I love books. I was shocked to discover, as an adult, that a large percentage of the population never read for pleasure. I read fantasy, science fiction and non-fiction, particularly when it has anything to do with how humans might become better than we are. I have gears for reading. Some books are best skipped through quickly so that I can get the sense of them and others deserve slow and careful reading, sometimes looping back to savour details. Every so often I come across a book that changes my brain. Lynne Kelly’s The Memory Code is that kind of book.
It was recommended to me by a proud First Nations woman when the Black Lives Matter debate seethed and churned across social media. “This book will help you to understand why we think you’re all stupid.” She was right.
Dr Lynne Kelly started her PhD in the English program at La Trobe University in Melbourne with the intention of exploring animal stories from indigenous cultures. Instead she changed archeology, and our appreciation for non-literate cultures forever. The absence of writing in any culture has long been the racially biased basis for determining that they were stupid, or at best, not as clever as people with books. What doctor Kelly discovered is that these cultures developed encyclopaedic collections of knowledge and remembered them by coding that knowledge into landscapes and objects. A First Nations memory holder from any one of these cultures could accurately recall vast amounts of detailed information.
In the process of exploring her ideas about memory codes, Dr Kelly solved the mystery of Stonehenge. She now wins the best-story-at-a dinner-party competition forever. The stone circle is a memory place, used by those trained in interpreting the various bumps, marks and ridges on the stones to recall an entire culture’s significant information. There are no survivors that can read the stones, but by exploring the use of similar methods in living and ancient cultures Dr Kelly makes a compelling case for Stonehenge potentially recording subjects as diverse as astronomy, important weather patterns, directions to other places, genealogy, legends and spiritual practices, along with the intricate details of plants and animals, dangerous and beneficial, and where and when they were available.
Dr Kelly makes the observation that modern ‘memory masters’ who compete by seeing who can recall the order of a deck of shuffled playing cards in the fastest time are using similar techniques. They create a mind palace filled with memorable places and link each card to a place. To recall the order of the cards they retrace their journey. Ancient Greek orators recorded a similar practice, using physical landmarks to help them recall speeches. Across the earth Dr Kelly finds evidence of memory codes, and while some are completely unique to a particular culture, all are based on the same core concept; our brains have the capacity to remember information if we link knowledge to something physical, or to a remembrance of something physical.
There are now hundreds of reviews of this wonderful book and it is not my intention to review it. You can tell I loved it and I highly recommend it. I would read it just for Dr Kelly’s chapter on how she has used the same methods to vastly improve her own memory. Instead of reviewing it I to write about was the way this book changed my brain. Reading it prompted all kinds of new thinking. Here, in no particular order, are those thoughts:
My husband tells a story of a time he was given a competency test as part of a job interview. It was one of those infuriating tests of your ability to choose the next pattern in a sequence, with each task more complex than the last. When the examiner told him that the time was up he asked if he could just finish the last couple in the book. The examiner looked shocked. He was only supposed to complete the first of eight sections.
Graham has a gift for patterns. He loves maths and music and can look at a page of computer code and often see what is out of place. I recently found video of a memory expert online who taught me a memory code for the last ten presidents of the United States: When I proudly demonstrated my new-found if somewhat useless skill to Graham he promptly rattled off the names of all ten without any kind of code. When I asked him how he remembered them he replied “I just know the pattern.”
Interestingly, Graham can find it difficult to engage in rapid conversations or to express his thoughts quickly. He describes his thoughts and emotions as being “…not in words but more colours, senses and feelings. Even trying to find words to describe thoughts is difficult.” Is this a genetic remnant of the ability that some humans had to remember so much information? I wonder if people with synesthesia have better memories. Would I remember something more clearly if my brain automatically attached a smell, a colour and a sound to it? Graham doesn’t have this condition but I suspect his memory works in a similar way. Patterns are everywhere for him. The whole world is mathematical.
I think Graham, and people like him, would have been part of a small group of memory holders within a non-literate culture. Dr Kelly suggests that these people were secretive and guarded their knowledge. I think it’s also possible that those elders with the ability were always on the lookout for the few gifted youngsters that would be able to rise to their level. We see this in permaculture. Some people have no interest. Others are happy to do an introductory course and read a book or two. Some complete a permaculture design course and a few go on to tertiary education. A very small number become designers and an even smaller number work on evolving permaculture itself. It’s not that this last group are jealously guarding anything, but that so few people have the interest, skill or inclination.
Is it possible that memory masters would have been eagerly seeking anyone will a natural proficiency like Graham’s in the hope of ensuring succession? Is the reason that places like Stonehenge became redundant related to the appearance of the written word, and the possibility that young people with good memories no longer saw any point in developing this skill? Why bother when it could all be written down.
