History

Ben Pridmore, 3x World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 440 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Daniel Kilov interviews Ben Pridmore. Pridmore, from Derby in the UK, is a three-time World Memory Champion winning the title 2004, 2008 and 2009.Pridmore achieved this by winning a 10-discipline competition, the World Memory Championship, which has taken place every year since 1991. He holds the prestigious title of Grand Master of Memory.

 

Daniel Kilov: Am I correct in saying that your first foray into the world of competitive memorizing was something of an accident? I’ve heard that you didn’t know about memory techniques and even trained yourself to memorize a deck of cards without any system. What led you to enter the memory championships, when you did discover the techniques, and what about them caught your imagination?

 

Ben Pridmore: Yes, it was a complete accident. I got into memory sports thanks to an event called the Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO), which started in 1997—a big gathering of all the ‘mind sports’ you can think of, including board and card games as well as more abstract things like the World Memory Championship (WMC). I went there for the ‘World Intelligence Championship’, which I’d read about in the Mensa magazine (this was during a brief period when I was a member of Mensa, just so that I could boast about it—I was very young at the time). The World Intelligence Championship, that first year, was five full days of doing IQ tests (literally six or seven hours each day), and there was also a one-day intelligence competition on the Saturday, so that took up most of my time (I think the first MSO was nine days in total). But I did notice some of the other competitions going on at the time, and took part in a couple of them, too. It was fun enough to make me resolve to go back the next year and take part in as many different events as I could—the whole thing was very friendly, with a real sense of community; that was what appealed to me more than anything else.

 

I don’t remember paying any attention to the World Memory Championship that first year, but when I came back to the MSO in 1998, two things caught my eye—first, an interview with MSO star Demis Hassabis in which he mentioned that he was planning to learn memory techniques of associating numbers and cards with mental images and visualising them on a journey (as far as I know he never actually followed up on that plan, and I dismissed the whole idea as something someone had made up to sell books, but it’s still significant as the first time I ever heard about memory systems!) which inspired me to buy a pack of cards and see how quickly I could memorise it. I did it by the simple technique of reading and repeating back to myself until I knew it by heart, and it took me 48 minutes. I was still quite impressed with myself—memorising a whole pack of cards is quite an achievement! Then at the MSO it was announced that Andi Bell had broken the world record and memorised a pack of cards in just over 34 seconds!

 

With the knowledge that that was possible, I spent the next couple of years practising memorising cards, still without using any system—I didn’t think the top competitors would be doing it in any kind of different way—and got my time down to 15 minutes. In 1999 at the MSO I entered the ‘Decamentathlon’ (classic Tony Buzan name for a competition involving written puzzles in ten mind sports) and memorised a pack of cards and a number in competition for the first time. I don’t remember how many I got, but it probably wasn’t more than ten. I did meet Tom Groves, a memory competitor, there, and he mentioned memory techniques, but I still didn’t really register it as anything that really existed…

 

In 2000, planning out my MSO schedule to fit as many different events in as possible, I opted for the World Memory Championship, which was a two-day thing back then. It turned out to be the last time the WMC was part of the MSO, so it’s lucky I didn’t leave it until the next year! It was while talking to the other competitors (particularly Graham Old, Rob Carder and Tom Groves) that I finally got the message that memory techniques really did work, and decided to try them for myself. I bought one of Tony Buzan’s books, read the chapters on numbers and cards, and that night made myself a list of 52 images for cards and 100 for numbers, using the Major system. I found that I could immediately memorise a pack of cards in seven minutes, which was a real revelation!

 

That’s what really hooked me from the start—knowing that as I kept on practising, my times for memorising a pack of cards would keep coming down. There’s always another target to aim for, after all—five minutes, two minutes, one minute…I don’t think I really had the notion at that point that I could come anywhere near the world record, but I was interested to see how fast I could get. Cards were definitely the discipline I cared about the most—numbers were a sort of sideline and the others I wasn’t really interested in at all.

 

Daniel Kilov:  You may know more about the history of memory competitions than anyone else still active in the sport today. In an interview with Nelson Dellis, you referred to memory competitions in the 2000s as ‘The golden age of memory’. Why?

