’s just insects!
All non-literate cultures memorise a huge amount of information beyond the spiritual and historic – usually the only topics referred to when talking about oral tradition. My interest is in the vast store of practical information: animal and plant classifications, uses, properties – thousands of them. Navigation across vast areas without charts, complex genealogies, astronomy, timekeeping, geology, land management, resource locations and rights, animal husbandry, farming practices, laws, ethics … it goes on and on.
How on earth do they remember so much stuff? Their very survival depended on it.
They use song, dance, stories, mythology and combine all the methods into an intricate knowledge system. And they use a vast array of physical memory aids as described in my books The Memory Code, Memory Craft, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies and the new one with co-author Margo Neale, Songlines: the power and promise.
In order to better understand the memory methods used by non-literate cultures, I have instigated 36 experiments using devices which mimic the topologies I have found in indigenous memory systems. I am astounded how effective these are. It is also giving me insight into the different way my memory works when I use these methods. They integrate, mish and mash together and feed each other. My thinking becomes more dependent on images and emotions and less on words. It is weird and wonderful and close to impossible to describe in writing.
I am also trying to mimic the genres of knowledge valued by indigenous cultures, but translate them into my contemporary world. It is essential I store information which I value. It is the value placed on the knowledge stored which justified the huge expenditure of effort required to create and use the memory palaces of oral cultures around the world, including the prehistoric memory locations, such as the stone and timber circles of the British Neolithic and the ancient mound monuments along the Mississippi.
Then I discovered the memory systems of Greco-Roman and Medieval times – so more experiments were added.
After a few years of work now, the bank of experiments is getting huge and complicated. Before I did this, I really hadn’t grasped the complexity and integrated nature of the mnemonic technologies of indigenous and early literate cultures. They all used a range of technologies constantly. I am now doing that as well. I can never match knowledge systems based on hundreds, if not thousands, of years of refinement, but I can grasp the totally different ways of thinking and knowing these devices offer me. And I am having such fun with it!
Some people use the term ‘memory palaces’ for the sets of locations. That works well for large spaces like buildings, gardens and streetscapes. I also use the term ‘journey’ because that is the term used by eight time world memory champion, Dominic O’Brien, and it best describes exactly what it feels like.
Memory systems give a way to lay down a firm foundation of knowledge on which to build many higher levels of learning.
Fixed memory spaces
The ‘art of memory’ or ‘method of loci’ is the most effective memory method ever devised, which is why it can be found in one form or another in every non-literate and pre-literate culture . The massive memory spaces used by indigenous and pre-literate cultures are the landscape, streetscapes, buildings and the skies.
I have set up 4 journeys – that is memory paths where I walk through a physical space in which each location has been encoded with some piece of knowledge. By walking the journey in my mind, I can list all locations and then recall the information, starting anywhere, then moving backwards or forwards.
See also: Uluru as a set of memory locations
1. Countries of the world journey – in population order in 242 locations.
I have included the countries and independent protectorates as pre the Wikipedia list of countries by population. The locations start with China. By the time I reach Pitcairn Islands, I have walked around my garden and house (120 countries) and then down to the local shops and home, about a kilometre. With the countries in population order, I can estimate the population of any country in the world. I am adding capitals, politics, wars, people, geography – and anything on the news. The theme is infinitely expandable.
2. Prehistory journey – from 4,500 million years ago until 3000 years ago.
Walking from the front gate around the block, I walk through time, past the first plants, the first microfauna, nod hello to the dinosaurs, early hominids, modern humans, and see them spread across the world. Using geological and archaeological eras, the cretaceous and holocene, oligocene, upper paleolithic … are in all place.
3. History journey – from 3000 years ago, that is 1000 BC until 1900.
Walking a different and rather large block, neatly divided into 25 year segments, I can see that Great Zimbabwe was flourishing when King John was in England, nod to Augustine and Alexander the Great as I pass, see the Roman Empire split and watch two parallel paths … I add to this journey almost daily. By the time I get home, Victoria is on the British throne, Keynes is off and running and I am ready for the 20th Century. I could speak for hours on history without any notes nor any preparation. I have over 500 events and people in place. I add more locations and greater depth to each item constantly.
