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.”

Guest blog: experiments with memory

I am getting a lot of emails from readers which is so rewarding. Some are trying out the memory methods and are as astounded as I was about how effective they are.

A memory palace - From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.
From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.

Barry described his experiences. I will hand over the blog to him as he writes so well I don’t want to change a thing:
________________

I thought you might get a kick out of hearing how your work has impacted someone. It’s certainly had a powerful effect on me!

I’ve always been interested in the mystery of prehistoric civilisations, and of Australian indigenous culture before its catastrophic disruption by the Europeans. Your book has changed the way I see all of that. Myths and legends are not childish fantasies, but are multilayered storehouses of information! Astonishing, and yet, in retrospect, so obvious!

Anyway I could rave for ages about the insights into human history you’ve given me, but I will resist. I’ve been happily raving to practically everyone I know.

Of course, your book is a double-whammy — not only casting a new perspective on non-literate culture, but also painting an intriguing picture of the potential of using these long-neglected memory systems. I’d encountered memory palaces before, but they always seemed like too much hard work, and perhaps of dubious worth beyond remembering long shopping lists and playing cards.

Charged with new enthusiasm, I decided to make some memory journeys of my own. I too normally have a rather vague and temporary kind of memory. Here’s what I’ve tried:

First memory path

I live in a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and often walk to my office in town — about a 10 minute journey. I took note of potential sites and took photos of them all. Then I added them to a spreadsheet and gave them all unique names. I then worked to be able to remember each in order.

Following your principle of marking 5s and 10s, I added special markers to every 10th item. Every 5 spots I make special by imagining them as extremely cold. This worked well, as any story I add is enhanced by the dramatic cold. I can easily remember where the “cold” sites are.

This path is now 118 stations long. I’ll make it longer but it will involve a lengthy hike into the outskirts of town where landmarks are further apart.

Periodic Table of Elements

As a test, I decided to memorise the elements. It’s not something that I particularly need, so I figured if I messed it up it wouldn’t matter. It took about three weeks, but I got there. The marker system makes it easy to jump to any point by atomic number. It piqued my interest and I bought a little pocket book about the elements, which I’m now using to add interesting facts to the stories.

Countries of the World

I liked this idea and decided to emulate it, using my existing memory track. I was worried that the Elements would interfere but to my surprise they made it even easier! Each station is now ready-made with extra meaning and personality that makes them distinct; so the countries and the elements just seem to reinforce each other without getting confused.

I’m still working on this one. I’m up to Bolivia (the Monkees singing “Daydream Believer” in a South American accent, compressed into a Ball of Ears and rolling around. It’s also the station for Lead, and fishing lines with lead sinkers are casting their hooks into the ears and pulling them around painfully).

I do like this journey, because the countries of the world are mentioned all the time, and now when I hear their names I think of their special place and I have a chance to add to it.

Ukulele Chords

I’m sick of not being able to remember the chords when I jam with people. I normally have to look them up on my phone. Now I just have to think for a moment and I have the chord I need.

I made a small circuit in my garden, with 12 stations, each representing a musical note. Each station has a totem animal to remind me of the note, eg “B flat” is Beetle. Each station has two stories, one for the minor chord and one for the major. The major story is high up, the minor story is low down or underground. I turned the finger positions for each chord into 4 numbers and converted them into words using a version of the “major system”. This gives me the basis for each story.

I guess I eventually I won’t need this system as I’ll have learnt it by rote.

(BTW did you know that the etymology of “rote” is unknown, and may have the same origin as “route”? Interesting…)

Future Plans

Next I would like to learn something about the natural world. such as all the known edible native plants of Australia. I don’t really want to make another great big memory trail, so I thought a portable memory device might be the way to go. If you can provide any guidance in the construction and use of lukasa-style devices I’d be very grateful.

Other ideas:
major stars by constellation
bones of the human body
muscles of the human body
planets and moons
geological time
history
trees of Australia
birds
fish
Spanish vocabulary
software design patterns (I’m a software developer)
That’ll do. I hope you found my account of adventures in memory land of value!

Thanks again for your magnificent work.
Regards
Barry

______________

Thank you for your magnificent email, Barry!

Memory Code workshop

memory workshop

There has been a great enthusiasm from readers of The Memory Code to learn to create memory devices and implement them in their own lives. Twenty people gathered for the first workshop at Castlemaine Library on a Saturday morning. The goal was to learn two different methods inspired by indigenous knowledge experts.

