New discoveries about Stonehenge

I have been delighted by the numerous readers who have send emails and messages about the new discoveries about Stonehenge from the excavations in Wales. These wonderful readers have all enthusiastically claimed that the new findings fit beautifully with my theories about the purpose of Stonehenge and other monuments from the Neolithic.

The following is my response to the reports.

Image source and media report: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/feb/12/dramatic-discovery-links-stonehenge-to-its-original-site-in-wales

People need a vast knowledge system to survive, both physically and culturally. Cultures without writing have an alternative – orality – a complex of memory systems used to store a vast amount of pragmatic information. These mnemonic systems have been the focus of my academic research for well over a decade.

The new discoveries for Stonehenge describe a perfect system for replicating landscape sites when settling in the transition from a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one with a base in agriculture. Key to such systems is the essential need for mnemonic structures such as the stone or timber ‘circles’. This is why they are found all over the world in this transition phase.

There are two possibilities which logically led to the transfer of the bluestone circle from the Preseli Hills in Wales to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. At this moment, I don’t think the archaeology is sufficient to differentiate between them.

Firstly, an entire tribe moving from Wales to the Salisbury Plain took their encyclopaedia with them. This would require the circle to be erected in the same order as in Wales and oriented in the same direction. In effect, these people were taking their database of knowledge with them, the structure in the stones, and the data in their memories.

Secondly, a different tribe conquering those in Wales might identify just how effective this memory technique is and steal only the technology. Essentially, they stole the database structure and filled it with their own data. The bluestones are particularly suited to a mnemonic purpose due to the blotches and blobs in their material makeup.

For those not familiar with my work, the analysis of indigenous cultures from all over the world showing how they use these mnemonic technologies can be found in my LaTrobe University PhD thesis, published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (2015). An expansion of the archaeological sites for a general audience, but without as much technical detail, can be found in The Memory Code (2016). It is almost impossible to can see just how effective these methods are until you have tried them yourself. I get emails daily from readers astounded by their effectiveness. The techniques are detailed in Memory Craft (2019). In order to understand how the mnemonic technologies work from Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, you are best to read my most recent book, Songlines: the power and promise (2020). It is co-authored by Dr Margo Neale, Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director at the National Museum of Australia.

A full bibliography can be found on my website.

The archaeological team reporting on the new Stonehenge find, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, are outstanding archaeologists. I have been following Parker Pearson’s teams thorough archaeological reports for years now. Without their rigorous detail, I could not have developed my ideas. However, I do find the constant emphasis on death to be limiting thinking about the way such a monument would function in an oral culture.

There is no doubt that considerations of death would have been part of the knowledge system, but indigenous cultures tend to utilise integrated knowledge systems in which all facets of knowledge are interwoven in song, dance and narrative – and physical spaces. Physical mnemonic technologies used in every oral culture I have explored include the the entire landscape, localised monuments and portable mnemonic devices. There is good reason to assume that the oral culture at Stonehenge, a mere 5,000 years ago, would have done the same.

In Australia, we are so fortunate to be able to learn from a continuous culture dating back over 60,000 years. We have ample evidence from our Aboriginal cultures of robust knowledge of landscape and skyscape events dating back 17,000 years. (See Patrick Nunn’s amazing book, The Edge of Memory). That is how powerful these methods can be and why they have developed in so many disparate cultures.

There are so many signs that Stonehenge served as a memory palace that is not a simplistic claim. There are ten criteria that I look for before I even suggest that a monument is primarily a knowledge space.

This suite of criteria is replicated at Stonehenge. There is far too much to explain here – that’s why it took a thesis and four books to thoroughly cover the topic!

For example, the essential presence of portable devices is represented at Stonehenge by Grooved ware pottery and the Stonehenge chalk plaques.