 

Ben Pridmore: Well, I called it ‘the golden age’ because I was in it—I wasn’t being entirely serious. But it’s true that the 2000s was the era when international memory competitions really took off— in the 1990s they called it the ‘World Memory Championships’, but it was really just contested by a handful of British people, with a German or two to make up the numbers. But in the ‘noughties’, knowledge of the existence of memory championships gradually spread around the world (thanks to that wonderful thing we call the internet!) and there was a lot of growth in places like Germany, Malaysia, India, China and many more. If the nineties were the starting point, the noughties were when it became a real world championship.

 

Daniel Kilov: What were the most memorable moments of that era? How have things changed?

 

Ben Pridmore: How have things changed? The obvious answer is that the scores have got so much higher! If you look at the results in 2000 and compare them to 2009, everything’s improved by such leaps and bounds, it’s amazing. And the process is still going on, of course—look at the scores I got to win the world championship in 2008 and 2009, and you can see they wouldn’t scrape into the top twenty at a world championship nowadays…

 

The other major change, as I said above, is how much the sport expanded and grew. Before 2000, there were maybe three or four memory competitions a year in the whole world. No local smaller championships, the only one that really counted was the WMC. Over the decade, they introduced a more formal structure, bringing in the ‘millennium standard’ system and setting out the format of ‘world’, ‘international’ and ‘national’ standard competitions. There was also a real world ranking list for the first time, which helped fire up everybody’s interest!

 

There were a lot of highlights in the decade. We started out with things very much continuing the way they were before, with Dominic O’Brien by far and away the best in the world, but with the widespread belief that Andi Bell had the potential to do much better if he could just get it all together—he had a habit of getting huge scores in some disciplines, then trying for too much and getting near zero in others. Incidentally, I’m always going to admire Andi more than any of the other top competitors over the years just because of the way he introduced himself to me when we first met in 2000—’Hi, I’m Andi, I’m one of the other competitors.’ To really appreciate that, you have to understand my philosophy of life, which basically boils down to thinking that the worst thing anyone can possibly do is act like they think they’re better than other people. (That’s even worse, in my mind, than acting like you think I’M better than YOU, which I also find infuriating.) But there’s a lot of thinking-they’re-better in mind sports in general, and the upper echelons of memory sports certainly aren’t immune to it, so Andi’s modesty made a very favourable impression on me.

 

2002 gave us our first big memorable moment, when Andi did get it together and blew everyone away, Dominic included, with the kind of scores that were unthinkable at the time. It was at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand that year, a traditional home for memory in the olden days, but it was very much the start of a new age. It was also the last competition I went to before I grew a beard—I just thought I’d mention that, so everybody knows how far ahead of the trend I was with facial hair.

 

2003 was the world championship I always described as my favourite. Held outside London for the first time, we went to Kuala Lumpur, and I had a whale of a time! I just re-discovered an article I wrote about it in 2013: http://mt.artofmemory.com/article/the-world-memory-championship-2003-3885.html.

 

Daniel Kilov: In 2003, you developed the Ben system, which still stands as one of the most significant technical developments in memory sports. What led you to develop your system? How have your systems changed, if at all, since those days?

 

Ben Pridmore: The Ben system (I originally didn’t like that name, but I’ve got used to it by now and think it’s quite cool after all) came about just because I was thinking ‘I need something better…’.

 

I was using a basic system with two-digit or one-card images, and memorising ten packs in an hour meant seeing each of my images ten times. It really didn’t work at all, so I needed a way to have more images. The only way I could think of to do that was to have two cards making a single image.

 

The first innovation I tried was expanding from a two-digit-image system to three-digit-images—my two-digit system was just the standard Major system, but I didn’t want to use that for three digits, because it would lead to a lot of clunky multiple-syllable words, and I wanted a simple, short word for each image. So I used vowel sounds for the second digit, giving me a one-syllable sound (consonant-vowel-consonant) for each three-digit number.

 

With a three-digit system, you have 1,000 images, 10x10x10. The ‘eureka’ moment was realising that two cards could be represented as 16x13x13 (2,704 images) if the first ‘digit’ was the combination of suits, the second was the number of the first card, and the third was the number of the second. After that, it was simple. And a nice side-effect was that I could then use the same images for a binary system, giving me an image for each 10-digit binary number (splitting it into 4-3-3 digit chunks, 16x8x8, 1,024 images). It all worked very nicely. I think I was the first person to design a memory system for the specific purpose of memory competitions, which is probably why it stood out at the time as being extra special. By now, obviously, there have been many improvements to systems created by other people, but I still use the same system that I came up with in 2003. It works for me!