4. 20th Century journey
This journey is around the garden and house, overlapping with the countries. Each year from 1900 to the present is allocated one location. A major event becomes the primary hook and other things, including when family were born and books published, are added in. It is all about testing the concept of integrating disparate domains of knowledge.
5. A foreign language – French
Unfamiliar vocabulary can be learned by associating vocabulary with specific spaces and vivid images. I am learning French, building own the almost non-existent remnants of my failed attempts at school and again in adult classes. I have never grasped how to learn a foreign language because I found the vocabulary such a challenge.
In learning French, I am putting the feminine words in different locations to the masculine, and each of the groups of words in appropriate places. So fruit and vegetables go in the fruit shop, if feminine, and the supermarket if masculine. Verbs go in the botanic gardens if regular -er verbs, Victory Park if the infinite ends in -ir and at the Western oval if they are irregulars. People are doing every possible action in the open spaces around Castlemaine! I am using music, from toddlers’ songs to adult French performers for listening comprehension and learning. I get those songs stuck in my head. And so much more … and loving it.
6. And another foreign language – Chinese
I need to understand how memory would work with a non-alphabetic script and a language totally foreign to me. So I am starting on Chinese, and the Mandarin dialect. I will also be looking at the relationship to related scripts such as Japanese, Korean and the more ancient forms of the Chinese script. My tiny start has shown me that much will still work the same as the work I am doing for French – the use of rapscallions and songs and, of course, memory palaces. But a great deal will be very different given the huge number of characters.
7. Chemical elements and the Periodic Table
In each of the first 118 locations of the memory palace with the countries and the 20th Century is one of the chemical elements in order of their atomic numbers and incorporating their properties as represented by the periodic table. So there are three items in each location: a country, an element and a year.
I am also using the first 20 or 30 locations of the memory palace in my house and garden – the one I use for countries, 20th century history and the elements of the periodic table – for speeches. Whenever I need to give a talk, I mimic the ancient Greek and Roman orators and put portions of the speech into the memory palace. It has worked superbly. I never use notes now.
The overlap doesn’t matter. The stories get all mixed up – location 5 has Einstein’s theory of relativity all mixed up with Brazil and the element Boron. Sometimes the stories become interwoven. Any information I want to withdraw comes out fine. I have also inscribed a mnemonic sequence for the 20th Century to a Winter Count, experiment 6. This is testing the efficacy of multiple references to the same information. Again, it causes no problem; my brain seems to happily encode an item of information naturally to one of the memory devices and only occasionally link it to both possible locations.
Memorising the periodic table
8. Kalimna songlines – natural history and a calendar
I have created two songlines as close as I can to my understanding of indigenous singing tracks. Through this I am trying to understand more about the way knowledge works in the reality of the Australian bush. I am using walking tracks in Kalimna Park near home. I walk the tracks and have a series of locations along each track as my ‘sacred sites’. I am incorporating songs and stories from some of the knowledge systems above, especially birds, mammals and trees. I am using short songs for other animals, geology and other plant groups.
Critically, I am using regular walks of my songline to create an annual calendar which will in part inform the cave art, experiment 10.
I am modelling my thinking of the songlines on quotes of Australian Aboriginals and their songlines. For example, from the Rrumburriyi Tiger Shark’s kujika of the Yanyuwa people:
We sing this spring waters there in the north and we come ashore at Yulbarra. We come ashore and we sing the people at Yulbarra. We sing the paperbarks swamp and then onwards and northwards we sing the messmate trees and then we climb up onto the stone-ridge country and we sing the cabbage palms, and then we come to that place called Rruwaliyarra and we are singing the blue-tongued lizards and then the spotted nightjar, the quoll and the death adder, and we sing that one remains alone–the rock wallaby–we are singing her, and then we sing the messmate trees.
Source: “Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria”, John Bradley, Allen & Unwin, 2010, pp. 81–2.
9. Posts and poles – mammals
Given the prevalence of carved and decorate posts and poles in non-literate cultures, I figured I had better include one. I am using the post on the corner of my studio verandah. I am basing it on totem poles which told of Raven or the Loon in North West Coast Native American and Canadian First Nations people. I am encoding the 139 species of Victorian mammals in families and with scientific names in taxonomic order. They are sequenced down the pole by family. Of course, now that the structure is in place I can add identification, distribution and behaviour. The sex lives of antechinus are particularly wild.
