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 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 45 experiments using devices which mimic the topologies I have found in indigenous memory systems, Asian, Greek and Roman and medieval methods. I am astounded how effective these are.
Memory systems give a way to lay down a firm foundation of knowledge on which to build many higher levels of learning – for lifelong learning – school to old age!
Palaces / Songlines / permanent spaces
1. Countries of the world journey – in population order in 242 locations.
2. Prehistory journey – from 4,500 million years ago to 3000 years ago (1000 BCE).
3. History journey – from 1000 BCE to 1900, divided into 25 year sections.
4. 20th Century journey – from 1900 until present, every year represented.
5. Foreign language – French (along with other methods)
6. Foreign language – Chinese (along with other methods)
7. The periodic table of chemical elements
8. Kalimna songlines – natural history and a calendar in natural bushland
9. Genetics, evolution & the NF1 gene
10. Classification of Animals – a stone wall
11. 1,000 digits of pi (from any point, forwards or backwards)
12. Memory board / lukasa – Victorian birds
13. Memory board / lukasa – History of writing
14. Classical Music – set of six lukasa – composers (4) and operas (2)
15. Winter count – a personal History
16. Song board – astronomy – 88 constellations
17. Memory board – spider families
18. Decorated vessel / coolamon – Victorian Habitats
19. Hand astronomy – history and science
20. Body parts – mnemonists throughout history
21. Sets of objects – Greek and Roman gods
22. Visual alphabet
23. Medieval bestiary – names / words
24. Bestiary for Chinese pinyin
25. Bestiary for French vocabulary
26. Chinese narrative scrolls – Shakespeare’s plays
27. Geological time scale – artist’s journal
28. Medieval-style manuscript – history of music
29. Birds – seasons and calls in mnemonic scrolls
30. The Mnemonic Arts – single images of a set of knowledge
31. Mnemonic Maps – abstract and representational
32. Multiplication by image – Rapscali tables
33. Mandalas – history of Western art
34. Nested concertina books – radioactive decay series
35. Training and competing against myself using Memory League
Put on the Back-burner
(less practical, effective or relevant for education or ageing – my current focuses)
36. Inca khipu – History of Art – very effective, but you must have it with you
37. Genealogy staves – European Royal families – not very practical
38. Memory stave – Australian Prime Ministers – not very practical
39. Wearable memory devices – Shakespeare’s plays – good, better as narrative scroll
40. Sixteen cowrie shells –plant classification – too hard!
41. Card decks – 130 Ancestors – now incorporated in the History journey
42. String games – Aesop’s fables – only works for very brief stories
43. Objects – medicine bag – worked well, but not very practical – want to revisit.
44. Classical art masterpiece – classical music – not the best method, now lukasa
45. Posts and poles – mammals – not practical to implement, works really well.
If only there were 240 hours in every day.
Most 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, with methods meshing for a single topic. It is just happening naturally.
Until I had tried these memory methods, I would never have thought that any of this was possible.