 

Daniel Kilov: You won the world memory championships in 2004, 2008 and 2009. What did your training look like in those days? Did you have specific drills or did you just practise the events?

 

Ben Pridmore: No, I ‘just’ practised the events. I’ve always felt that that was the best and cleverest way to go about training for a memory competition—re-create as exactly as possible the tasks you’re going to have to do in the championship itself. Back then, very few people ever practised the hour-long disciplines; they knew they’d have to do them in competition, but their training was focused entirely on the shorter, quick memory. I was the opposite way around; the hour-long marathons were always my main focus. I think that once you’ve done that, your scores in the five-minute disciplines will improve as well, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You need to get your mind accustomed to concentrating on one thing for three hours at a time. And I think the only way to do that is practise!

 

My most intense training era was 2003 – 2004, after I won the world championship the first time. I never quite regained the enthusiasm and commitment to it that I had back then. I did get back a certain amount of motivation in 2007 – 2008, and did manage to win the title again, improving my scores from the level they’d been at in 2004, but ever since then I haven’t really had the will to keep going full-steam. Back in the early days, what I considered an ‘ideal’ training schedule was to spend about an hour every weekday evening after work doing speed cards and speed numbers, and then at the weekend do hour cards, hour numbers and 30-minute binary.

 

Daniel Kilov: How many hours were you training per week? Did you have specific tricks for maintaining that intensity of focus?

 

Ben Pridmore: I think I’ve answered this one as part your earlier question about whether I had any specific drills—the only ‘trick’ I used to keep focus, was to keep doing it, over and over again. The more you do it, the longer you can keep it up without your mind starting to wander.

 

Daniel Kilov: Do you use your techniques outside of the competitive arena? How do you go about translating your competitive expertise into more practical learning challenges?

 

Ben Pridmore: I don’t. I always get in trouble for saying this, but my techniques are designed for one specific purpose—winning the World Memory Championship. I just don’t have any interest in using them for any other reason. In everyday life, there’s no real need for memory techniques—you’re allowed to write things down! Or, as modern people would put it, you’re allowed to store things on your phone.

 

I don’t have any need for practical learning challenges. I’m not at school any more. I’ve long, long ago passed all the exams I’ll ever need to pass. I don’t need to improve myself (that sounds big-headed, I know!), because I’ve already got a job that pays me enough money to live on.

 

Daniel Kilov: How else, if at all, have your experiences in memory sports changed your daily life?

 

Ben Pridmore: Memory sports has completely and totally changed my life, just because it’s made me into some kind of semi-celebrity! And even apart from the added bonus of appearing on TV from time to time, memory competitions have given me an opportunity to travel all around the world (often for FREE!), meet a lot of amazing, wonderful people, and have a huge amount of fun! I will always feel vastly, enormously indebted to Tony Buzan for deciding that it would be a good idea to have competitions in memorising long numbers. If not for that, I dread to think what I would be. Well, I know what I would be—still an accountant, but without a weird and fascinating hobby. I’d be very boring and I wouldn’t be doing this interview…

 

Daniel Kilov: What do you think the future holds for memory sports? Do you have any theories about where the next technical innovations will come from and what they might look like? And what’s on the horizon for you, in terms of memory?

 

Ben Pridmore: The future will be… fast-paced. The big innovation of recent years is Memory League—head-to-head, quickfire, computer-based matches. So far removed from the original concept of the world memory championship that it doesn’t really count as the same thing, but it’s clearly got the mass appeal that the old-fashioned type of competition can never muster. I think it will almost certainly grow beyond its current small-scale set-up; my hope is just that it doesn’t totally eclipse those hour-long marathons. I’ve always tried to resist the gradual shortening of disciplines that has happened during my years as a memory competitor—you can admire somebody who can memorise a deck of cards very quickly, but to my mind it’s much more admirable to memorise thirty decks of cards in a one-hour period!