Portable memory spaces
Portable memory devices are just tiny versions of the concept of memory spaces embedded in the landscape or skies. Examples include the Australian churinga/tjuringa, the African lukasa, the Native American song boards, the Ojibway birchbark scrolls, winter counts, Pacific genealogy staves, highly decorated pages of medieval manuscripts and so many more. An object covered in apparently enigmatic motifs can be a powerful memory device. Hard to believe? Impossible – until you try it. I use a variety portable memory devices, all designed to imitate indigenous and early literate memory methods.
I am hugely assisted in these experiments by colleague, Tom Chippindall, an art curator, conservator and luthier (he made musical instruments). Tom has worked in many creative areas gaining a vast range of invaluable practical skills. He is replicating traditional mnemonic technologies for me and others so that we can apply them in contemporary contexts.
Amazingly, once you have used the device for a while, you don’t need it physically present to be able to recall all the information. But the physical form remains very precious.
10. Winter count – Twentieth Century History
I have an inscribed leather scroll, based on the Native American winter counts created on hide. This has a single image for each year, starting at 1900 which overlaps with the 20th Century journey, experiment 4. I find that I tend to use the Journey version for daily use.
For this experiment, I am now creating a personal winter count. This is a representation of my own life with a story for each year hooking the narrative of that year onto a main event in my life and that of my family. Would having personal, incredibly familiar winter counts and other permanent memory aids to our identity help retain knowledge into old age?
11. Playing cards – 52 ancestors
The world memory champions memorise shuffled card decks by giving a character to each one and creating stories. My ancestors are in chronological order. I start with Homer and go to Oliver Cromwell, to be followed by the Tarot Ancestors below. I consider the method to being akin to the stories told by indigenous cultures of the pantheon of mythological characters. I use an old deck of cards because I also use them for my magic routines – it suits my performance style. So much fun to be had in this world!
Having given historical characters to each card in my deck, I am using them to memorise their roles, expanding to the historical events, contemporaries and the context of their lives. This whole experiment has gone very well and I am now extremely interested in these people. Having a hook enables me to remember more about them than before. This experiment is enmeshed with History Journey and Countries. But it is not confusing – just each mnemonic device aiding the other.
I have adapting these ‘ancestors’ as my card characters for entering memory championships, as described in Experiment 32.
12. Tarot deck – another 78 Ancestors
The 78 cards of a tarot deck are heavily illustrated, lending themselves to the creation of stories. I have encoded another 78 historical characters, from Blaise Pascal to Linus Torvalds. I’m now adding more layers of data to the structure. This deck blends with my standard card deck for my magic routines. (I don’t use my tarot deck for tarot, except when I decide to do readings using cold reading. But that’s another whole story – see The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal.)
Related post: My 130 Ancestors
13. Memory board / lukasa – Victorian birds
My ‘lukasa’ is a piece of wood with beads and shells glued on.
I have encoded the 82 bird families of Victoria, and into them the 408 birds in taxonomic order. I am close to being a walking field guide. My precious lukasa is so familiar that I can list of the families and all their birds in order without actually having the board in my hand. With it there, it’s a breeze. I am adding layer upon layer of information – identification, behaviour, distribution, personal stories… I am only confident of calling a bird when I have an exhaustive list to check against – and it’s all in my head. And the characters morph in my imagination from the humans in the stories to the birds they represent. They may be more human if I am thinking about the story, many of which have ethical themes without me planning it that way. The birds are more birdlike when I am in the field. Both these traits – ethical themes and human/animal morphs – are widespread in indigenous stories, and it is just happening naturally as I add information.
Related post: Memorising birds
14. Memory board / lukasa – History of writing
Tom Chippindall has made me a new lukasa with carving in the style of the Luba lukasa. The back is carved just like the back of real lukasa are engraved in the pattern of a tortoise shell. I am using my new lukasa to memorise a history of writing (ironic, I know), with a special emphasis on the dates for the adoption of scripts and written forms. This will enable me to look at the other artefacts of the culture across this change. I want to see if I can detect a change from mnemonic to aesthetic, especially in the art forms when in museums. But I need to have all those transitions in my head to effectively examine museum collections in the minimal time I have to explore them.