Above: A Grooved ware pot I was shown by Dr Ros Cleal at Avebury. (Photo: Damian Kelly). Those familiar with my work will notice the similarity in the pattern to the back of the lukasa of the Luba people which we know was used a mnemonic device because they explained how they use both the back and front of the lukasa. Australian Aboriginal shields also show the same patterning. There can be no link between Neolithic Brits and these contemporary cultures other than they share the same neurological structures used for memory. And that is the key to it all!

The Stonehenge chalk plaques are similar to the one I was shown at Salisbury Museum by Director, Adrian Green. (Photo: copyright Salisbury Museum. Reproduced with permission.) They would have worked a treat as a mnemonic device, recognisable as such by those familiar with mnemonic devices from oral cultures.

Let’s return to the constant reference to death. It is interesting to note that the Guardian report linked above included this statement:

The remains of at least 10 of 25 individuals, whose brittle charred bones were buried at the monument, showed that they did not spend their lives on the Wessex chalk downland, but came from more than 100 miles away.

The first stage of the monument was the bluestone circle talked about in the media reports. There were no big sarsens in the centre. They came 500 years later. Does the evidence of 10 to 25 individuals over 500 years seem enough to suggest that it was primarily a cremation burial site, primarily about death?

Quoting: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/tv/stonehenge-stood-400-years-wales-19822260:

It was known that Stonehenge was used as an early cremation cemetery, but not who was buried there. … It will show how Stonehenge, believed to be a tribute to the dead, is actually a second-hand monument, brought by neolithic people migrating east into England from Wales.

Why is it believed to be a tribute to the dead? Surely, the vast amount of information needed to maintain life would be just as significant, if not a great deal more so. Granted, that knowledge is often integrated in teachings from the ancestors. In all oral cultures, the concept of ‘ancestors’ is far more complex than just relating to a memorial to the dead.

If we are to draw parallels from monuments and memory systems when considering Stonehenge, it is essential that we only consider evidence which dates from times when there has been little or no contact with writing. As soon as a literate culture intervenes, very quickly the power associated with knowledge and memory diminishes and the indicators are lost. We cannot transfer beliefs or customs from one culture to another, but we can transfer generalisations from multiple cultures about how humans maintain critical knowledge when they are dependent on memory.

The time has come to acknowledge that the people who built Stonehenge, and all the other incredible Neolithic monuments around the world, were not ‘primitive’ people on the journey to ‘civilisation’, but complex, intelligent, knowledgeable people with the same intellectual capacity as contemporary humans – embracing science (my focus), philosophy, ethics and so much more. Working with Aboriginal cultures, Australian archaeologists include such understanding in their interpretations every day. The rest of the world needs to follow suit.

The Dwarfie Stane / Stone

Reader Jimmy Dalek wrote to me about one of my favourite places on the planet – the Dwarfie Stane on wonderful Orkney. The stane or stone (both spellings are widely used) is a huge block of red sandstone about 8.5 metres long. It was hollowed out using the only tools available to Neolithic people: stone tools, deer antler picks, and a great deal of human effort over a long time.

Situated on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, this remnant of the British Neolithic is usually referred to as a ‘tomb’ – but the evidence is minimal. I have linked to the Wiki article about it below so you can see the accepted wisdom.

I think the Dwarfie Stane had a totally different purpose – that of a restricted meeting place – a critical component of all oral cultures.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Dwarfie Stane is the acoustics. I sat cross-legged and chanted in it and was blown away by the effects. Stunning acoustics might be a coincidence, but it certainly doesn’t offer much to dead bodies in a tomb. I believe that it was deliberate. Acoustic enhancement is one of my Ten Indicators of a Mnemonic Monument.

Jimmy sent the following message and photos:

I have just returned from a week in Orkney. I wanted to visit the Ness of Brodgar dig and see the stones, henges and cairns etc. So I did, with my beautiful friend. Last wednesday we got the ferry from Stromness to Hoy and we cycled to the Dwarfie Stone. I knew about it from Julian Cope’s book. The left hand chamber is bare with a slight lip on the floor the right hand chamber has a beautifully carved lip all round the front. I sat in this “main” chamber and hummed and sang some notes. When I got to just before the lowest I can go (I’m a baritone-ish) the whole slab hummed. Then stopped until I hummed it, then stopped. Then sang, it hummed etc.