 

Interestingly, there hasn’t yet been any ‘specialisation’ of competitors—the best in the world at Memory League are also the best in the world at the traditional World Memory Championship disciplines. I would have expected it to be different, and just maybe, in the future, people will come along who only want to do one or the other. Then we might see some kind of interesting ‘schism’ which might sound the death-knell for Hour Numbers and the like. I very much hope not!

 

As for memory systems, I wonder how much ‘bigger’ they can get? One or two people are now using four-digit-image systems, with 10,000 possible combinations. A three-card-image system seems impossible, but I find it hard to believe we’ve reached a plateau. Scores will, of course, keep on getting higher—an interesting thing about memory competitions is that as soon as somebody’s set a score, other people can do it much more easily themselves. Then they set to work breaking the current record, and it just keeps progressing.

 

As for me, I don’t know. It’s been very nearly ten years now since I was at all fired-up about trying to be the best in the world. I’d like to recapture that enthusiasm, but I don’t really know how. I think what’s on the horizon for me, in the short term at least, is continuing to go to competitions because my friends are there. I’ll keep organising my own competitions (I’ve been doing that since 2006) and spreading the word about how much fun they are, so I’m not going to disappear. But I can’t see me winning anything again. Maybe I’m wrong…

 

Daniel Kilov: Is there anything you wish more people knew about memory, or the mind more generally?

 

Ben Pridmore: I wish more people knew there was such a thing as memory competitions. I wish more people knew how much fun they are. I wish more people knew how surprisingly easy it is to memorise a pack of cards or a 100-digit number. I wish the people who do know about memory competitions would separate them in their minds from the self-improvement concept that they’ve always been marketed as, and see them as a sport, specific and complete in itself. You wouldn’t ask Lionel Messi how people can use football-playing skills to help them pass exams or be a more effective businessman. Why do I always get asked how people can use my card-memorisation skills for that kind of thing?

 

Mensan Daniel Kilov is a Memory Athlete. He believes that we are all mental athletes; in a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.

For more, visit DanielKilov.com and follow Daniel on Twitter at @DanielKilov.

 

Dr Lynne Kelly on cracking The Memory Code

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Dr Lynne Kelly walking through a memory palace – the Avebury Avenue

Dr Lynne Kelly is a science writer and Honorary Research Associate at LaTrobe University. Her work focuses on orality and the mnemonic systems used by ancient and modern oral cultures around the world. She is most famous for her theory that Stonehenge served the purpose of a memory palace for recording and transmitting knowledge by Neolithic Britons. This was the thesis of her book The Memory Code. It’s a bold idea and one I was keen to explore. Lynne was kind enough to indulge me.

Daniel Kilov: Your book begins with the observation that individuals in non-literate cultures frequently display an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the land and skyscapes that they inhabit. Indeed, it seems that your journey into memory was motivated by the question of how this is/was achieved. What is the most impressive memory feat that you came across in your research?

Lynne Kelly: Two feats stand out as unbelievable achievements just because they really captured my attention, one in terms of the complexity of the information and the other in terms of the longevity.

The Navajo were able to describe a field guide to over 700 insects to ethnozoologists a few decades ago. The information not only included identification but also habitat, behaviour and stories integrating that insect into the cultural whole through mythology. Of these insects, ten were known because they cause bother such as gnats, lice, fleas or insects which attack crops. One was eaten, the cicada. All the rest were known because, as the ethnographers said, the Navajo love to classify. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not a trait of only literate humans. Once you add in all the other invertebrates, birds, mammals, amphibians, fish…the memory feat becomes even more extraordinary. Then add in a thousand or so plants, navigation, genealogies, laws, management of crops and domestic animals, hunting…the memory feat simply becomes overwhelming.

This feat particularly astounded me because I have attempted to identify insects and got nowhere. They are so much harder than the birds and mammals and other genres of critter. How many people can even identify the few hundred birds in their environment?

In terms of longevity, there are a number of examples of our Australian Aboriginal cultures retaining accurate descriptions of the changes in landscape dating back thousands of years. For example, the Dyirbal people from north-east Queensland have a story about the past when it was possible to walk across to the islands now called Palm and Hinchinbrook Islands. Geographers have since concluded that the sea level was low enough for this to be the case at the end of the last ice age, at least 8,000 years ago. It is simply mind-boggling to think that descriptions of events from so long ago could be retained so accurately without writing. I’m not surprised that these events tend to be linked to landscape formations because it is the landscape which acts as the primary medium for sequencing memory locations.

