Jim Rountree really understands my ideas

There have been lots of articles about The Memory Code. Lots of interviews and lots of talks. I was reflecting back on the past eighteen months as I head into the final stages of preparing the manuscript for the next book. There is one article which I keep returning to because it is from a magazine I hugely respect and a writer who got it so right, and wrote about it so well. Jim Rountree writes for Australia’s leading science magazine, Cosmos. Click on the images and you will get the full article. I have copied the start of the article below. It was originally published just over a year ago.

It is a real buzz as an author to have someone understand your ideas so well.The Memory Code

“Most of us know a place where sculpted rocks, majestic trees or perhaps the light give us a feeling the place is special. We sense something mysterious and wonderful – beyond the normality of everyday life.

Now, imagine you are young and visiting such a place. It is in the land of your people, a clan of hunter-gatherers. Your parents tell you the story of the place. You can see the marks left as mythical ancestors fought and played, acting out momentous, tragic events.

You will never forget this story, and you will never forget the place. They are locked together in your mind.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The ancestors roamed clan territory, leaving traces at every point. It’s easy to remember their bizarre, dramatic acts, which become inseparable from the marks they left behind on the landscape. Story and land merge in a mental map that means you always know where you are and what lies in every direction.

Now you are older and ready to be initiated. Back at the special place you learn there is more to the story. The ancestor turned into a millipede leaving those marks – one for each verse of a song you must now learn; many generations old, it holds vital information you can’t afford to get wrong.

Time passes – you are an elder. You know a thousand songs, chants, stories and dances. They tell about the animals – their life cycles, how they feed and breed, how to hunt them and the rules for dividing the kill. You know which plants you can eat and how to prepare them. The songs tell you the clues, on land and in the night sky, of the passing seasons, so you know when to move as game becomes abundant or plants fruit. The songs tell you the laws of your people and the gods and spirits you must appease. They contain your people’s history and relations with neighbouring groups.

As an elder you have authority, with others, to create new stories for events worthy of memory.

With so much to remember you have songs to list and a ceremonial cycle mapped to each of the locations you visit, so you can be certain that every story is regularly rehearsed.

Spread through your mind and the minds of others in your group is the total knowledge of your people. It is a repository of incredible detail, containing information of practical importance as well as the beliefs that define your understanding of the universe and your place within it. Without a written language, you must keep it ever alive and pass it on completely and accurately. So of course, you use the method by which it came to you, in interwoven branches of story and song that emanate from the landscape myths you learnt as a child. The whole of your country serves as a gigantic mnemonic device for this knowledge.

The trick of using stories tied to features in a location as a memory aid is no secret. Modern speed-memory competitors use the technique, linking each card in a deck to locations within a familiar place pictured in the mind’s eye – a so-called memory palace, a mnemonic device first used in ancient Greece and Rome.

Ethnologists have known for some time how preliterate societies told stories linked to their environments. We can see the method in oral cultures of Native Americans, Africans, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines.

Once all peoples must have used systems of this kind. In the Western tradition, for example, the Iliad was recited from memory.

In her latest book, The Memory Code, Australian science writer and La Trobe University oral history researcher Lynne Kelly stresses the effectiveness of the method to accurately remember and transmit vast amounts of knowledge. This sets the ground for her main thesis: that numerous prehistoric sites around the world had a primary function as memory aids, serving as knowledge centres for peoples transitioning from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural lifestyles. Her list includes henges, cairns and standing stones in Western Europe, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Neolithic temple complexes in Malta, Pueblo “great houses” in the southwestern United States and the giant, geometric animals cut into the Nazca Plain in Peru.

The basic idea is simple.” And the rest is on the Cosmos Website.

Thank you Jim Rountree for taking the time to really understand what I am on about. And thank you Cosmos for being the great magazine that you are.

Memory workshops and Mnemonic Arts classes

There is a one day workshop on Saturday April 7th. There are also mnemonic arts classes for school students. All takes places at the new Orality Centre offices. For more information, click on the images and you will head off to The Orality Centre website. Director Paul Allen and fellow staff member Alice Steel will be the tutors.

 

 

 

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Memory methods of the Inuit and Yao

I get the most amazing emails from readers of The Memory Code. I wish I was more diligent in sharing them here. This week brought in a fascinating reference to the wooden carved maps which were used by various Inuit cultures in Greenland.