This board will be structured according to the history it is to encode, much as the Luba designed their lukasas to encode their history and associated information. Each was different, but the information encoded followed a given structure.
This is one of the two lukasas I photographed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. And this is the basis of the lukasa I am working on for the history of writing.
15. Knotted strings – Inca khipu – History of Art
My old khipu’ is across the back of a sofa. I structured the knowledge I want to encode, but I found when knotting the string that they ended up too short and tangled incredibly easily. Tom Chippindall is helping analyse the twisting techniques needed. We are studying the way the Inca created their cords and attached them and have started on a new khipu based on that knowledge.
I am sure Inca khipu were knotted according to the information they were to encode, so a great deal of time has been spent structuring that information and limiting it to a reasonable base structure. Unlike indigenous individuals, I don’t have elders teaching me the songs and stories using these devices. Although my knotted cord device is based on the Inca khipu/quipu, other cultures also used knotted strings in various forms.
I am using the khipu to record the history of Western art. I have found I wanted a sub-khipu just for Australian art as that is what I see most in the galleries here. I wonder if the Inca had sub-khipus? I am amazed how much I learned just structuring the story of art and the representational artists. This one I am starting from a knowledge base close to zero. How embarrassing!
This is the most adaptable of the portable devices and is much closer to writing than the other devices. But I am not sure how memorable it will be without the khipu in hand. I shall find out with time. The khipu helped the Inca rule a huge Empire. Now I understand why.
16. Song boards – anatomy (done with songs, dances and lots of big words)
I am using a wood burning iron to decorate memory boards with the markings structured according to the various systems of the body and the associated anatomy. I feel that dances, pointing to the location of body parts or the movement of body fluids, will aid greatly. The song boards are structured according to the songs, not to the information. They will also have indications of the rhythms and verses of the songs, as I understand is the case on the Native American song boards. A lot of work to do. Lovely research and lovely composing songs. This one is in its infancy. All dances are currently performed with no audience. Ever.
I am modelling this on the Winnebago song board I examined at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University.
17. Memory board – spider families
I am a recovered arachnophobe who is now obsessed by spiders. I even wrote a book about them: Spiders: learning to love them. I only know the commonly encountered families. The total number of families is over 100 according to the latest classifications. I want to know them all. The destining feature is the eye patterns. I love the scientific names of the families. This will take time. It also links to my other blog: The Spiderblogger.
18. Decorated vessel / coolamon – Victorian Habitats
Plants are a major knowledge genre in all cultures, so I can’t leave them out. I am encoding the native trees of my state, Victoria, and using them as the basis of studying habitats. I’ve started with the common trees which define each habitat: the eucalypts (gums, boxes, peppermints, ashes and mallees), tea-trees, paperbarks, wattles, banksias, she-oaks and cypress-pines. Then the bushes, grasses and smaller plants – and link to the birds and other animals – it all becomes integrated yet again.
I am using an imitation of my real Aboriginal coolamon, marked with a wood burning iron made for me by Tom Chippindall. The real one is too precious and I would feel uncomfortable using the actual design for my own experiment. This is the real coolamon:
19. Genealogy staves – European Royal families
Genealogy staves are used in the Pacific widely, and in Africa for linear descent lines. Australian Aboriginal cultures do genealogies quite differently. It all gets very complex very fast and I really don’t understand how our Aboriginal cultures manage to memorise all the relationships so well without charts. I am playing around with this one but not got far at all. Yet.
I have chosen to do the European Royal families initially (with no idea quite how to do all the relationships between them). I have chosen this experiment rather than my own family because doing my own family offers nothing to readers of this blog or my other writings, because they can’t relate to it. Secondly, my own family history is rather short on generations and information due to the treatment of European Jews during WWII. To be honest, I really don’t want to go there.
Using European royal families also leads to lots of cross links with the Country Journey and History Journey, and so mimics indigenous systems.
20. Chinese dynasties
I have another stave for Chinese dynasties which I also want to link to the art work and language/script development which has got me intrigued. So lots of devices are interacting as is the case with indigenous cultures.