The first technology was to imitate the memory board known as a lukasa from the Luba people of West Africa. Variations of memory boards are found all over the non-literate world. The first stage was to select pieces of wood which had interesting grain which could be used to enhance the visual location of each bead. Then about 120 beads were selected from a large selection, for looks and for touch. Each person chose the beads which most appealed to them. These were then glued onto the boards and left to dry.

library-lukasa-2 library-lukasa-3  library-lukasa-1

We then spent about half an hour creating a memory palace in the participants’ homes. They started encoding the countries of the world in population order to locations within their houses. One has reported back that she got the first 80 in within a week! The information about the countries in each location is infinitely expandable. See Memorising the Periodic Table for the method.

library-lukasa-6We then returned to the lukasas. Each participant had their own ideas about what information they were going to encode to their memory boards. These varied from birds, plants, Australian Prime Ministers and chemical elements to human anatomy. Each worked out the structure of the data they were using – some from sheets I had already prepared, some from lists or books they had brought. We have no elders to teach these things so have to rely on written records as the starting point. This followed the method I talked about in Memorising Birds.

The feedback has been fantastic. People have really engaged with the methods and discovered, as I have, that having information in memory enables you to see bigger patterns, to have the information readily available and ask new questions. And it’s so much fun!

See also:
My 25 Memory Experiments
Starting a Contemporary Songline
Memorising and Understanding History
Memorising Birds
Memorising the Periodic Table

Starting a contemporary songline – Countries of the world

A number of readers of The Memory Code have asked for the specifics of how to start a contemporary songline to memorise a particular set of information.

songline
Walking my songline with Epsi

For example Naomi wrote:

So Lynne – ‪#‎songlines‬ – time to get down to nuts and bolts. I have just read your chapter walking us through your memory line walking Epsi. How did you do it? Given that you are experimenting with oral memory did you carry a list that you wanted to memorise? Or gradually add to it like building a wall – one item at a time? Obviously it now resembles something organic, evolving and expanding as necessary – but how did you seed the memory line? Thanks in advance.

Kath wrote in part (the full email is at the end of this post):

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. …  For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

Of the 25 memory experiments, the best starting point is using the landscape as a set of memory locations – the classical technique known as the method of loci. Walking the path – be it around the house or garden, around the block or through the bush – enables you to fix the locations. The easiest is to start with a room. I put ten locations in each room of the house – five from the door (included) to a window, then five more more back, including the window and out the door.

So the first ten locations I use are in the front door (which I think of as 0 to match the multiples of 10 for all the doors) and the first location is the (1) sofa, (2) bookcase, (3) desk, (4) corner piece, (5) window, (6) ornament shelf, (7) TV, (8) little table and (9) picture on the wall. The door out of that room goes to the corridor and is number 10. Then the first location in the next room is number 11.

So if I was doing the countries of the world (as I do in this palace) in population order, it goes (1) sofa-China, (2) bookcase – India, (3) desk – USA, (4) corner piece- Indonesia, (5) window – Brazil, (6) ornament shelf – Pakistan, (7) TV – Nigeria, (8) little table – Bangladesh and (9) picture on the wall – Russia. I then head around all the rooms, around the garden, out the front gate and around the block for 242 locations (I include independent protectorates and countries) finishing with Pitcairn Islands when I am nearly back home from getting the shopping.

Ideally to mimic non-literate cultures, I would use no writing. Unfortunately, I have no elders to teach me the songs and stories and the links to the locations, so I must get my information in the way it is handed on in my life – in writing. For countries, that is a list of the countries and independent protectorates in population order. For history, that is the way I want to divide up the walk into dates. For my stone row, that is the author I want to associate with each stone, my set of authors being structured in chronological order.

I then start assigning data to locations. One you have a location – place in a room, a fence post, letter box, tree or gutter, house or shop – then associating the key information to it will initially take a few minutes. You will get quite fast at it, but don’t push too hard at first. Meditate upon the images, have fun, create stories, imagine people out the window, look for shapes in the wood grain or stone, scratches on the letter box, shapes in the branches or on the trunk of a tree …. You will find something which links either to the concept or event you are trying to associate or to a pun on the words.

Attached the item – let’s say Cape Verde to a shop. If, like me, you naturally associate the word ‘verde’ with green, you find something green to focus – in my case a green window ledge. That little ledge will always jump out at me when I look at the shop in question. Everything about Cape Verde is associated with green – such as little green men from the moon wearing capes – the more outrageous the better. You will have no trouble adding layer upon layer of information. The capital of Cape Verde is Praia, pronounced pry-er. So my little green men are prying in the shop window – their leader, the Chief Pryer, is now my main character.