In the space of a few minutes I had started to get the hang of it so in the hands of a master this would be an astonishing instrument. I came out after a while, grateful and knowing that this was where many students learned the song from the master. I say master because of the lowness of the notes required to make the stone hum. I tried higher notes but may not be as good with these as others. …

I realised that the difficulty in maintaining the vibration within the stone was probably caused by the damage to the roof and its consequent concrete repair compromising the sonic integrity of the stone.

p.s. It was barely audible outside the stone and thats without the large stone plug in position.

British Neolithic archaeology never ceases to astound me. I adore Orkney and its incredible Ness of Brodgar and many other Neolithic sites. Most of all, I adore the Dwarfie Stane.

Click here to go to the Wikipedia article.

 

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Memory and ageing

Would we reduce the impact of failing memory, and maybe even of dementia, by formally keeping people in contact with their personal memory devices – song, dance, story, art and landscape?

The many questions I receive about my research on memory tend to fall into three categories:

* How can I memorise better?
* What are the implications for education?
* And is there anything we can do about loss of memory with ageing?

The research focus for us at The Orality Centre will initially concentrate on these three questions.

Reader John Seed wrote a fascinating comment on the post titled Starting a contemporary songline. I have answered some of the post there, but wanted to reply to part of it as a post of its own. John wrote:

__________________  ______________________

I’m fascinated by your book and the possibility that it might help my own fading memory. Do you find that your overall memory has improved alongside your ability to remember those particular things – countries, plants,  for which you’ve built a songline/palace? My memory has been atrocious for years but this doesn’t prevent me from memorising long poems and the like. …

Speaking of workshops, are your workshops about building memory palaces? If so, I’d dearly like to attend one.

____________________________________________________

I am in my mid 60s. My overall memory has improved massively since I have been using the memory methods – not just the things I am consciously memorising. I am not sure of the reason, though. I suspect it is a combination of factors. I am more confident about my memory but I also set up hooks constantly and make links. I look for them now. Anything I want to remember, I make a funny or wild or quirky link. The more I have been doing this, the more a habit it has become.

As for the workshops, the answer is ‘yes’. I am involved in developing a whole range of workshops through The Orality Centre (TOC) to be starting very soon. Of course the main one will be about memory palaces, but we will also soon be running a workshop on making Personal Winter Counts. The idea is to create a memory device, tried and tested by Native American cultures, which will offer hooks for every year of your life. By maintaining the stories and links throughout life, the hope and belief is that this will provide a permanent memory device to help keep memories alive in old age. There are more details about Winter Counts and the planned workshop below.

What would happen if we embed our stories in memory palaces around our homes, and link them to music and dance and mnemonic objects, right through life? These are the memory systems used by our ancestors for thousands of years. If we use them deliberately throughout life, might this delay the onset of dementia? Or at least reduce the impact? Might living in our memory palaces keep those memories alive?

I have asked members of various indigenous cultures and the reply seems to indicate that by performing the rituals, the repeating of stories and linking to the memory devices, singing the songs and performing the dances, the impact of dementia is reduced. But these are only anecdotes asked in casual conversation. Enticing though it is, that is not evidence. We will be exploring recent research, making contact with experts in the field while following the experiences of those who participate in the workshops.

There have been quite a few reports recently which indicate that the brain retains its links to music and place when other intellectual capacities are failing. This is a few of them.

http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/the-optimist/this-former-journalists-weird-idea-is-transforming-the-care-of-dementia-patients-20161215-gtcby1.html

http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4421003.htm

http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4524857.htm

https://theconversation.com/the-power-of-our-song-the-musical-glue-that-binds-friends-and-lovers-across-the-ages-73593

Alive Inside is a documentary about the non-profit project Music and Memory made by film maker Michael Rossato-Bennett. This is a sample one of the patients working with the  late Dr Oliver Sacks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG7X-cy9iqA. The Music and Memory website is here: https://musicandmemory.org.