He’s Got the Whole Coast In His Hand by Raina Delisle

The article includes:

As he visualized paddling along the east coast of Greenland in an umiak, Danish explorer Gustav Holm held in his hand generations of navigational know-how. It was the 1880s—long before Siri and satellites were around to lead the way—and Holm was palming a chunk of wood about as long as an iPhone 7. Carved by a Greenlandic Inuit man, this precious piece served as a tactile map, its toothy edges representative of the fjords, headlands, and obstacles of the unforgiving coastline. As Holm ran a finger along the map, he felt a semicircular groove—a sign that he and his party would have to go overland with their boats if they made it that far north. This was just one of several subtle cues he could glean from the map that would help make an exploration safe and successful.

As Holm observed, the Tunumiit people of eastern Greenland had a sharp eye for nature and could accurately describe a place they had visited once, even 20 years earlier. The man who produced the carving was especially skilled, and created two others that accompanied it. A knobby stick about as long as a Super Big Gulp straw represents the islands off the coast, and a thicker, wand-like carving corresponds to a peninsula, with ridges and mounds that mirror the relief of the mountains.

(For the rest of the article, click on the image or here.)

Unfortunately, I have no idea how long a ‘Super Big Gulp straw’ is. I remember reading about these devices when I was doing my PhD research and marking them as one of the hundreds of must-get-back-t0 topics. I have the references still, so I will get back to them thanks to this reminder.

I am also certain that the Inuit associate songs and further knowledge with their wooden maps. If anyone knows more, please let me know!

A World of Sound by Kyle Holton

Kyle has been writing to me about his own experiments with the memory devices described in The Memory Code. I was intrigued to read his interpretation of the influence of colonisation on oral tradition from his first-hand experience of the Yao in Mozambique.

The article starts:

For eight years, I lived in a village called Nomba among the Yao people in northern Mozambique. They were a semi-oral culture that used language like a tailor uses needle and thread. Conversations were stitched together with mythic allusions, parables, and aphorisms. Banter was an art form. Libraries of knowledge existed in the heads of the elders. Ancestral lines, wisdom, and folk stories were sung. The memory and knowledge of their culture was passed along through song recited during religious festivals and rites of passage. Specialized knowledge about farming, foraging, and medicinal and cooking recipes was archived through oral traditions.

To read the whole article click on the image or here.


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Chaco Canyon gets even more intriguing

Doors in the lowest level of Pueblo Bonito. Image: L.Kelly

Nowhere I visited during the research for my PhD and two subsequent books had an impact on me as profound as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, USA. Standing inside the largest of the Great Houses, Pueblo Bonito, was awe-inspiring. Great Houses were massive buildings many storeys high and of the most astounding stonework. But they weren’t primarily ‘houses’ or residences. Chaco was a ceremonial centre – a place where knowledge was imparted and maintained for the extraordinary Ancestral Pueblo culture. I didn’t see nearly enough of the Canyon in my much-too-brief visit.

I didn’t visit the Great House of Penasco Blanco which was constructed in stages from around 900 to 1125 AD. Dates are pretty accurate in the Canyon due to the atmospheric dryness which preserves the wood thus providing excellent chronology from it, known as dendrochronology.

Retired US educator, Dr Sarah (Sally) Wither, wrote an intriguing email.

“I read Memory Code last spring, but I had forgotten that you mentioned Chaco Canyon. We visited there last week and when I saw unique stones sticking out of a wall in a way that may have led to a kiva. I immediately wondered if they might be memory stones. They were quite different from the stones used to build the walls and they were different from each other. This was at Penasco Blanco an unexcavated remain.”

Below are Sally’s photos. She sent higher resolution, so more detail is available. I cannot make any judgement on the idea, but it certainly makes sense. I’d love to go back there and talk Sally’s question over with the South-West Pueblo people and archaeologists.

Images of Penasco Blanco. (c) Sarah Wither.

An incredible set of memory boards

It was one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. Julia Adzuki had taken the concept of lukasa and danced her own direction.

It was a very excited few hours over lunch when Julia, visiting from Sweden, demonstrated her unique take on the memory boards of the West African Luba people. Known as lukasa (plural nkasa), these boards had delighted me for their beauty and astounded me for their efficacy ever since I first heard of them a decade ago. I use my Victorian Birds lukasa all the time, but know it so well that I don’t need it physically with me.

Above: Julia Aduki (centre), Alice Steele (right) and me at lunch with our versions of traditional West African nkasa and other memory devices.

Alice has been making nkasa in various forms for well over a year now. She even has her three year-old son learning his acacia species with them. It is so cute when he says the scientific names for the plants, pointing to the bead on a little board.

Having learned of lukasa from The Memory Code, Julia has developed a set of 15 boards which fitted magically inside a wooden box. She designed these nkasa to help her when she was training as a teacher of the 15 introductory classes of the Skinner Releasing Technique. [link to http://www.skinnerreleasing.com] This dance pedagogy uses guided imagery as an impulse for movement, particularly for dancers. Each class follows a script which types up to over 10 pages.

