This Ancient Mnemonic Technique Builds a Palace of Memory

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Enmeshed with the vitalised landscape, some indigenous cultures also use the skyscape as a memory device; the stories of the characters associated with the stars, planets and dark spaces recall invaluable practical knowledge such as seasonal variations, navigation, timekeeping and much of the ethical framework for their culture. The stories associated with the location in the sky or across the landscape provide a grounded structure to add ever more complexity with levels of initiation. Typically, only a fully initiated elder would know and understand the entire knowledge system of the community. By keeping critical information sacred and restricted, the so-called ‘Chinese whispers effect’ could be avoided, protecting information from corruption.

Lukasa Memory Board, Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Rock art and decorated posts are also familiar aids to indigenous memory, but far less known is the range of portable memory devices. Incised stones and boards, collections of objects in bags, bark paintings, birchbark scrolls, decorations on skins and the knotted cords of the Inca khipu have all been used to aid the recall of memorised information. The food-carrying dish used by Australian Aboriginal cultures, the coolamon, can be incised on the back, providing a sophisticated mnemonic device without adding anything more to the load to be carried when moving around their landscape. Similarly, the tjuringa, a stone or wooden object up to a metre long decorated with abstract motifs, is a highly restricted device for Aboriginal men. As the owner of the coolamon or the elder with his tjuringa touched each marking, he or she would recall the appropriate story or sing the related song.

This is very similar to the way the Luba people of West Africa use a well-documented memory board known as a lukasa. Previous researchers have claimed that the ‘men of memory’ of the Mbudye society would spend years learning a vast corpus of stories, dances and songs associated with the bead and shells attached to a piece of carved wood. My initial attitude when I read this was complete skepticism. It was surely claiming far too much for such a simple device. So I made one. I grabbed a piece of wood and glued some beads and shells on it and started encoding the 412 birds of my state: their scientific family names, identification, habitats and behaviour. It worked a treat. I no longer doubt the research. Though simple, this is an incredibly powerful memory tool. Inspired by my success with the lukasa, I have also created songlines for more than a kilometre around my home. I have a location on my walk for each of the 244 countries and dependent territories in the world. I walk through them from the most populous in China to little Pitcairn Island. I also walk through time from 4,500 million years ago until the present, nodding to the dinosaurs, meeting our hominid ancestors and greeting numerous characters from history. My memory has been hugely expanded by using this ancient mnemonic technique.

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