Last updated: 14 August, 2022 – update to 3. Using indigenous memory systems to learn Chinese

I have been asked to add a news page for readers to keep up to date with my research. There has been so much happening that I have been remiss in updates here and on social media. This is a summary of the projects I am working on currently and are my focus. Much as I want to follow many other directions – for the next year, these will be everything! I will get better at updating here and on specific research pages on this site as I go. I will. I promise.

These projects all overlap because memory systems are the same for all of us who have a human brain. We are, and have always been, far more alike than we are different. That idea is key to all my work. Individual differences matter, but our similarities are the foundation on which we can build using our differences.

The five projects are:

1. Our ancient knowledge gene, NF1 and indigenous knowledge systems
2. Indigenous knowledge systems, memory and the implications for education
3. Using indigenous memory systems to learn Chinese (and French)
4. Art and memory systems, with a focus on narrative scrolls (and sand talk)
5. Books, there’s always books

1. Our ancient knowledge gene: NF1 and indigenous knowledge systems

In the year since first contacted by Andrea Alvershere, this research has become critical to my thinking, which is now expanding in so many directions that my brain hurts. It takes too much to explain, but this is a link to a conference presentation Andrea gave on behalf of our team, Andrea, NF1 clinical expert Vincent Riccardi and me.

The outcomes include robust evidence that music, art, connection to place and attention are critical to making us human and can be attributed to the human allele of the huge gene, NF1, fixed in all modern human, Neanderthal and Denisovan populations. This works parallel to the work on FOXP2,’the language gene’. Through Andrea’s discovery of the human allele of NF1, in a single stroke she took my research on indigenous knowledge systems back past the Neolithic, where I had left it, to over 300,000 years ago when the various human species separated from the chimps. Even more surprisingly for all of us, it has unexpectedly thrown up the critical role of neurodiversity in human evolution – and the really concrete archaeological and evolutionary evidence for that. We have a lot to learn from the past.

2. Indigenous knowledge systems, memory and implications for education

I am at heart an educator. The implications for education are immense – and education goes on for as long as people keep learning, which should be for a lifetime if you value your intellectual abilities and identity.

In schools, this project involves the formal inclusion of the method of loci and – this is the exciting bit! – Songlines in the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Study Design for Psychology from next year. I am doing a lot of work with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). Firstly I was involved in adding the critical dot point to the Study Design:

. the use of mnemonics (acronyms, acrostics and the method of loci) by written cultures to to increase the encoding, storage and retrieval of informations as compared with the use of mnemonics such as sung narrative used by oral cultures, including Aboriginal peoples’ use of songlines.

How good is that? Songlines in an official Australian curriculum – at last!

Indigenous knowledge systems are also being addressed in many other aspects of the Australian school curriculum, which is why I am also doing workshops for both primary and secondary teachers through Independent Schools Victoria (ISV).

I am also working with projects led by the University of Melbourne – in particular through the Psychology Department and Meredith McKague. In our four-university team are representatives of First Nations groups within Melbourne University, as well as Tyson Yunkaporta at Deakin Uni and David Reser at Monash. Plus me at LaTrobe.

I am also working with the cultural astronomy students in the Physics Department through Duane Hamacher. And I have now been approached by The Indigenous Engineering Community of Learning and Practice in the Engineering Faculty, and look forward to the exciting plans with them. As my first degree was Engineering, this is really special for me.

3. Using indigenous memory systems to learn Chinese (and French)

I am doing a large number of memory experiments testing out various mnemonic techniques. One is dominating this area: learning Chinese / Mandarin.

There are two main reasons I took on Chinese. Firstly, it is the only script which is spoken today where we can trace the script right back to the mnemonics even before the Neolithic. Secondly, I decided to try the hardest thing I could imagine, for someone with a naturally very poor memory but strong logic and scientific thinking, to test out the methods in as many aspects as possible. Chinese won hands down in the ‘hardest thing possible’ category.

I will be writing about this at length. I am becoming obsessed with Chinese and many aspects of the Chinese culture over the millennia.

Update: I am delighted to have been approached by a student teacher of Chinese who is also a researcher from the University of Tasmania. He is very familiar with memory methods and has been working to create a system as I have been doing. I am now pinching some of his ideas, which will be credited, of course, and improving my system accordingly. It may be that this becomes a joint project.

I am also studying French to compare using the same methods with a very different language – one with which English speakers have some hooks and commonality. The implementation of the memory methods is significantly different.

4. Art and memory systems, with a focus on narrative scrolls (and sand talk)

There are many aspects of art which act as mnemonic cues in both oral and literate cultures, and those who are in between (the definitions are more fuzzy for me than they used to be). From the moment I first saw Chinese handscrolls at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I fell totally in love with this art form.

As a mnemonic technique, handscrolls are superb. But then I realised that we always concentrate on the material presentation of art (another fuzzy concept – is art to be defined as mark-making?). But if we consider it cognitively, then handscrolls represent a gradual revelation of the knowledge and concepts being presented for a small audience from one to a few.

And so does Aboriginal sand talk. (Thank you Tyson Yunkaporta). This also matches the birchbark scrolls of the Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) people of North America. And I suspect, other forms of knowledge encoding narrative. This is a slow-release format which enables higher levels of thinking and social engagement and … I could go on and on. I need to do a lot more research on this.

Why isn’t this format used in education? It works a treat as a mnemonic method and to differentiate the curriculum (my old stamping ground!) for different learners. I will be including it in a pragmatic implementation for teachers in the ISV workshops mentioned above.

5. Books, there’s always books

OK. I acknowledge here my family members and close friends who are laughing at me now. I did say no more books after The Memory Code. And again after Memory Craft. (Daughter Bec even filmed me saying it, she was so convinced I was wrong.) And then, most emphatically after Songlines. I was the only person who believed me.

Having been involved in writing sections for two VCE Psychology textbooks (very differently) I am now down to working with two publishers.

Songlines: the power and promise, written with First Nations co-author Margo Neale, leads the First Knowledges series for Thames & Hudson. Margo and I are now working with our publisher at T&H, Sally Heath, on a children’s version, A Guide to Songlines, to lead the children’s version of the Guide to First Knowledges series. We are in the editing phase for publication next year.

Our Ancient Knowledge Gene – NF1. Andrea Alvershere and I are working on a book about the implications of Andrea’s discovery and the link to indigenous knowledge systems. It is a huge undertaking and probably the most important book I will ever (co-) write. We already have publisher interest. There will be a lot more about this soon.


Everyday, I walk some part of the 12 kilometres of songlines I have implemented here in Castlemaine. I start the day getting both physical and mental exercise and just being happy. I think I must be the luckiest person on the planet.

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