What if the songs they connected to were more than tunes and tales of love? What if they were songs recording critical information? What of that connection was also reflected in physical memory palaces? Would that make the ‘reconnection with life’ that the Music and Memory people talk about even more effective?

Personal Winter Counts

The Plains Indians of North America use memory devices referred to as Winter Counts. Named because the start of the year is taken from the first snow fall of the year, the animal hides or other fabrics are adorned with a new image each year representing the most signficant event of the year. Other events from that year are then linked to the key event and the stories recalled regularly to ensure the history is not forgotten.


Lone Dog’s Winter Count

Lone Dog recorded his calendar on buffalo hide for the Dakota Nation, each pictograph signifying an outstanding event from 1800 through 1871.

 

 

The Wajaje Winter Count provides the early history of the southern Teton Lakota tribes. Beginning with the center glyph, it documents the years 1758- 1759 through 1885-1886.

 

I have used a TOC-WinterCount to record the years from 1900 until 2013 (I must update it!) with one major event for each year.

TOC- is the prefix we are using at The Orality Centre to indicate that we are using the mnemonic technology of indigenous cultures but in no way claiming that our versions are the same as the sacred items of indigenous people.

At the TOC-WinterCount workshops, TOC staff intend to talk about the memory methods of the Plains Indians and make personal TOC-WinterCounts with attendees, each symbol representing a year of our lives.  An image of the key event will be there for each year on a piece of canvas which is easily rolled and stored. The stories linked to that event, to that year, should be retold and recalled regularly over life just as the Lakota and Dakota did for their community.

Please contact me if this workshop appeals. Although we will run it initially in Victoria, Australia, we may well work virtually across the country and even around the world.

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

Lukasa at the Brooklyn Museum

There were many highlights during the month of travel in the US and UK for the publications of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books additions of The Memory Code respectively. I expected seeing the two lukasas (more correctly, the plural is nkasa) at the Brooklyn Museum to be one of them. My day there exceeded all expectations.

There are none of the West African Luba memory device known as lukasa in Australia to the best of my knowledge. Despite having read everything I could on them and replicated the technology to act as my own field guide to the birds of Victoria, I had never seen the real thing. I have now!

Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Islamic World, Meghan Bill, took me to the storage area where she had the lukasas ready for me. It was sensational to see and hold the real thing.

Research shows that both the front and backs of the lukasa were used as memory spaces. The pattern on the back proved to be very naturally moved through in order when Meghan and I tried stroking it. That pattern is also found on British Neolithic Grooved Ware and Australian Aboriginal shields. It is a pattern which works for humans; they did not share this knowledge between vastly seperate societies. It simply worked so they used it.

The use of lukasa as memory boards has been a fundamental part of my understanding of portable memory devices. This was an incredibly important moment for me.

The lukasa on the Brooklyn Museum site:

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/102210

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/149225

You will notice other items in the photo below with Meghan. She had Yoruba divination trays for me to examine (which are also memory devices) and then took me to the Museum’s amazing collection of Pueblo kachina. And the amazing Paracas Tapestry is there as well! That was a discovery to make my heart sing. And there was Nasca pottery and … more posts to come.

Thank you, Meghan and the Brooklyn Museum.

Media descriptions of my work

I am finally home from the US and UK after travelling there for the publication of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books editions of The Memory Code respectively. I have a great deal to write as a result of the trip. All in good time!

It is always intriguing to read the way other writers interpret my work. Two of the longer media articles are worth referring to here.

Jim Rountree‘s article More Than Memory appeared in Australia’s most respected science magazine, Cosmos, in February. It is now available online. Not only does Rountree encapsulate my ideas in a more succinct way than I have ever managed to do, he also writes it beautifully as well. I am very flattered to have such a quality article about my ideas in such a quality magazine. (Click here or on image to go to the article).