My good friend Kate McCallum reminded me of this quote by Socrates:
[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Have books made us stupid? We often buy them and put them aside to read later, sometimes never getting to them or we read them quickly and forget them. It’s possible that Socrates knew of great memory keepers in other cultures. He certainly would have practiced the orator’s memory techniques. Reading Dr Kelly’s account of how her own experiments with memory coding have vastly increased her capacity to store and retrieve knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, to link it in new and unusual ways makes me wonder at the wisdom of Socrates. If an academic of Dr Kelly’s standing can experience such an expansion of her ability using these methods what might our culture have been if we had never developed writing? Or if we had developed writing but retained our capacity for remembering. What might happen if we relearn these skills?
My phone is my brain now
Our ability to record knowledge ironically allowed us to forget it. We trusted that we could look it up if we needed it. This has only grown worse with technology. I used to carry significant amounts of knowledge around in my head, including the phone numbers, addresses and birthdays of all my friends. Now my phone remembers all of this for me. Has freeing my mind from these mundane lists opened up more room for creative thinking or have I become dependant upon my phone?
When we learn to speak
If you think about it, we all start by using memory codes. We learn to talk and to remember long before we learn to read and write. We develop our knowledge in exactly the same pattern that Dr Kelly describes being used in non-literate cultures. We start simply, attaching a word to an object, person, animal or place. In time we add more information. ‘Woof woof’ becomes ‘dog’ becomes ‘big dog’ becomes ‘big brown dog’ becomes ‘big brown hairy smelly noisy wet funny dog’ and so on. Children’s stories are often a scaffold for more detailed knowledge. Family rituals, games, patterns, expectations and language are all kept simple when we are small and become increasingly complex as we age.
We also use song, dance and emotion as children. Our earliest memories are usually linked not just to a place, but to our sensory experience of it and our emotions at the time. I remember surprise best of all.
When the written word is introduced we go backwards. A five year old can weave a marvellous story about magical lizards that hold moonlit parties but will be able to write only a few of the words in that story. What does learning to read and write do to our imaginations and our memories? I note that Steiner education doesn’t introduce reading until children are seven. Do Steiner educated children have better memories as a consequence?
Great authors use memory codes without knowing it. Really compelling fiction usually includes enthralling descriptions of place. Thanks to these writers I have sailed on live ships, sung crystals into shards and climbed down to the base of giant tree that was home for an entire civilisation. I can remember these stories as if I visited these places and probably recall them more easily because they are anchored by these vivid descriptions.
All authors know that they need to create some kind of context for their characters and a book will lose me very quickly if these descriptions are dull.
If I want to remember something I could create an imaginary land for that knowledge.
We are pattern-seeking beings
So much of our knowledge has been a search for patterns. We look for the patterns of seasons, weather, plants, animals, our own bodies, human behaviour. Patterns help us to make sense of things. Here is this pattern. Ah, here it is again! I know this pattern.
Memory is a patterning system.
I struggled to learn times tables as a child because I couldn’t find a pattern in the sixes, sevens and eights.
Systems thinking seems like a modern expression of the same kind of pattern that Dr Kelly describes in the memory code. She notices that knowledge stored using these systems is not divided into neat and isolated silos, but that it is all connected. This reminded me of the notion of holons within systems thinking; a holon in systems thinking is essentially the boundary that you decide to place around something in order to study it, while keeping in mind that all things are connected. You might study a leaf but you must not lose sight of the tree, the forest, the earth, the universe. Dr Kelly’s memory coding is not just a group of techniques for storing lists of facts but a different way of thinking about the connections and inter-relationships, real or imagined, between different sets of knowledge.
I wonder if thinking in silos is something that naturally emerged from written information. Once books arrive we need ways to store and retrieve books rather than knowledge. It makes sense to divide them by subject. Now the tail wags the dog. We write into the categories rather than linking across them. Only a human storage system can make unusual, innovative and surprising connections between apparently unrelated categories of knowledge. I’m doing it right now.
Scientific classification further divided our knowledge into silos, so much so that when chaos theory was first proposed it was rejected, not because there was a flaw in the concept but because it failed to fit neatly into any particular silo. Interestingly, Dr Kelly experienced similar difficulties at the start of her exploration. What was someone from a humanities background doing in archeology? The hide!
I remember an interesting discussion during my policing days. Many years of observations, intelligence and information had been taken off an index card system and stored in a computer on the basis that this information would help police to solve crimes. It was almost useless. Someone made the observation that it wasn’t losing the card index that was the problem. It was losing the person that used to maintain each police station’s card index. These ‘intelligence officers’ knew local miscreants on sight and could give you a short list of likely suspects just by knowing the modus operandi of the crook. The knowledge wasn’t on the cards. It was in the memories of these officers. The cards were their memory code and the act of reading each offence, each offender description and each list of stolen property and then deciding where and how to record them on the cards meant that their minds developed this legendary capacity to identify suspects.
