Four Memory Techniques

img_0805Someone sent me this article on memory codes (Ted Hand of Twitter), and it contains four memory techniques that I’m looking forward to trying out quite soon:

  1. The memory walk
    1. Lists of countries
    2. Timeline of local and planetary history
    3. Local botanical lists (common & scientific names, families, habits, uses)
    4. Local birds and animals (scientific names, families, habits)
    5. examples
      1. Songlines
      2. Portolans (sailing directions from Dark Age Europe, not pre-literate, but not maps)
  2. The Memory Board
    1. examples:
      1. Lukasa board (west African)
      2. Polynesian maps of reed and shell for Pacific navigation
    2. Purposes:
      1. Board marked with carvings, beads, and shells
      2. For tracking songs and stories
      3. For naming birds and animals
      4. Navigation
  3. Memory Objects
    1. individual stories
    2. individual songs
    3. Examples
      1. knots tied in a string (“qipu”)
      2. objects in a bag (each object associated with a story)
        1. Knots in a string as an object in a bag
      3. Coolamon (Australian aboriginal ‘dish’ with incised designs)
  4. Sky stories
    1. “Greek Mythology” mostly what I know now.
    2. star lore
    3. Astrology (as I tend to define it)
    4. Navigation

In a pre-literate culture (excuse me, in a “primary orality culture”), you need to know lots of information about the world related to plants and animals. Gordon, in his course on Journeying (for Premium members) has talked about people in the jungle.  If you encounter a jaguar, don’t look away from the jaguar.  That means you’re meat, legitimate prey.  Maintain eye contact with the jaguar.  In a similar way, you need to know your habitats and environment. That means you need to know your travel routes.

It always amazed me, as a teacher, to discover that kids literally did not know what routes they took to school.  Traveling in the passenger seat (with their faces more and more frequently shoved into phones), they didn’t know the paths they’d taken to schools or what turns would get them from campus to home.  Driving swiftly by, they had no sense of the landmarks.  (Map-reading is getting to be an occult skill. Isn’t that weird?)  The students who rode their bicycles to and from campus were much better acquainted with the natural world than the students who rode in cars; and I, who grew up walking to and from school, have a much better memory than many people I know, because I had two 45-minute walks in silence most days (pre-Walkmans, we couldn’t travel with our own sound-cloud around us) to rehearse what I’d learned in school or to think through what I needed to do in school.

But here are four specific memory-building skills to work on and build.  The article indicates that these techniques work; it’s simply a matter of practicing them.

Memory Walks

Once, I was traveling in a hired car to a major airport.  The driver was using a GPS system mounted to his dashboard.  I asked him if he liked it.  He said, “I’ve driven this route to the airport every day for years, sometimes three or four times a day. When the company put this in, I thought, I don’t need it — I know the route to the airport so well I can do it blindfolded in rush hour.  Now? I’m not sure I can live without it. It guides me through all the back streets when the highway isn’t fast enough, and it helps me find clients’ homes faster.”

For me, the drive to the major New York City airports from my parents’ house involves going past the 1939 World’s Fair grounds, and the New York Times printing building, on Long Island. It’s easy to connect that trip with events in American history, particularly more recent history since the Great Depression, and since I started reading newspapers (though less so since I more or less stopped reading newspapers like everyone else did in the early 2000s).  It’s already a memory trip.  There are other, similar trips near my parents’ home — like the walks to and from the schools, that are freighted with memories about biology and French and Latin and mathematics.

But what if we could get exercise and train our memories at the same time?

The memory walk involves traveling along some planned route, and stopping every so often to remember some piece of information.  The author of the original article, Lynne Kelly, mentions using Memory Walks up to a kilometer from her house that help her remember birds’ names, plant species, and the list of the countries of the world (U.S. State Department link).  This list is alphabetical; other lists are by population, though one could do it by geographic area too, I suppose.

I can think of three or four walks that I take now that have “songline”-like components: tell this story here, tell that story there, remember this snippet of information, recall how this left turn goes to that destination, and the right turn goes to this other place.  Using a GPS to navigate takes a lot of the stress off our brains… but apparently it also de-trains our brains in certain ways that we might want to bring back.

So, I guess what one does is print out the things to be memorized, like the list of the countries of the world, and read an entry from the memory list every 10 steps or so.  Worth experimenting with.