21. Memory stave for Australian Prime Ministers
I’m doing a new stave for the Australian prime ministers. That needs to include political parties and dates but not relationships, so quite different from the genealogy staves. I figure I ought to know them. I want to do the whole world. If only I had a few lifetimes left!
22. Wearable memory devices – Shakespeare’s plays
I have been inspired by the Wampum Belts, the traditional shell bead memory devices used by the Eastern Woodlands American Indian tribes. Strings woven with the shell beads were used as a memory device for stories including, but not exclusively, history. They were also used as gifts and for recording treaties.
There are other examples of beaded strings being used as memory devices and I am keen to try creating them for specific purposes using a variety of beads. I can make belts and bracelets and necklaces and … my brain is reeling.
I am encoding the plays of Shakespeare. I have a bead per play in chronological order. The comedies, tragedies and historical plays form three groups, three different style of beads. The order in which Shakespeare is thought to have written them forms the order of the beads on the necklace. Bracelets give the story of each play. I have just started on this one and am loving it. If only I had studied Shakespeare in the decades since school, I would be moving a lot faster. So many familiar phrases and references keep popping up despite me not knowing their origin before now. I am loving it!
The memory side should work as easily as the lukasa memory boards with beads on them. I could even wear my jewellery into an exam. Would that be cheating? I think that I can use the knotted cord devices (the khipu) in the same way. Fun times ahead!
23. Hand astronomy
I am convinced that palm reading arose in the dim distant non-literate past from the more pragmatic use of palms as mobile mnemonic devices. It will take a lot more research to argue my case, though. Meanwhile, I am encoding the science and history of astronomy to my palms and the back of my hands (which I didn’t know very well at all). It is going well and works rather nicely with my skyscapes, history journey, countries and ancestor decks. It really isn’t confusing. I promise you. And the mnemonic device is always readily available.
24. Sets of objects – Greek and Roman gods
I am encoding the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods to a set of distinct objects (the image shows the end of the first act, with the actors for the next few acts waiting in the wings). All cultures have supernatural beings of some kind, so I’ve chosen the Greek and Roman version to memorise.
I arrange and rearrange the objects in different combinations as the stories are told, such as is known to have been done by the Yoruba with the 16 cowries or pine nuts, as in the experiment below. Australian Aboriginal cultures will arrange objects such as leaves, twigs and stones as stories are told. They will also draw in the soil with a stick. Seeds were used in various combinations as a mnemonic device by the Inca timekeepers as well, so it is the use of objects in combinations which is the basis of this experiment.
The more I use the arrangements of objects to encode the stories of supernatural beings, the more I find my brain recalls the layouts and the gods involved, but my memory also replays the movements which have become quite stylised. Almost a dance of my hands. I wish I could explain better! I hadn’t expected that. It reflects what musicians and actors have told me about muscle memory.
25. Sixteen cowrie shells –plant classification
This is another experiment with arrangements of small objects. One genre of information retained by all Indigenous cultures is a plant classification, so that is what I will memorise. It will imitate the 16 cowries mnemonic method of the African Yoruba. The mythological being brought into play depends on the number of cowries facing up in a toss of the cowries – from 1 to 16. Then there’s the option of all face down – it gets complicated. The Yoruba method involves the 17 mythological beings in hierarchical order – the mythological beings in my case representing each of the plant groupings which will give me both domesticates and wild species, much as early farming cultures must have known.
The second toss enables each of those ‘beings’ to be matched with 16 further options giving 256 combinations. That will allow further complexity in the groups that I need to know more about – in some cases down to species level. This gets confusing – but the Yoruba did it, so it must work
26. Scottish carved stone balls (in wood) – song and ceremonial cycles
Tom Chippindall is creating copies of Scottish carved stone balls to explore exactly how effective these are as memory devices. I have many songs from different experiments above. I am taking the six most important to encode to a six knob ball ( the most common) as my first level of initiation. I am then using balls with more knobs for my higher levels and further songs. This experiment is working wonderfully well.
The bottom left hand ball in the photo is my ceremonial cycle ball, to ensure I cycle through my memory experiments over the year and keep them all fresh. This mimicks the way indigenous ceremonies work.