I was once called into a meeting that had been running for a few hours. They wanted my child protection expertise. When I entered the room there was a video on pause that they had been discussing. There was speculation about the offender in the videos. They wanted my advice about the best way to proceed with the investigation. I gave them the name of the offender and told them that I had arrested him three years ago. This ability to instantly recognise a suspect is (so far) uniquely human. I have a terrible memory for faces unless I’ve arrested you. Then I never forget you. I can even adjust for ageing.
Are we relying too much on computers to do things that are better done by humans?
I am fascinated by the notion of a society where people believed that they knew everything that they needed to know, or that someone knew it for them.
Many people still create memory objects for trips they have taken. They buy a souvenir or a momento (literally a reminder of something). Is this desire to bring back some physical object a remnant of a time when objects were essential to remembering?
The word encyclopaedia is often attributed to an error made by a scribe. It’s from the Greek “enkyklios paideia” which translates literally as “circle learning”. Is it possible that the word was not accidental, but a recognition of the fact that our early encyclopaedia were actual circles? Dr Kelly explains that part of the mystery of Stonehenge was the evidence suggesting its transportation from Wales to the current location. Why drag such immense stones all that way when there was plenty of workable stone on site? And why such a diversity of stone? If the marks, bumps and characteristics of each stone are a memory code then moving them makes sense. They could never be replicated.
It is fascinating to imagine the process that ancient cultures must have gone through when they decided to settle permanently rather than move around. The earlier memory places were significant landmarks and actual locations. Coding the same memories into standing stones would have been a mammoth effort. Having created the encyclopaedia it would have been overwhelming to attempt it again. Much simpler to just move the stones.
The enduring mysteries
Dr Kelly’s work has vastly expanded our understanding of archaeological sites and indigenous wisdom. There are still questions that remain unanswered. Why do stone circles have pits around them with adjacent mounds? When I read that they were carved from chalk and that the mounds would have been stark white I was reminded of the old trick on school camps where we used flashlights to project shadows onto a white sheet or wall. Perhaps the pits were a kind of projection booth, with torches placed in the base to send shadows up onto the mounds. Perhaps the remnant, well worn human and animal bones found at these locations were props used to make shadows.
The idea that the pits were used for secret meetings bothers me because there is so much variation in their depth across different sites. If you only needed to fit humans into these pits then why make them so much deeper than head height? Their flat bases do point to some kind of use beyond drainage and perhaps the depth is related to the size of the shadow projected on the mound.
My permaculture brain searches for other options. We know that digging into the ground will give you a more stable temperature so they could have been sleeping quarters during cold season festivals. They could also have helped to keep food at a stable temperature, particularly if earth was used to cover stored food. Could they have been traps? A shelter against disasters like fire and sever storms? An orchestra pit designed to project sound? A hide for giant puppet shows? If they filled with snow during winter, how long would it take to melt and could it be used for refrigeration during warmer weather? If you’re going to have a festival then you’ll need to feed a lot of people.
I’m also fascinated by the lintels that run around the top of Stonehenge. They are meticulously engineered so that they lock into the standing stones. Why bother when other stone circles don’t have them? Dr Kelly describes Stonehenge as a kind of inner sanctum where only the initiated would be permitted to enter. But what if instead of keeping people out the structure was a festival stage? I look at the flat top of the lintels and imagine how much fun it would be to walk on top of the stones and what an impression it would make on a large festival audience. Imagine a fire in the centre of the structure with the light projecting out and up. Humans love spectacle. The long history of this site being regarded as religious and possibly sacred leaves us imagining secrecy and jealously guarded knowledge because that is our paradigm. But what if Stonehenge was a joyful celebratory space?
I am likely wrong, but I am entertained by my ancient ancestors having a week long piss up, never knowing that all these years later their party site would be attributed with so much serious meaning.
I am deeply grateful to Dr Kelly for this brain-changing book. It has reminded me that my brain, like all human brains, is capable of amazing things. It has given me a deepened respect for First Nations peoples and has left me humbled and in awe of their wisdom and abilities.
As a teacher, I am fascinated by the potential for including some of these methods in our permaculture courses. We already use our property to teach people the ethics and principles of permaculture and from the first time we did this we resolved to never teach anywhere else. It’s so much easier to learn when you can see real examples. Of course it is. Our garden is a memory palace for permaculture.
Apologies for any errors in this post. It’s dinner time and it’s my turn to cook. I’ll proof read later.