Memorising and understanding history

I have been asked so many fascinating questions since I started this blog. One is about the way memorising can help understanding. I can best explain with an example from one of my experiments. This about a general understanding of history starting from knowing very little indeed.

timeline

My history walk involves walking from home to the corner (1000 BC to 0 AD), then in four 500-year sides of the block until 1900. (OK, mathematical pedants, the last one isn’t 500 years). Each side is then be divided into 25 year spans. So I can date any event I have encoded in the walk to within about 15 years just by remembering where the location is. I can encode an exact date if I want to, but usually I don’t bother. Ten years here or there is good enough for the understanding I want. I have no intention of attempting to be a quiz champion!

This is more about a general understanding of history than in depth historical study.

I could try memorising a timeline chart. Or even constructing one, but I now it will end up overloaded with text. My walk through time can have a huge amount added and it doesn’t get crowded, because I only extract what I want to think about.

Now let me go and stand somewhere. I’m (mentally, not physically) over on Templeton Street, about half way up the third block. It is the year 1200.

Mesa-Verde-National-Park

I have just walked past King Richard I, with a lion in his tree. (All Richards are located in trees, the lion gives me Lionheart.) But he’s a quarter of a house behind me, so about 10 years ago. Right on the corner is King John. So he has just come onto the British Throne. Robin Hood is there, too. Up the lane is Great Zimbabwe at its peak, the amazing civilisation in Zimbabwe which is now only ruins. The Ancestral Puebloan cultures have been going for centuries at their amazing sites at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde over in America’s southwest. I can see that Chaco is starting into a decline. Oh, and Genghis Khan is on the rampage. (He’s the tall rusty garden ornament with evil looking claws.)

As I walk the next thirty metres or so, I greet Albertus Marcus, see the Magna Carta being written, witness the demise of King John and Henry III take the throne, greet Thomas Aquinas and watch the Mongols invade Russia. Looking ahead I can see that the next few decades will see the start of the Ottoman Empire. We’re still in the Song Dynasty over in China (that started down at the church gate where I imagined hearing hymn singing in Chinese), and Marco Polo is heading out there (China, not the Castlemaine church).

Glancing up to the corner at 1500, I can see a lot of wars ahead, but also the Renaissance coming, Vasco de Gama reaching India and Christopher Columbus heading out to the New World … with so much in between.

So at this moment, here on the corner of Randall Lane in Templeton Street, it is 1200 AD and I can just look around me and see all the locations I have encoded. I can see the whole world, what has been and what is coming. I don’t have to memorise any dates, or the order of events. It’s all embedded in the landscape.

Can you imagine the questions arising in my mind? Why did little Spain and England head off and take over so much? Why did the Puebloans stay in their own domain and not take over? Thousands of questions and the Big Picture in which to think about them. This leads to adding more and more into the Big Picture, be it more information on any of the events and people I already have encoded, or adding more events, countries and people. I have hooks for everything already fixed in the spaces. I just have to hook the data onto the trees, doors, gates, walls, ornaments, cracks in the pavement, marks on the road … plenty for everything.

I haven’t studied history since the early years of secondary school. My historical knowledge was appalling when I started this task. Now I can’t get enough of it!

This sort of analysis happens with all my memory spaces, massive and miniature. More of those in future posts.

Does that start to answer the question about the way understanding and higher level thinking is linked to memory systems?

Memorising the periodic table

periodic_table-6

I have been asked how you would use the memory arts to memorise the periodic table. I would use what is known as the Method of Loci or the Art of Memory. This method is attributed to the ancient Greek and Roman orators. But this same method is used by all indigenous cultures, known as memory trails, paths and, in Australian Aboriginal parlance, Songlines or Dreaming Tracks.

Please note that I am only using the mnemonic aspect of the Songlines and in no way suggesting that this is all there is to these sacred songs and tracks through the landscape. More of that in a later post.

You will need the list of elements in writing because we don’t have elders to accompany us and teach us.

1. You need to set up 118 locations for the 118 elements. I would use your home and nearby garden or street.

2. Choose the starting point for walking around your home. We’ll allocate ten elements per room.

3. The door is 0 and the window (or some other midpoint) is 5. I always use the door and window so I am never confused.

4. Choose 4 locations between the door (0 or 10 or 20 or … depending on what room you are up to) and window. Four more back to the door.

5. Allocate element number 1 to the first position – (location 0 is wasted here). Hydrogen. Now comes the fun part. Stand at that point and make up a hydrogen story. The weirder, sexier, more grotesque, more politically incorrect it is, the better. Say I am at a bookcase. Then blow up the bookcase with a hydrogen bomb. You have started your first story.

6. Move to the next point. Say a cupboard. Fill your cupboard with Helium balloons for a very wild birthday party about to happen. You cannot lose any element because each has a location.

7. Keep going to each location. Don’t hurry. That is critical. Don’t hurry. In fact, when the medieval monks were talking about meditating, often they were talking about the images created for memorising virtues and vices!

8. If you want to add in other details, add them to the story. Say I have Mercury to encode at the kitchen bench. My bench is now all shiny and silvery with a liquid metal. I am also killing off all my guests with mercury poisoning. I will now hug them all as they die. Hg – the symbol for mercury.

9. What about an element which is totally unfamiliar? Say, Seaborgium. You find some kind of pun or association in the word. I would imagine borgs at the seaside. The important thing is that everyone needs to make their own associations or they are harder to remember.

10. You want the structure of the table? Lots of ways – maybe just remember the shape, it isn’t very difficult. But I would probably do a sing – a new line song. I’d make it up with the last elements of the lines, A Noble Gas Song: Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton … just sing it away to yourself while cooking or showering.

11. You now have the elements in place. You don’t need to memorise numbers. That is done for you. You can jump to any atomic number because there’s a key location, a door or window, within three jumps of any element. You can start adding in identifiers for their state, like alcohol as part of the story for all liquids. Your creativity is only limited by your imagination.

12. The usual criticism of this method when it is first explained is that it is too cumbersome. You have to remember more than if you just memorised the elements. You will never hear that from anyone who has tried it.

Do the first ten elements and let me know how you go. The more you do it, the faster you will get at making up stories and creating images. And the wilder your images will get. Whenever you are sitting around waiting, or bored out of your mind at a meeting, just mentally walk around your house collecting the elements. They’ll soon be in place and will never be forgotten. Trust me!

This is an excellent article on The Periodic Table, including Tom Lehrer’s famous song – with animation. https://theconversation.com/the-periodic-table-from-its-classic-design-to-use-in-popular-culture-52822?

Memorising birds

chough-400
White-winged chough. Photo: Damian Kelly.

I have now memorised the 408 birds of my state, Victoria, in taxonomic order. That means I can name each of the 82 scientific family names and all the birds in that family – all from memory. I am using a combination of methods used by indigenous cultures starting with encoding the families onto my memory board, an adaptation of the African lukasa.

I am then using stories and puns and weird images to encode the members of the families.

side-view-lukasa
My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand
whistling-kite-raven
A whistling kite (family Accipitridae) being chased by an Australasian raven (Corvidae). Photo: Damian Kelly.

Now that the structure is in place and I know all the birds, I am adding more information, much as indigenous cultures do as they move to higher levels of initiation. I’m adding memory aids to identification, distribution and other characteristics. I will soon be a walking field guide with a knowledge base which is becoming constantly more comprehensive.

A year ago, I would have sworn I couldn’t do this. Now it is fun and I am convinced I can memorise anything which can be structured in some way.

This is just one of the experiments in my 40 memory experiments.

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