My research is about the mechanisms through which these feats are achieved.

Daniel: Your visit to Stonehenge was an important catalyst for the development of your theories, correct? Could you tell us a bit about your first visit to Stonehenge and why you think it is best interpreted as a memory space?

Lynne: I expected my visit to Stonehenge in 2008 to be fairly mundane. I was just visiting as a tourist with my husband Damian who had recently graduated in archaeology. I was researching my PhD on indigenous knowledge of animals through which I had started to glimpse the way non-literate cultures use the method of loci to memorise vast amounts of information. By that stage I had realised that the information they stored was so much more complex than I had ever realised, and I was including many genres along with zoology. My thesis was being derailed by a bigger question: how on earth did they memorise so much stuff?

I realised that out Australian Aboriginal cultures were using sequences of locations in the landscape as a memory device, sung pathways better known as songlines. At each sacred location along the hundreds of kilometres of songlines, they would perform a ritual, that is a repeated song, dance or story. It was these rituals which stored the pragmatic information I was looking at, encoded through mythology and integrated with spiritual beliefs. I also knew that the same methods were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans using locations within their built environment.

But what happened in the transition? Standing on Salisbury Plain that day, my thesis topic on animal knowledge in indigenous cultures got totally derailed as I added archaeology into the ever-expanding research topic. My precious animal knowledge was being engulfed by bigger questions. I realised that in order to settle, cultures would need to replicate the songlines in the local landscape to ensure that the information associated with this vast expanse of sacred locations was not lost. I realised that the perfect way to record the annual cycle of knowledge associated with the annual cycle of movement, seasons and ceremonies would be a circle of stones. That is why there are so many across the British Isles and Western Europe. The changes in the Stonehenge complex of monuments reflects exactly what you would expect of a memory palace as it moves from the needs of  a fairly open mobile society to a larger settled society, but that takes a lot of explaining.

Daniel: I’ve heard people refer to your book as the ‘Stonehenge book’. I found your arguments for Stonehenge as a memory space compelling, but your theory is really much broader than that, and is intended to explain many different sites. Could you give us a quick sketch of your theory concerning the role of these architectural structures as landscapes-in-miniature?

Lynne: I felt pretentious enough thinking I had a new theory for the purposes of Stonehenge, so my self-doubt became almost crippling when I realised that if I’m saying this is the natural way for a culture to memorise information in the transition from hunter gathering to settle farming, then it wouldn’t only be the British Neolithic.

In the small-scale cultures I’ve been looking at, in particular Australian Aboriginal and Native American, power was in the hands of those who controlled information. Power was not maintained through individual wealth nor coercion through using violence as it has been in all larger communities since. I identified a set of indicators which would imply that a monument was primarily memory space. These indicators formed the basis of my academic monograph published by Cambridge University Press, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.

Archaeologically, there should be no individual burials with wealthy grave goods. There should be no indication of a hierarchy where some members of the community were clearly far better off than others materially. If the major monuments built by these cultures were memory spaces, then that had to be the source of power. All of the Neolithic and American Archaic monuments met this requirement. They were all built in that transition from hunter gathering to farming, which is not a rapid transition.

Essentially what is required is a set of locations in a clearly defined sequence of memory locations. I started looking for all the other indicators for enhancing memory that I was learning about from Australian, Native American and other non-literate cultures.

Knowledge is performed in non-literate cultures. That is it is danced and sung and stories enacted. Monumental spaces are also performance spaces. Some form of acoustic enhancement is often present but what is essential is that there are both public and restricted performance spaces. As a member of a society is initiated higher and higher into the knowledge system, information is kept secret. This is essential to protect against the so-called Chinese whispers. This is particularly important when survival is dependent on the accuracy of information, such as how to handle extreme resource stress, long-term agreements with other tribes, resource boundaries and rights as well as changes in the distant landscape.

Timekeeping is an essential part of any society to run a calendar for ceremonies, agriculture and seasonal resource gathering. A wide range of methods are used in mobile cultures, but with settlement, maintaining a calendar according to the solstice, equinox and lunar alignments is the preferred method. Astronomical alignments are an essential part of the knowledge system. The timekeepers were always very powerful people.