Photos: Julia with her 15 nkasa and their box (click on images to see details).

Julia first encoded the 15 classes in a landscape memory palace.

She had trained in the technique in Turkey together with her friend, Deniz Soyarslan. As many of the images which are used within the dance classes make a reference to the landscape, the friends decided to practice the actual technique in the landscape near Tekirova. She and Deniz made cards of notes for all the aspects of each class they needed to remember in sequence.

When Julia and Deniz started the landscape journey, they knew the content of the 15 classes, but could not recall what happened where or the sequence within each of the classes. Julia described what happened when they created a memory palace with a location for each of the classes in the Turkish landscape:

‘When we planted the memory trail, we couldn’t remember the sequence or the correlations between different parts of the pedagogy. We couldn’t place the images. But as soon as we had planted the sequence, it was like a 3D embodied mapping process. The progressions and correlations kind of popped out of the landscape. That was the moment I said to myself: this works.”

“What really excites me about this memory method is the possibility of repair, of embodied relational connection. Making memory trails offers the possibility of deepening human relationships within the environment.”

For Julia, the movements will always have a home in that precious Turkish landscape.

‘I made nkasa back in Sweden because I couldn’t take the landscape with me. I made them in the memory of the landscape, imagining the landscape. The strongest memory of all is still those places on the memory trail.’

‘I had shells and other bits and pieces collected in Turkey which I could use to make them. The nkasa enable me to add detail to each landscape location.’

Above:  Julia describes seventh lukasa in the sequence. ‘In this class, there is a movement study about the whole body curling and uncurling. At this location in landscape there were poppies. Their movement as the stems uncurl was so appropriate. I added the curl to the board which reminds me directly of the landscape. I chose the red bead because it reminded me of the poppies.’

Above: Nkasa 4 and 14.  These two boards both have shells from the Turkish beach with the centre exposed. Julia chose these as they create an image of the spine for two movements which relate directly to the skeleton.

Born in Australia, but having lived in a range of countries overseas, Julia described how her understanding of Aboriginal relationships to the landscape has changed since using the landscape is a memory palace.

“I love that landscape in Turkey. I loved it before but it is a part of me now. Planting memory in the landscape is also a process of the landscape taking root in oneself. That was a real eye-opener. I have a tiny little inkling now of indigenous connection to Country. It’s just a sprouting seed of understanding, not an ancient forest.”

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A new book – Memory Craft

Great excitement! I have just signed a contract with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, to do a new book. The working title (may not end up being the real title) is Unlocking the Memory Code. Publication date is probably early 2019. There is a lot of work to do first! Edit: it became Memory Craft.

This book is all about using the most effective memory methods from across cultures and throughout time. It is all about how we can use these methods to enhance our lives every day.

One of my great pleasures is encoding layer upon layer in my new lukasa, designed to record the history or writing. Ironic, isn’t it? This beautiful object was made for me by Tom Chippindall.

The vast majority of the emails and messages I receive are about the indigenous memory methods and how we might apply them in contemporary life. The extraordinary memory skills of our ancestors have been gradually lost with the invent of writing and even more so with the prevalence of information technology. Many readers are concerned about this and want to redress the trend by using their memories much more effectively.

I am simply astounded every day by what I can memorise and the way I can then build on the knowledge which is so firmly grounded in the memory devices. I am able to see patterns and the big picture in ways which are just not possible without this basic knowledge at my fingertips. It is also wonderful fun!

Throughout the book I will look at the changes in memory techniques over the millennia and discuss the possible impact on education and on memory loss with ageing. Recent research in neuroscience explains exactly why the memory methods of indigenous culture are so effective. I will report on the science and celebrate indigenous intellect. I will also emphasis how much everything is to remember when it is brought to like through stories and vivid characters.

As indigenous and early literate cultures were masters of memory, so it is from them that we can learn the most. I am adding to the lessons from oral cultures discussed in The Memory Code to include medieval memory systems, ideas from the Renaissance and from ancient Chinese and Japanese handscrolls. I will also look at mnemonic tricks from contemporary times.

The topics to be covered in Unlocking will include the most successful examples from My 40 Memory Experiments which have now been adjusted to reflect the questions I am most often asked.

I am learning a foreign language (French) despite having failed dismally to do so at school.  I am using a range of methods to memorise vocabulary and grammar and going really well. And even taking on Chinese (Mandarin).

I have devised a system for memorising names and faces by adapting the concept of a medieval bestiary.