Do I have everything written down? No. I only have the list of countries in descending population order, their capitals and the population. Once I have the concept linked to the location, I add more just from memory. I hear or read that Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa, so I imagine Pryer landed from the moon, trying to get to Africa – he missed. He keeps jumping from island to island, but never getting to the mainland. On the news, it was reported that Cape Verde was a very poor country, but has achieved political and economic stability. That is unusual in Africa, so I add that to the story because Pryer can’t take over through money nor politics.  He tries, though. That leads to some interesting questions about the nature of colonisation, the original Portuguese colonisers and slave trading, and the story gains more depth. And so it goes on.

You don’t need to add the information to the sequence of locations in any particular order, because the sequence is grounded in the landscape. You can never run out of space or story to add an infinite amount of information to every single location.

And everything you ever hear about Cape Verde from now on will make you see little green men from the moon wearing capes. I promise. Sorry about that!

______

Kath’s email in full:
Dear Lynne,

I am partway through your fascinating book, which I borrowed from the new books’ shelf at Yass Library last week. I read Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’ many years ago, and found that very interesting too. Before that, I had never heard of songlines nor learnt much of Aboriginal culture, other than the pathetic smattering we received in primary school in the 1970s and 80s.

However, like most things I have read in my life, I have forgotten most of the book! I therefore found your explanation of your memory experiments both amazing and inspiring.

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. For instance, my main hobby/interest outside of work is tai chi and qigong. (If you are not familiar with the term qigong, pronounced chi-goong, it loosely translates as ‘energy cultivation’ or ‘energy work’. Tai chi is one form of qigong). I have read a lot about the subject, which I practise for about two hours each day, but like everything else, the information goes into my mind and almost straight out again. Each week my teacher, who is a veritable font of information, tells us more, which also goes into my notebook and then straight out of my head.

The knowledge of the art of tai chi, which is rooted in Taoism, is incredibly deep and complex; it’s the kind of thing that once you start learning, you realise there’s no end to it. I was reflecting that it’s a bit like the encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous societies that you write of. Much of the knowledge is stored in the movements themselves and the guiding principles behind the movements. But much is also written down, or presented as symbols or drawings. Like you were saying about the ‘simplified’ versions of Dreamtime stories in books for non-indigenous readers, there are levels upon levels of knowledge. You might hear the teacher say the same thing every year for ten years, and each time you hear it, you understand it in a different way or on a deeper level, depending on your amount of experience and knowledge. Some of the knowledge is also ‘secret’ in that it can only be told orally from teacher to student, and not written down. I never knew why, but from your book I can now guess that it’s to prevent corruption of the knowledge/Chinese whisper effect.

So I guess what I am asking, if you are able and willing, is for a few pointers on how I can begin to memorise and therefore gain a deeper understanding of this complex art.

For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

All the best, and I am looking forward to continuing your book.
Kath

SaveSave

The launch is happening – June 30

The launch is now available for booking. The end of the long haul is really happening.

I will be giving a talk first on the memory methods and how to apply them in your own life.

launch-ad

So excited!

Stonehenge – they moved their memory palace from Wales!

Thank you to the many people who sent me links to the various reports of this discovery and commented on how wonderfully it suited my theory on the purpose of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far.” Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist who led the study.

sh-bluestones
Click on image to go to University College London website and the full story.

I could not be more delighted by this discovery. In my recent Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and in my forthcoming book, The Memory Code, I offer a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and monuments around the world. The new findings in Wales fit the theory a treat.

My research is on the way non-literate cultures memorized vast amounts of practical information when they had no way of writing it down. All oral cultures used a combination of memory techniques and physical devices – their survival depended on accurate retention of practical information on plants, animals, navigation, genealogies, astronomy and timekeeping, seasonality, resource management, intertribal agreements and so on. The memory technology employed universally is the ‘method of loci’ or the ‘art of memory’, the use a sequence of physical locations to act as a set of mnemonic subheadings to the knowledge system. The information for each location is then stored in song and mythology, stories and dance – all kept in memory.

Stonehenge was built in the transition from a mobile hunter gatherer society to a settled farming community. Mobile cultures used a range of landscape locations to store information, such as the Australian Aboriginal songlines. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their buildings and streetscapes in the same way, attaching information to each location and then recalling it by walking, or imagining themselves walking through their memory sites. Modern memory champions refer to their sequence of locations as memory palaces.