All non-literate cultures use some form of handheld memory device, often abstract signs inscribed on stone or wood such as the Australian tjuringa, the African lukasa or the Native American songboard or birchbark scroll. Details of these devices were often hard to find as no one has made an inventory of these objects before and there is no common name for them. Wherever I looked, I found portable memory devices. Most used wood or stone decorated objects, while many used sculptures, sets of figurines and paintings on bark. Some cultures used bundles of objects while others attached information to the various arrangements of seeds or shells. The Inca used the incredibly adaptable knotted cord device known as the khipu. These mnemonic technologies are not used in isolation. Indigenous cultures integrate a range of mnemonic devices into a system where one method reinforces another.

All the indicators of a memory space were in the Stonehenge archaeology, as long as you consider the entire Stonehenge complex of monuments which the archaeologists say are linked, and as long as you look at the way they changed over the 1,500 years or so of use. These same indicators were also present in monuments all over the world which were used in the transition from mobile to small-scale settled cultures. Each site has to be analysed independently, considering the degree of settlement, size of the society, materials available and subsistence methods. I was able to show that the huge glyphs on the Nasca Desert of Peru also fit the same pattern. So do mounds and pyramids right across the Americas in the early stages of settlement, including the mound-building hunter-gatherer site of Poverty Point in Louisiana and many others. Understanding non-literate memory systems also explains the purpose of the extraordinary ‘great houses’ of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and why the non-literate Inca managed to outshine the literate Aztecs and Maya and control a massive empire without writing. By adding in the way Pacific cultures use genealogies to structure information, the purpose of the moai of Easter Island becomes clear. Unravelling the purpose of these monuments is just a matter of acknowledging the critical role of memorising vast amounts of pragmatic information in the absence of writing.

Daniel: Inspired by many of the indigenous memory systems that you’ve observed, you’ve conducted a number of your own memory experiments. Could you tell us about some of these?

Lynne: I have taken examples of each of the mnemonic technologies I researched and copied them in order to understand how the technology worked, not just how the indigenous cultures used it. For example, I have encoded a field guide to the 408 birds of Victoria to a memory board made of wood, shells and beads, based on the African lukasa. The birds are encoded in taxonomic order and I am constantly adding more information to it. I don’t need the board in the field to use it—I know it so well. I would never have considered attempting this before I understood the effectiveness of abstract designs on hand held objects as a mnemonic device.

I have set up landscape sequences based on the Australian Aboriginal songlines. To one songline I have encoded the 250 countries and independent protectorates of the world in population order. That is a set of discrete locations. In another kilometre or so of the local neighbourhood, I walk through continuous time from 4,500 million years ago to the present, watching all sorts of events play out and nodding to a vast array of historic figures.

I have created a knotted cord device based on the Inca khipu/quipu, sets of objects to manipulate, a totem pole, a series of stones and many more. To each I am encoding practical information for contemporary life as that is what I felt I had to do to see what was happening in my brain as I implemented these mnemonic technologies. I am astounded how effective they are and how differently my brain works when I use them. I am also astounded that we don’t use these methods in education. I am seeing patterns and asking questions that would never have occurred to me without the information stored in memory first.

Daniel: Your beautiful description of the songlines of Australian Aboriginals, with their use of the landscape as a way of ordering and retrieving memory images, is strikingly similar to the techniques used by contemporary memory athletes. These techniques, of course, are thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. When did you draw the connection between the song-lines and the Art of Memory?

Lynne: I was originally doing a PhD as a creative science writer in the English program at LaTrobe University. I was looking at the way the stories encoded accurate details of animal behaviour, identification and ecology. Then I realised how many animals there were once you add in the hundreds of invertebrates. Then all the plants and so on. Given that I am blessed with an appallingly bad memory, I started asking how on earth they could remember so much stuff. That changed my research question and I stumbled on the role of songlines.

At the same time I was looking at Walter Ong and his book Orality and Literacy which led me to Frances Yates and The Art of Memory. It just seemed obvious that the two techniques were exactly the same: take a set of locations in a fixed order and encode information to each location. Make the stories vivid, the characters grotesque, vulgar, extreme, very active—anything which makes them memorable. That is a perfect description of mythology, which Walter Ong identified as a mnemonic technology. It went from there.