27. Medieval bestiary – names of people
The incredible medieval illuminated manuscripts, and much of the art work, were designed to be memorised, not just read. All sorts of devices were used to create memory spaces, including alphabets, page layouts and books about animals – the bestiaries. Copying the techniques from the Middle Ages, I am making a bestiary designed to help me remember names of people I meet – something I am notoriously bad at doing. An interesting experiment, but also one which is enabling me to try and be artistic. I’m loving it but this one I will take very slowly. I have joined the Calligraphy Society of Victoria and am taking art classes. Pictures will appear here when I finally produce something I am pleased with. No breath holding, please.
This isn’t mine. It is the real thing:
28. Medieval-style manuscript – musical instruments
In a wildly optimistic imaginative moment, I decided that I would create a medieval-looking manuscript and then adorn it with the glosses and drolleries, illuminations and fancy capitals in the form of those used in the Middle Ages to make the text memorable. The manuscript will tell of the musical instruments in a Western orchestra but also have my character visit other cultures and discover their instruments from around the world and throughout time. This will give a basis on which to build a much greater understanding of music theory. How’s that for ambitious? In my more rational moments, I wonder what on earth was I thinking. Calligraphy and imitating medieval art – how hard could it be? Oh dear.
I will be using ideas from medieval writers such as Thomas Bradwardine who talked about grids and other layouts used for mnemonic purposes.
But mostly I want to add drolleries, the little humorous sketches medieval scholars added to the text to make it more memorable.
I am not going to attempt to replicate the exquisite art but create my own interpretation of the style. This may be my greatest disaster, but I’ll have fun!
29. A visual alphabet
Again from medieval books, I have created my own visual alphabet to use as a memory device to store sequences of data. I use the Visual Alphabet and Bestiary every day.
I have the visual alphabet in memory now, and am creating a variety of art formats for my Alphabet. One format features in Memory Craft, but others are part of my many planned art projects. However, even knowing the visual alphabet from my rough designs has enabled me to use it for temporary memorising. Mostly that is the bird list when husband, Damian, and I go out birding. It works well with the permanent memory device of my bird guide encoded to my lukasa.
I use the Visual Alphabet for any check lists and for any talks I give. I don’t use a permanent memory palace for speeches because I like to adapt to each audience.
See the post: Playing with a visual alphabet
30. String games – Aesop’s fables
Many cultures across the Pacific, and the Inuit, use string games to tell stories. I want to use them to tell Aesop’s fables. I am just starting this one. A long way to go but wonderful fun. At this stage, I think they will only work for short narratives, but I may find that I am wrong.
31. Chinese narrative art – History of Timekeeping
I spent hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at the ancient Chinese scrolls in which the story is told in a continuous image. Protagonists can appear throughout the scroll as their narrative is told. Many tell of histories. I want to construct a scroll in this format to write a history of timekeeping.
Here’s a small sample of one of the scrolls. The character in the red, seen twice here, moves through the narrative of the scroll.
32. Memory Competitions
I trained for the Australian Memory Championships to explore the difference in the way the same memory systems work for a very different purpose. I established 12 new memory journeys, each of 30 locations to use as temporary memory palaces. I also used some existing memory palaces – all very confusing. I was delighted to be under the guidance of eight-times World Memory Champion, Dominic O’Brien, for this new adventure. I do not handle pressure or speed well, but I did win the Senior title at the 2017 Australian championships. I came third nationally.
There are ten events which involve things like memorising shuffled decks of cards, memorising long numbers in decimal and binary, memorising rows of random images and columns of random words and putting names to faces – with the correct spelling!
It is incredibly hard and very stressful. I retained my Senior title in the 2018 competitions.
33. Objects for radioactive Decay Sequences
I enjoy my Greek and Roman mythology objects so much, I decided to see if I could use the same objects for a completely different purpose. I decided that I wanted to know the radioactive decay series for the radioactive elements I had in the periodic table (Experiment 7).
I use the same set of objects – although far fewer of them than I needed for the Greco-Roman mythology. Some links emerged, although that was not planned. Neptunium and Plutonium, for example, were named for the gods, so the same object worked for both. Again, this technique is very effective. And the same objects can serve multiple purposes.