The second was a long interview with Memory Athelete, Daniel Kilov. It appeared in the January / February edition of Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus and is now online at Daniel’s blog, Mental Athlete. (Click here or on image to go to the article).

 

 

 

The Memory Code – Public lectures – US/UK

Thank you to those who have been asking about public lectures on my book tour for the publication of the North American edition of The Memory Code by Pegasus Books and the UK / Europe edition from Atlantic Books. There are lots of meetings and other exciting things happening, but below are the public events booked so far.

New York: Note that two events were advertised at the same location, different titles, an hour apart. I am not sure if it is two lectures or one! I’ll fix it here when confirmed. IT IS ONE LECTURE AT 3 PM.

Saturday 11 February, New York Public Library: Stonehenge and Other Strange Places, 3:00 pm,
https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2017/02/11/stonehenge-and-other-strange-places also advertised as:

Saturday 11 February, New York City Skeptics: A Skeptic Tackles Stonehenge: The Memory Code, 3.00 – 5.00 pm, Jefferson Market Library.
https://www.facebook.com/events/211380229314876/

Washington DC:

Wednesday 15 February, National Capital Area Skeptics: A skeptic tackles Stonehenge: The Memory Code,  7:30pm. Rockville Library.
http://www.ncas.org/2017/01/february-15-rational-approach-to-oral.html

Thursday 16 February, American Institute of Architects: The Memory Code and the foundation of architectureA limited number of public seats will be available. http://www.aianova.org/event.php?eventID=1436

Nottingham:

Wednesday 22 February, University of Nottingham: Indigenous memory and Stonehenge – yes, there is a link, Workshop and public lecture.

Workshop: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lynne-kelly-memory-workshop-tickets-31219799260

Lecture: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lynne-kelly-lecture-indigenous-memory-stonehenge-yes-there-is-a-link-tickets-31219661849

Thursday 23 February, Cardiff University: The Memory Code, Archaeology seminar. This is an in-house seminar for the archaeology department, but there may be an opportunity for other archaeologists to attend. Please contact me for more information.

Monday 27 February, Fortean Society, London. Monumental memories: Indigenous memory and Stonehenge. The Bell, 50 Middlesex Street, London E1 7EX.
Train and Tube: Liverpool Street. Tube: Aldgate, Aldgate East. 7.45. Bookings: http://forteanlondon.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/monumental-memories-indigenous-memory.html

Thursday 2 March, Gravesend Skeptics in the PubMonumental Memories: No. 84 Tea Room and Eatery, 84 Parrock Road, Gravesend, Kent, DA12 1QF
http://gravesend.skepticsinthepub.org/Event.aspx/10216/Monumental-Memories-a-Skeptics-Extra

I know some people are coming from further afield for the London events. I will have dinner beforehand in a nearby restaurant to meet up with them. Please let me know if you wish to be included.

Reader Response: memorising birds and then more …

Peregrine falcon (c) Damian Kelly

Reader Jonno Roche wrote such interesting emails that I asked permission to quote our conversation here. This is an edited version of the conversation, but left long because I found what Jonno had to say absolutely fascinating:

“I found the idea of the different scales of memory spaces from handheld objects to landscapes just fascinating. …  Anyway, I was inspired. My real question was where to start. I enjoy bird watching in a relaxed kind of way. I find it adds a real sense of depth and vitality to any landscape to notice who lives there, so a list of birds seemed a good place to start.

Great egret (c) Damian Kelly

For a variety of reasons, my best option was a mobile memory tool, and eventually, I decided on a set of tarot cards. Firstly I already own a copy, but more importantly, they give me 78 nicely ordered points broken into convenient sections, they are dense in imagery, highly mobile, and easily replaceable. The only real downside is that I get slightly embarrassed pulling them out in public, because I don’t want anyone thinking I am angsting fruitlessly about my future, when really I am just daydreaming about birds. Still, it’s a small price to pay.”