Daniel: One thing which sets the techniques of the Art of Memory apart from most contemporary mnemonics (ROYGBIV, for example, as an acronym for the sequence of hues in the rainbow) is its general purpose nature. The principles and techniques can be applied to practically any learning task. To what extent do you think the memory techniques of oral cultures share this feature?

Lynne: They share this feature completely. The stories tell of all the practical knowledge, but enmesh that information with the laws, ethical stories, spiritual domain and all use the same set of mnemonic technologies. One device can encode a huge range of knowledge domains. The African lukasa, for example, has the history of the Luba Kingdom at one level, battle strategies and animal behaviour, ceremonial and initiation cycles and then, higher and higher levels of training add more and more information. But the higher levels were so restricted to protect the accuracy of the information, that with all the lukasa experts gone, there is no way to know what they stored. They would not have told uninitiated ethnographers.

The difference between linking information to physical locations, be they in the landscape of on physical devices, is that you can add layer upon layer of information in an infinitely expandable way. You don’t need to learn them in order. If you take something like ROYGBIV, or Thirty-days-hath-September …, then you can’t add any more complexity to the database. Songlines, memory boards, Stonehenge…they are all essentially database structures with the data held in memorable oral forms: songs and stories, dance and mythology. That data is in variable length data cells, each one infinitely expandable. But, if human memory is lost, then only the database structure remains. The monument, cave art or enigmatic decorated object remains but the knowledge encoded to it died with the last elder.

Daniel: It seems to me that the Ars Memorativa presents some interesting challenges to your theories. If I’ve understood correctly, your theory predicts that once a group of people fully transition from a nomadic lifestyle to permanent settlements, they lose interest in memory systems. Even more so for those settled cultures that develop written language. Yet the Ancient Greeks are often considered to have developed the first ‘true’ alphabet (i.e. one involving the consistent use of letters for both vowels and consonants) as well as the most advanced expression of mnemotechnics.

To push this even further, it could be argued that the Art of Memory, which played an important role in European thought until the 17th Century, even experienced something of a renaissance after the invention of the printing press.  I’m talking here about the work of Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno and others in the hermetic tradition, but also Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. What are your thoughts on this?

Lynne: I sincerely hope I have never given the impression that once the transition to permanent settlement is complete that any culture loses interest in memory systems. In fact, I draw heavily on Native American cultures, especially the Pueblo who have long ago left their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Before I continue, I also need to get picky about the term ‘nomadic’. A nomadic lifestyle is when a group of people wander through the landscape with the clear impression that they do not follow fixed paths. Australian Aboriginal cultures have not been nomadic for thousands of years. They are ‘mobile’. That is they move between a number of semi-permanent campsites over the annual cycle to optimise use of resources. Some of our 300 different Aboriginal cultures may live almost permanently in one location, while others are much more mobile. It depends very much on the habitat and availability of resources in one location. For me to talk about the method of loci, they must be constantly revisiting the same locations. A songline is essentially a set of locations that are known well enough to be able to sing in sequence and are revisited regularly.

I think the point you are picking up on is that I say that the monuments, such as Stonehenge and other stone circles, were abandoned once the society had grown larger and settled permanently to agriculture. The reason I give for abandoning the monuments is that much of the knowledge system is then maintained by specialists—the farmers, bakers, warriors and tradesmen. The society by this stage had become much more hierarchical and those in power maintain control through wealth and force. All the cultures I am talking about maintain power through control of information and therefore those in power could muster the resources to create the ancient memory palaces. Everyone in the society would have seen their value because of the dependence on those knowledgeable elites.  So what happens when the knowledgeable elite is no longer in power? They are still required to maintain a great deal of the information of the culture, especially the legal system, the history, much of the knowledge of plants and animals that still exist in the wild, astronomy, trade agreements and so on. In the British example, a thousand years after Stonehenge you have the Druids performing this role. But they are no longer the top of the heap. They serve the chiefs but are still powerful. They still use memory palaces, but these are embedded within the built environment, such as the Iron Age hillforts. You can see exactly this hierarchy in Pacific cultures and Native American and of course eventually in ancient Greece and Rome.