34. Art – Multiplication – Rapscali tables
I am constant asked about memorising multiplication tables and other mathematical basics. I have developed a system using my rabbit-like rapscallion, Rapscali and her companion, the bear Sebastian. ‘Rapscallion’ is the name coined by Paul Allen when we worked with students. The role of characters in telling stories for memorisation cannot be overestimated, but we couldn’t use any term which would misappropriate the content from indigenous cultures – so we made up our own. Using characters and stories, the mathematical tables come to life. Rhyme and narrative makes them memorable as individual tables, not sing-song rote learning. Using understanding, the number to be memorised can be significantly reduced from the usual 144.
I am creating an entire book of the art work for this. It will be available through this website by mid 2019.
With the tables under control, students can concentrate on understanding and application and all the higher levels of learning which are not memory tasks.
35. The Mnemonic Arts
I then want to spend the rest of my life developing a career as a practitioner of the mnemonic arts. I figure that has a lovely gothic sound to it. I want to produce art works which acts as memory aids using the art skills I am slowly acquiring in art class under the wonderful guidance of Richard Baxter. His teaching has just made my dreams grow more and more ambitious.
One inspiration is to create single art works such as The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, a fresco by Andrea da Firenze, c. 1365, in the Spanish Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence (pictured below – click for full version). So much fun to be had!
36. The first 1000 digits of Pi
It seems to be a requirement that memory people memorise digits of Pi. So I’ve done that too. I can’t imagine why I’ll need more than 1000 digits to show how it is done, but I can always add more later. This is a pretty easy one after memorising numbers for memory competitions. It was just a matter of fixing them there permanently through revision.
Mind you, going on to memorise and recite the 70,000 or so – the current record – would take a very long time. I’ll stick with my 1000.
If someone gives me any sequence of 5 digits in the first 1000, I can find it in the sequence in memory and continue to recite – forwards or backwards. Any less than 5 digits and the sequence won’t be unique.
37. Using art masterpieces as memory boards – classical music
As a result of a discussion on the Art of Memory Forum, I decided to try encoding information to a painting. I chose Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games because I love it and it has lots of complexity. It took a while to find the path through and identify each of the games, although there is a lot of help on Wikipedia. I constructed my list of classical composers with feedback online and started listening and encoding.
Although the method worked, I found it a bit forced. It was much less effective than a lukasa. But I had really started enjoying classical music and was keen to continue the learning. So there’s another lukasa being created.
38. Classification of Animals – a stone wall
The textures in stones vary so hugely. That is the reason I believe that stone arrangements were used in the Neolithic as memory palaces. I am using the front wall of my home and all its stones, as a memory aid for the classification of animals. The way Kingdoms, Classes, Orders and Families are done now has changed a great deal since I was at school. So I am encoding the new classifications. This will link to the experiments above on spiders, Australian mammals and birds, which takes me (in many cases) to Genus and Species.
39. Mnemonic Maps
Many indigenous cultures use artistic maps as a mnemonic. The variety is massive – from Australian Aboriginal art to Pacific Island stick charts. Add that I find all maps fascinating, and some are stunning art works. Then there are the maps of fantasy worlds, some of which are absolutely gorgeous. So can I create art works of maps through a fantasy world which can act like a memory palace? I have plenty of ideas. Now to find more time.
40. Bird calls as mnemonic images
As a result of a different discussion on the Art of Memory Forum (from Experiment 37), I am working out ways to create mnemonic images for bird calls. I want to try and represent the bird calls using calligraphy – the sound written phonetically with wider portions for louder and narrower for softer parts of the call, and the words rising and falling with the pitch. I’d use the watercolour decoration to indicate habitat.
I wonder if that image in memory would help me in the field. There is only one way to find out.
If only there were 240 hours in every day.
Each of these experiments can never be completed – there is an infinite amount of knowledge which could be encoded into them. The memory spaces just get richer and richer. Once the database structure – the set of initial locations – is in place, data can be added with ease. I just add to the stories and bizarre images in my head and more information is stored. I have well over a thousand locations in place in the landscape and many more on the portable devices.
Until I had tried these memory methods, I would never have thought that any of this was possible.