 I was intrigued to hear how Jonno was using a set of tarot cards for the birds as I use tarot cards for other memory purposes and the African memory board, the lukasa, for the birds as described in the post Memorising Birds.  It is absolutely fascinating to see what other people doing with their memory spaces.

I must admit to having the same issue with using the tarot cards in public. I love Jonno’s expression ‘angsting fruitlessly about my future’. He continued:

“So I made a list birds of Tasmania and Australia’s South East coast. Within a week, I had memorised the order and names of 76 different bird families. I needed an etymological dictionary to help me with the names, because otherwise, they were just so many meaningless noises to me. The translations are often so delightful (Bloody feet, Thick headed, Bald faced pointy beak) that they really add to the imagery. I have one family per card, expect a few very large families which spill over two, just because I ended up with a couple of extra cards. I am now filling out the families with individual species. By the time I am finished, I will have over 300 birds listed.

Superb fairywren (c) Damian Kelly

I am surprised at just how vividly and easily I am able to recall a list which until now seemed impossibly complex.”

I was astounded how fast Jonno had managed to commit the family names to memory using the cards. I took a great deal longer. Jonno also talked about doing little stylised sketches of the cards which is reminiscent of the way indigenous people draw as they tell the story and then either destroy the drawing or just throw it away because it is the process of drawing that fixes things in memory. I find the rhythms of drawing, singing the family names, actions I have for particular families and the characters I have given them all interact to make the information memorable.

Jonno continued to astound me. A fortnight later he wrote:

“I can now recite the complete list of 76 families with 322 individual species. … Although I really appreciated how easy it was to simply add a bird to a family list, some of the cards became a bit overcrowded. There are several cards which have the family and just a single representative, but one has the family name and eighteen birds embedded in it. They fit, but it is not very comfortable. I have found that the ideal size for a block of information is a heading and four to five associated points.”

What fascinated me is that Jonno had come to the same conclusion as I have, that four birds is the most that fit comfortably at a location. For any families of five or more species, I add a little landscape journey for that family putting four birds in every house.

The Ancient Greeks also labeled every fifth location to keep track of things, so maybe that is a natural division for the human brain. Jon continued:

Still, I was really using the birds as a way to explore the process, and I have found it fantastically successful. Because I now have an ordered way of thinking about birds in general, my mind tends to naturally rest on them when there is nothing more pressing to think about.

With it being human nature to see what we think about, I suddenly find I am seeing birds everywhere and in far larger numbers than previously. Also, because I have such a rapid way to categorise them, I can identify them much faster and more confidently than before, even if it is just being able to identify to a potential group of two or three and then use a reference to come to a decision later on.”

I love that Jonno wrote that he can now identify faster. I couldn’t identify before because I didn’t know what was possible. This is part of explaining why these methods are not rote learning, but again it is so hard to explain to someone who has not tried it.

Despite having no information in the list on what the birds look like or what their habits are, I find that just being able to name the bird is usually enough to be able to automatically recall this extra information if I know it. I also have a smallish but slowly growing group of birds which I can identify just by their calls, which adds a whole lot to the experience.

So I am greatly enjoying my bird list.”

But Jonno didn’t stop there!

“While I was about half way through my bird list, I needed to impress some people at work. I decided that since the original intent of these techniques was to recall information which your livelihood depended on, I should probably put some work stuff in there.”

Jon described how he had encoded course summaries for his work in clinical governance to the same set of tarot cards.

Blue faced honeyeater (c) Damian Kelly

“I found I had room for three short courses in the deck. One was on efficiency principles (major arcana), another on implementing organisational change (most of the minor arcana), and a third on basic negotiating techniques (The last 11 cards of the minor arcana). … Memorising the work stuff is much harder than the birds. The ideas are very conceptual – ‘Measure sources of resistance’ for example as opposed to, say, ‘Blue faced honeyeater.’”

Critically he wrote: ““There is such a huge gap between birds and workplace efficiency that they can comfortably occupy the same space without getting mixed up.” 