The development of writing and the impact on the memory spaces is one of the areas I’m looking into at the moment, but I will offer some opinions anyway in the understanding that I am more than willing to be corrected. Writing served to store tallies for trade and names long before it was used to record the narrative which told the stories of the culture in the performance mode that had always been used because performance is so much more memorable than a list of facts. So as you move from Homer to Cicero, Augustine and those you mention right up into the Renaissance, the nature of the memory techniques stays similar because that is how the human brain works.

However, you lose the complexity of the indigenous elders and their interwoven set of mnemonic technologies. And apparently that’s because of the genres of information which are still being stored orally. Slowly (very slowly) the performances move from being the encyclopaedic knowledge of the culture in purely oral cultures, to being a major repository for some aspects such as history and technology in Homer’s day to becoming primarily the medium for rhetoric, ethics and laws and eventually recalling screeds of religious beliefs. In order to retain power as the knowledge of critical pragmatic information is taken over by other members of society, the knowledge elites slowly adapt the mythological characters into gods and claim an exclusive link to them, thus retaining power in the role of priests.

The memory arts were never lost, they merely changed in their role within the power structure, the genres of information stored and their pervasiveness within the culture. We have gone too far. They need to come back and be embedded within our education system without losing any of the benefits that literacy has bought.

An educational revolution

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

imagesIn the first part of this three part series, I introduced the Art of Memory, a two and a half thousand year old method for memory training, and discussed its greatest living exponents, the competitors of the World Memory Championships. In addition, I highlighted the three key principles that animate all of the techniques used by memory athletes. In this post, I’ll argue that the right place for these techniques is not in history books, or in competitions, but in our classrooms.

For almost two thousand years, the Art of Memory was a cornerstone of western education. Taught during the renaissance alongside rhetoric, grammar and logic, these mnemonic techniques and training methods were employed and advocated for by many of the greatest minds of the western intellectual tradition including Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Francis Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. It was only during the Protestant reformation that the Art of Memory was driven underground.

In modern times, support for the importance of memory in education has come from the cognitive sciences. Research from across a range of fields of scientific inquiry has converged on the conclusion that memory is the king of cognition. Research has shown, for example, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players.

In 1946, Adriaan De Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high-level chess players. What he found was that it was remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent that give birth to elite chess performance. Chess is often thought to be a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy. But in reality, the most important difference between players is how many chess facts they have stored away in memory. Similar discoveries have been found across a range of fields.

To see just how powerful these techniques can be in an educational context, let’s run through a quick example.

As I explained in my first post, the key to these memory techniques is to create colourful mental images and organise them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later. For instance, perhaps we want to remember the word ‘por’, which in Spanish means ‘through’. To do so, we might imagine someone pouring something through a window. ‘Por’ sounds like the English word ‘pour’ and so we link an image containing the phonetics of the Spanish word to its meaning. To make it more memorable, we might imagine a great ocean pouring out of a tiny cup, and perhaps landing on some unfortunate passer-by.

Suppose we wanted to remember the Spanish word for monkey, which is ‘mono’. To do this we might imagine a monkey wearing a monocle.

Finally, to remember that the Spanish word for milk is ‘leche’, imagine a family of big, black leeches swimming around in a pitcher of milk.

As you go about your day, test yourself on these examples. To recall them, simply bring the relevant images to mind. What does the Spanish word ‘por’ mean? What is the Spanish word for milk? What does ‘mono’ mean? If you got these all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only a single viewing of each word you have taken your first steps towards learning another language. As well as being faster, mnemonics are much more enjoyable method of learning vocabulary.

Teaching students memory techniques would open up new vistas of learning to them – imagine being able to learn a new language in weeks instead of years as one competitor from the 14th World Memory Championships has done – and transform their relationship to learning. Given how little it would cost to do so, the case is strong for bringing these techniques back into the classroom. The techniques of the Art of memory represent a potential revolution in education, both in the obvious sense of the word, and because, as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.

Daniel Kilov, a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2013, is a Memory Athlete. He was the silver medallist at the 2011 and 2012 Australian Memory Championships and holds a national record for memorising abstract images. Daniel is also currently completing a PhD in philosophy at ANU and working as a memory coach and consultant.

The Secret of Memory

What do Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Bacon and Mark Twain all have in common? Watch my newest talk from TEDxManly to find out. In addition, I share a technique for high speed language learning.

This talk was wonderfully illustrated by Gavin Blake and I have included his artwork below:

TEDxManly talk illustrated