What happened when hunter gatherer cultures started to stay in one place, an essential development if they are ever to farm? They were no longer moving between their landscape locations over the annual cycle but didn’t yet have a built environment. The simplest thing to do was to replicate their landscape sequence locally, such as with a circle of stones or posts.

The original monument at Stonehenge is now considered to have been a circle of stones or posts, possibly the Welsh bluestones. The huge stones in the centre, the familiar sarsens, didn’t come to the monument for 500 years after the first circles.

I have argued in my PhD thesis and both books, that the bluestones were particularly suitable as memory locations because of the variety of textures and colours in their material made them visually so variable which is great for encoding information. I thought that the builders brought the stones and knowledge of the method of loci from Wales.

If Parker Pearson and his team are right, then they brought their entire memory palace!

I could not have hoped for a better development.

 

The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in July 2016 in Australia and later in the UK by Atlantic Books.

 

Knowledge, Power and Stonehenge

This blog is a response to questions from archaeologists from a talk I gave on Thursday. I addressed a crowd of over 200 at the Castlemaine Library on the topic of “Knowledge, Power and Stonehenge” based on my book. There were a number of archaeologists in the audience who were very positive in their response and have contacted me with questions that they didn’t get a chance to ask. Here are two of the questions:

Q: Last night you only briefly referred to the new stone arrangement reported from Durrington Walls. Can you expand on the way you see this setting fitting with the dichotomy you argued is seen in mnemonic monuments all over the world? (See the post below this one for more details of the new findings.)

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Part of the stone row at Durrington Walls, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute.

In monuments used primarily for memory purposes, I am always looking for ordered sequences of stones, posts or mounds to replicate the sequence of landscape sites used by mobile cultures. When they get to city size and clear hierarchies, my theory no longer holds.

The ethnographic record from small-scale oral cultures all over the world is unequivocal. There are always both public and restricted performance sites in which knowledge is taught and exchanged. The restricted sites are essential for two reasons (among others): to retain power for those initiated into the higher levels of the knowledge system and to avoid the so-called ‘Chinese whispers’ effect. Knowledge is corrupted if it is shared willy-nilly. Knowledge needed to survive severe resource stress, for example, is always held at the highest restricted levels. In the Australian mobile hunter-gatherer case, the public / restricted performance site dichotomy can be seen with the public corroboree grounds and highly restricted bora grounds. In Pueblo cultures, between plazas and kivas. And so on.

In terms of the Stonehenge / Durrington Walls complex of monuments:  Stonehenge became a highly restricted site when the huge sarsens arrived about 500 years into its use and everything was enclosed in the centre. At the same time, the superhenge Durrington Walls was built, giving a new public performance space. There was also a fairly restricted set of posts near Durrington Walls, known as Woodhenge.

The news a few days ago reported that at Durrington Walls a sequence of up to 90 standing stones had been found around the edge of the henge. This is exactly the sort of sequence of memory locations I am finding all over the world. The Durrington stones appear, from the reports available, to be separated so that each is encountered singly, as required for memory locations. This gives a much more defined public memory site at Durrington Walls than it was before, with restricted sites at Woodhenge, and even more restricted at Stonehenge. This complex works as a single site. Stonehenge alone won’t fit the theory I outlined at the talk and in the book.

Q: I understood from your talk that you believed that the memory techniques used were a product of evolutionary convergence and different societies developed these methods separately, not that they are 60,000 odd years old and left Africa at the same time as humans; what is your basis for that position?

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The image links to the Trust for African Rock Art.

I confused you! Sorry! I believe that the human ability to memorise in this way probably dates to at least 60,000 years ago and is a critical part of human evolution – but I haven’t done that research thoroughly enough to claim that yet. There were evolutionary biologists in the audience who are very excited about this aspect and love what I am saying.

It is the implementation using sequences of posts, stones or mounds for sets of sequenced memory locations which I believe was developed independently. These monument types don’t appear in the archaeological record until the last 10,000 years or so. I think the evidence is there for the landscape being used as a sequenced set of memory locations for much longer than 10,000 years, but it is the specific implementation of the method locally on settlement which I believe has been developed by different societies independently.

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The image of the barrels marking one of the 27 post circles at Poverty Point, Louisiana, by Jenny Ellerbe. Used with permission.

The posts circles in the plaza at the mound site of Poverty Point in Louisiana, for example, weren’t copied from the British Neolithic despite their similarity in dimensions and the separation of the posts to stone and post circles in the British Neolithic. They developed this implementation because it is an incredibly effective method (the method of loci) that has never been bettered, and we all share the same brain structures.