Jonno has really got hooked on this memorising and has further ambitions which he described at length – this is the gist:

“Once I get all of this information settled in I would like to memorise a book. … I am aiming to memorise Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’ … I have a few ideas for using a lukasa board type arrangement to map out star patterns and attaching a calendar and practical gardening information to them.”

A fortnight later, Jonno wrote again describing why memorising is not something that requires additional time:

“It is very neat how this information meshes into everyday things. It really does slot into the idle minutes of the day. Outside of little snippets that I use, I run through the deck from start to finish each day for both the birds and the course list, but this tends to happen when I am walking from place to place, or waiting for the kids to go to sleep, or am otherwise not really doing anything. Unless I am actively pressing to learn something in a hurry, it doesn’t displace anything from my day.”

“… The two lists I have on my deck do not interact very much at all. I might be trying to recall cultural alignment in the workplace when a butcherbird leaps to mind, but they don’t really ‘move together.’ I guess this is because the two subjects just have no commonality at all, but I would suspect that as more information goes onto the cards, the stories will start to roll into each other more. I hope so. I think it would have a real ‘adventures of a cultural hero’ feel to it.”

And then a few days later, Jonno wrote again:

“I didn’t mean to write to you again so soon, but I stumbled on to a great success, and you are the logical person to share it with.

I had to do a 20 minute presentation at work to the senior managers justifying what I have spent the last year doing, so that I could then get them to agree to adopt my ideas, extend my project, and give us more funding. It was a very information dense 20 minutes with a lot riding on it. … I really didn’t want to use notes.

I was looking for a method of what I see you have called an ephemeral memory space. I didn’t want to use my tarot deck as I didn’t want short term information confusing it. I found your ideas on palmistry in the 33 experiments section of your blog very intriguing, but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it. Just at the right time, I read a fascinating article you linked to by Tyson Yunkaporta on building characters into the fingers. Based on these two sets of ideas, here is how I laid out a set of characters in my hands.
Little finger – Kinship child
Ring finger – Story mother
Middle finger – Dreaming father
Pointer finger – Ancestor teenager (niece/nephew)
Thumb – Culture hero
Each finger divides into five sections, and these represent different body parts of the character as follows.
Nail – Head
Finger pad – Hands
Middle section – Torso
Bottom section – Legs
Ball of finger – Feet
Although the gender of the mother and father are set, for the other characters, I have males on the right hand, and females on the left. Also to make them more distinctive, I imagine the characters on the right hand to be short and squat, while the characters on the left are tall and thin.
This then gives me ten distinct characters to use as major points, and the sub points are represented by what they are doing with various parts of their bodies.

I spent a lot of time over the three days running over the speech and counting it off on my fingers as I went, while the various characters sprouted trees from their hands, developed talking feet and all the other crazy things that happen with this kind of imagery. In one interesting cross over, the character simply walked on to my imagination stage and held up the appropriate tarot card where I had embedded a bunch of stuff from the workplace efficiency course I mentioned in a previous email. …

I made little sketches to help make them more memorable. I also made a point of practicing under conditions of ‘controlled stress,’ like when I was making dinner while my two kids both held individual conversations with me. 

Needless to say, the presentation was a raging success, and the only sign of me ‘reading from my notes’ was very subtle hand movements where I was counting information on my fingers.

Although I suppose it is technically possible to use this as a long term memory device, I think I will just keep this exclusively for short term situations like what I have just described. I am happy to have a set cast of characters that can have a crazy bunch of adventures for a week or two, and then rest for a while until the next ‘story’ comes along.

Anyway, once again, thanks for your ideas and I hope you liked the story.”

I loved the story. I loved everything about the long emails and our discussion which has been reduced quite a bit for this post. I have found it very exciting to see how someone else has taken the ideas from The Memory Code and implements them differently, yet the underlying principles are so similar.

Rufous fantail (c) Damian Kelly

I thank Jonno for permission to quote his words and look forward immensely to his next update.