The Memory Board

I really like the look of the Lukasa board from the Luba people of west Africa from the article —a a board with carved proturbances, and attached beads and shells.  Kelly used the board to memorize the 412 birds of her area, and she found that it worked quite well.  I would also like to memorize all of the birds of my area, and the native plants.  But I also wonder if you could use a method like this to memorize all of the Shakespearean sonnets, for example?

We can imagine what that might look like:

🤳🔆?   (compare thee to a summer’s day?)
👉👩🏻⚡️ (thee, lovely, temperate — need a thermometer emoji)
💨♊️ (Rough winds, May)
♋️♌️♍️📆! (Summer’s lease, deadline)
🌆🌆🌞 (Too hot, eye of heaven)
🌞🌤🌤🌤🌤🌤🌤🌤⛅️ (gold complexion dimmed often)
🎪🎡📉 📉 (fair, fair, declines, declines)
🎱🎰🌳⛵️ (chance, nature’s, changing course, sails untrimmed)
🔄🌞⛔️📉  (eternal/recycling summer not fades)
⛔️👧👱🏻‍♀️👵🏼👳🏽 (nor lose perfection.
⛔️☠️🤠😎 (nor death brag, shade)
📝🕐🕓🕖🕖🕙▪️◼️⬛️ (lines, time, growing)
👨‍👨‍👦👨‍👨‍👦👀👀👁 (men breathe, eyes see)
☝️🙌🏼🤓🤓👉 (this gives life to you)

Memorable?  Yeah, sometime tomorrow you’ll talk about the guy who encoded Shakespeare in Emoji.  Memorizable?  Maybe. We’ll see.

The article warns about the “Chinese whispers” problem.  This is the game known in the U.S. as “telephone” where one person concocts a phrase, repeats it in a secret whisper to the next person in line, who passes it to the next person, who passes it to the next. The longer the line, the more people in the line, the more likely it is that the final person has none of the original words of the first person, and the message is gibberish or turned around.  The use of memory tools — especially memory tools that are embedded in decorative elements of essential objects, like food trays among Australian Aboriginals —  helps assure these things of frequent repetition and reactivation.

Memory Objects

More general than memory boards appear to be memory objects — a range of small trinkets and tokens stuffed into a bag.  It’s already possible to do this with runes or coelbren or ogham letters, of course… but then you’re making it a literacy game instead of an “oral primacy” game, right?

Poems and stories seem like a good fit for memory bags. But you could also have dried pressed leaves stitched to a piece of bark, to talk about plants.  Or you could have stones from various places in the region to teach elements of history, like the story of three judges who hid in a cave; or carved bits of wood or bone to represent specific pieces of tribe or family history.

Strings with knots in them would tell family genealogies.  Clusters of objects in the same bag would tell a range of stories, too.  And strings that were knotted around objects would include the objects in the story — so making a wire-frame for an object, and then tying that to a string, or having a string of differently colored beads, would also count as a memory object if each object told a memory.

Sky Stories

My dad mentioned tonight in conversation about his time working as a flight navigator for the Naval Air Service and for various airlines, that there are about 57 stars, plus the Sun, the Moon, and Polaris, which are used for night-time navigation.  When he was in Naval navigation school in Pensacola, FL, these were the stars he learned — most of them in the Northern Hemisphere, and many visible quite far into the South.

The first fifteen of these stars are, as it so happens, the Behenian Stars.  And these stars are the beginning of plotting the Mansions of the Moon, and the Decans of the Zodiac.. So I already have a lot of sky stories that I should think about committing to memory, myself, that are tied to regions of the sky.  Learn the poem, learn the region, learn what the sky looks like when the Moon or the Sun is there or here… learn the sky, learn to be a better astrologer (and astronomer, and navigator, and storyteller… )  It’s also possible that you could learn a great deal of W.B. Yeats material from his book, A Vision, based on the 28 phases of the Moon, and attach it to the sky… since that’s what he wanted you to do, anyway.

A lot of the stories that I know personally about the sky are from Greek mythology, which provides a lot of the underlying story of the constellation names as we know them in the West.  But I ought to make a point of learning some of the other stories, too.


So, there you are: four new memory techniques to play with, and some ideas about what to learn with each of those techniques.

Let me know how it plays out?

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