I memorise temporary lists when we are out birding, going shopping or given verbally using a visual alphabet, adapted from those used during the Renaissance.

I am continuing to memorise more details about all the countries in the world and constantly adding to my walks through pre-history and history. I use the field guide to the 412 Victorian birds from memory constantly as husband Damian and I go birding often.

I am attending art classes every week to create the most beautiful contemporary adaptions I can manage of the bestiary, visual alphabet and Chinese hand scrolls. I am becoming addicted to everything about art, especially watercolour. I am using a version of the Inca knotted string khipu (quipu) to record the history of art. As many researchers suggest, the khipu is really nearer to writing than a pure mnemonic device.

I am also creating a personal ‘winter count’ based on the stunning mnemonic skins of the Plains Indians of North America. The one pictured below if the famous Lone Dog’s winter count. I am astonished how little of my life I could remember chronologically until I started this project. How much will this object help me hold onto my identity into very old age?

And every day I train for the Australian Memory Championships. Being old (I’m 65) does not mean a fading memory. I can now memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 12 minutes – way down from the 35 minutes just a month ago. I can memorise long strings of random numbers in decimal and binary and many other useless but surprisingly enjoyable feats.

Life is very good and I have all the readers of The Memory Code to thank!

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Rapscallions add character to aid memory

A Pueblo kachina ‘doll’ at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Characters make stories, and the information they encode, every so much more memorable.

Very early in my PhD research, I became aware of the universal use of a pantheon of characters in all indigenous cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans also taught about using characters to tell stories when memorising information.

The Native American Pueblo Indians call their mythological characters ‘kachina’. I was entranced by these vivid and wildly varied characters and their representations in all art forms. They featured on pottery, in petroglyphs, had specific masks, danced at ceremonies and permeated all aspects of life. Most entrancing of all were the dolls used to introduce the characters to children. I was able to examine a range of these kachina at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I soon learned how much more memorable any information became when characters (real or mythological) populated the stories. Referred to in Western writing as mythological characters, ancestors and a range of other names, there really is no equivalent in Western culture. The most appropriate terms are those used by the cultures in question. For the Pueblo, they are kachina (katsina).

It is culturally insensitive to use terms which may imply that we are adapting kachina or any other indigenous pantheon to contemporary life, so the team of educators I work with decided to call our characters rapscallions. This in no way implies that all kachina or characters from other indigenous cultures are rascals. Starting with a rascal-like concept just worked well for children when wanting to give their new friend personality.

I have chosen my own set of ‘ancestors’ from history to tell the stories of my culture. I have linked these to cards because that gave me a physical representation of them. One of the students I have been working with from Castlemaine Secondary College has done the same thing.

Reuben has selected his 53 ‘ancestors’ from across a range of disciplines and linked them to the 53 cards (including the joker) of a deck. We have then placed them in a history memory trial of his own design, but more of that in a future post.

Although I have my set of real ancestors, I have also found that I wanted vivid ‘mythological’ characters that I could manipulate according to the data I was memorising. I have commissioned my lead rapscallion from one of my favourite artists, Suzanne McRae of Hip Hip Decay.

I am absolutely delighted with my new best friend, Rapscali. He performs the very best stories in my imagination!

With Paul Allen and Alice Steel at The Orality Centre, I have been exploring how best to use rapscallions with adults and students.

Our youngest advisor at The Orality Centre, Haku, is using a toy bear as a rapscallion.

Alice Steel has created rapscallions with her science classes. She has some as puppets ready to perform and others as small creatures created by the students.

I am also using rapscallions with classes at Malmsbury Primary School. They have created them in art and we are now using them to help with work right across the curriculum. I have no doubt that my understanding of the value of using rapscallions will just grow and grow. They are a universal in oral cultures so there must be a very good reason!

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Wonderful memory workshops

The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. I want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales to our location in rural Victoria.

The Orality Centre staff

The staff (L to R): Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steel, Damian Kelly

Lynne Kelly gives the opening address.

Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the 20 largest countries in the world to different abstract art works.

They managed to link the creation at left to Thailand.

The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.

At the end of the workshop they could still name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.

Alice ran workshops on Winter Counts and Memory boards.

The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.

Lisa Minchin (below right) encoded the local wattle species to her memory board.

Rumour has it that her very patient partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.

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Memory Workshops – The Orality Centre

The Orality Centre will run the first workshops using indigenous memory methods on Saturday 17 June 2017.  All details are on The Orality Centre site including the link for bookings. For further information contact info@theoralitycentre.org. Click HERE or on the image to go to The Orality Centre.