Memory Palaces

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. Australian Aboriginal Songlines are a complex form of the memory palaces so much better known from the Ancient Greek orators.

I have set up 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.

1. Countries of the world journey – in population order in 242 locations.
I have included the countries and independent protectorates as per the Wikipedia list of countries by population. The locations start with China. By the time I reach Pitcairn Islands, I have walked around my studio, 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.

The Memory Whisperer
Walking my memory palaces with my dog, Epsi. Exercising both of us, physically and mentally. We are in front of the shop which represents Vanuatu.

I use this palace for other items mentioned below, and as a palace for temporary items for memory competitions. There is no reason to include only one data set in a memory palace!


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 to modern humans, and see them spread across the world. Using mnemonic aids for geological eons, eras, periods and epochs and archaeological periods, I pass through the cretaceous and holocene, via the oligocene into the upper paleolithic … are in all place.

I am concentrating on human evolution so all our evolutionary relatives, from the Australopithecines and Neanderthals to modern humans, are in place in time. Their presence overlaps according to the current science. The details in this aspect of the Prehistory Journey have code for when there are disputes about the dates, and a flexibility built in to reflect the gradually changing knowledge.

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 offering new ideas about economics 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 memory palace. 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 into a single memory path.

5. A foreign language – French

Unfamiliar vocabulary can be learned by associating vocabulary with specific spaces and vivid images. I am learning French, building on the almost non-existent remnants of my failed attempts at school. I have never managed to learn a foreign language despite many attempts because I found the vocabulary such a challenge due to my poor natural memory. That has now changed by using artificial memory techniques like memory palaces.

Verbs go in the palace along the creek if they are regular -er verbs. Up at the botanic gardens are the regular -ir verbs, and around the town is everything else. There’s a palace for the adjectives and another for the adverbs. 

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. Fruit and vegetables go in the fruit shop, if feminine, and the supermarket if masculine, and so on. I also use two toy bears, a male and a female, to ‘accompany’ me – they actually sit at home, but I my imagination they walk with me. They are associated with masculine and feminine words respectively whenever I need their help. I mentally chat to them about the vocabulary, forcing me to put the words in sentences as I walk.

I have jumped ahead from pervious reports of my experiment with French since developing the bestiary I use for vocabulary. More of that in Experiment 25.

I am using various ways to experience immersion as best I can, and so much more. I will be producing a booklet on this experiment, one of my favourites.

6. And another foreign language – Chinese

Due to the success of the memory methods for French, I decided to get supremely ambitious and took on Chinese. This experiment has developed into my most intriguing and expended greatly since I wrote Memory Craft. I am using similar methods to those for French but they are implemented in hugely different ways because of the massive difference between the two languages for a native English speaker.

Basically, we already have hooks for French and everything you learn is hooked onto something you already know. For Chinese there was nothing. Not a single word was familiar, and the characters just looked like squiggles. There was asleep curve to get the memory methods in place, but now this is my favourite experiment. That I didn’t expect!

There is far too much to write here, but I will be writing an entire booklet on this topic. I am currently creating the bestiary without which I have no idea how I could have memorised pinyin. The courses I have compared just churn out lots of vocabulary. I needed something more.

I couldn’t do a memory palace based on the parts of speech like French, nor the alphabet for reasons I will explain in the booklet. I came across research about the huge value to those without a Chinese background of the radicals – parts of the characters which are used to organise dictionaries. The radicals became the foundation of my learning both vocabulary and characters. It is a 5 kilometre memory palace, which I walk I parts, rarely the whole thing at once.

There is more research about the problem with native speakers teaching Chinese as they learned it because they had hooks form hearing the language spoken. I am convinced that the reason very few people with no background help ever manage to learn Chinese is the lack of hooks to ground the knowledge and build it up. I also depend on my bestiary, as described in Experiment 24.

I have all the hooks and memory aids in place now. I can’t wait to share it all.

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.


Related post:
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. Genetics in general & the NF1 gene in particular

A whole new area of study was needed for my research on the implications of the mutation of the NF1 gene and human evolution. So, of course, I have a new Songlines. Much more to come on this.

10.  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.

11. 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. Love this one!

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