Reader question: moving away from a memory space

[Click on all the images to get larger sizes.]

Miroslav Kalous from Prague in the Czech Republic, wrote and asked:

I’d like to thank you for the idea of “large memory spaces” which is really thrilling and I’m on the verge of building my own ones (one related to history till 1900, one for 1900+ years, one for specifically “all things Egypt” as that is a major country-project I’ve begun dealing with now).

However, I would also like to ask you one question before I begin, very practical one: unlike you (from what I understood between the lines), I don’t live at a permanent place; probably in 2 years I am going to move, then live somewhere else for other 3 years, then perhaps settling down for a longer time span at one place. As an experienced mnemonist, do you think it makes sense to start building the spaces where I live now? But what happens when I (or you) move? Re-writing all the loci spots into new palace/memory space is probably not realistic… and I am too much of a newbie to mnemonics to know if you can operate with, i.e. two complementary places. Also, I suppose, when moving somewhere else you lose the (critical?) advantage of going through the space and using them as “flashcards” prompting active recall of the stuff stored in there.

What a great question! I am so embedded in my landscape now that nothing would make me move. But as Miroslav points out, that is not practical assumption, especially for those much younger than me.

The first idea is to use public spaces which are unlikely to change. A quick check on Google images of Prague and – wow  – what a stunning city! The bridges across the Vltava River, as in the image above, looked wonderful to use as a set of memory loci.

There are a huge range of other possible solutions. These are often discussed on the Art of Memory Forum under “Method of Loci” – my favourite forum on the Internet

http://mt.artofmemory.com/forums/method-of-loci

One solution which was talked about in memory treatises written in the Middle Ages was to use an imaginary memory palace. One suggested way back then was to use Noah’s Arc as described in the Bible, but maybe something a little more contemporary is required.

Some people use sets of locations from their favourite films or books. It is a matter of creating the palace and a set of locations from that film or book using your imagination to add in extra locations or details. You would then, I expect, draw that memory palace and label it and keep it forever as your reference. You could even use Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

You could create your own imaginary world much as fantasy writers do. In fact, I have created imaginary worlds before when teaching science fiction and fantasy writing and I have just decided to try this as a memory experiment because I loved doing the maps and creating the worlds.

One quite common virtual memory palace is to use one from a video game. I’ve never tried this so I have no idea how it would work but I gather they can be very effective.

Another palace people use is this school or home from childhood and re-create these locations by drawing maps, just adapting any blurry remembering with imagination.

Commonly recommended in classical Greek and Roman, mediaeval and Renaissance times was using a famous building. Gothic churches were extremely popular and even designed with this use mind. Chartres Cathedral, as in the three images shown, is often discussed in these terms. 
You can use any streetscape. I would imagine the National Mall in Washington, for example, would work a treat. With the White House and all the Smithsonian museums and plenty of images online, you could easily create a memory palace that could be infinitely adaptable by adding the internals of each of the buildings if you wanted to expand it. There are visitor maps online for all the buildings. See below.

This is really fun thinking about all the possibilities, but I’ve got far too excited about creating my own fantasy world to write more. Sorry! Gotta go and start drawing!

 

Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

My new essay is now available free from open access academic publisher, Rounded Globe.

Download here: Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

The description from the Rounded Globe website:

“Non-literate cultures depend on their memories to store all the information on which their survival depends, both physically and culturally. They effectively memorise entire field guides to the thousands of species of flora and fauna along with navigational charts, genealogies, astronomy, history, geology and the ethics and laws by which they live. How do they manage to remember so much information when they are dependent on the same fallible memory as you and me?

This essay will explain the mechanisms by which indigenous cultures know their world and how specific information can be remembered accurately over millennia.

The memory methods in question declined in use as literacy made them seem redundant in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but this essay will argue that we have lost a valuable skill, just as Socrates predicted we would. In the last part of the essay, ways are suggested of reinstating oral technologies alongside literacy, thereby providing a powerful platform for lifelong learning.”