The Memory Code

by Inga Yandell

stonehenge

In The Memory Code, Australian science writer Lynne Kelly reveals her fascinating discovery which unlocks the secrets of the world’s most mysterious ancient monuments. Through her research into Aboriginal songlines, Lynne identified a memory technique used by ancient cultures across the globe—and discdiscovered that we can still use this memory code to train our brains today.

Lynne shares with us some of the insights from her groundbreaking research, decoding the traditional Aboriginal memory technique which unlocks the secrets of ancient monuments around the world, and how we can use it to train our memories today.

Without writing, indigenous cultures were dependent on the memories for everything they knew. The elders, after decades of training, could identify all the animals and plants in their environment. With insects alone numbering in the hundreds, and at least as many plants, they effectively held a massive field guide in memory. They knew the movements of the stars, planets, sun and moon over the days, months and years. They could sing hundreds of kilometres of navigation routes across the landscape and recall complex genealogies from memory. Add to that an understanding of the seasonality of resources, land management, geology, hunting, gathering, growing and harvesting along with history, laws, expectations, ethics and beliefs of their culture. How on earth did they remember so much stuff?

When I started researching indigenous scientific knowledge nearly a decade ago for my PhD, I realised that the memory skills of our Aboriginal elders was way beyond anything I believed possible. It was only then that I started to appreciate that Aboriginal connection to Country was not simply loving where they lived and knowing it well. They lived in a vibrant landscape full of mythological characters enacting the vast store of knowledge and grounding it in sacred locations.

Aboriginal songlines are sung journeys through the landscape which enable navigation of vast distances through songs which tell of all the sacred places, all the signposts along the way. But they are far more than that. At each one of those sacred locations a ritual is performed, that is a song is sung, a dance is danced or a story is told. It is those vivid performances which encode not only spiritual beliefs and ideas of cosmology but all the practical knowledge on which their physical and cultural survival depends.

Linking information to a sequence of locations around buildings or along streets was a method used by the famed ancient Greek and Roman orators. All modern memory champions use this method and attribute it to the Greeks. My research showed that all indigenous cultures use exactly this memory technique because no better has ever been found. It is the way our brains work.

In Australia, we have the oldest continuous culture in the world. Knowledge embedded in Country is linked to the information encoded in art and connected by songs, stories, dances and mythology. Theirs is a complex and incredibly robust memory system.

By experimenting with simplified forms of the memory techniques used by Indigenous cultures I have been able to glimpse just what is possible. I have created a landscaped journey for the 242 countries and independent protectorates of the world, one for each location. I add relevant information to each country by creating stories and attaching them mentally to each location: populations and capitals, geography, history and news. It is an ever-growing database which can be expanded infinitely. I have created another journey where I start over 4000 million years ago and walk through pre-history and history to the present day. It is only a kilometre or so long, a mere trifle when compared with the 800 kilometres of songlines which have been mapped with the Yanyuwa people of Carpentaria.

My landscape is full of the events and characters that formed my culture. I have no elders to walk with me and teach me the knowledge so I have to extract it from books. Nevertheless, my landscape is coming alive. I only have to imagine myself at any location and look around, in reality or in my imagination, for the information to come back to me. I can ponder the patterns and play with the ideas any time I wish. I am now incredibly attached to my songlines and the vivid world that is now my landscape. How much more intense must it be for those who have grown up immersed in Country and the stories of their culture?

I have also replicated some of the portable memory devices used by Indigenous cultures. I have encoded a field guide to the 408 birds of Victoria to a piece of wood with shells and beads glued onto it. I struggled to believe that the African Luba could use such an object, a lukasa, to memorise so much information. I have no doubts about it now. I know my lukasa so well that I no longer need it with me to be able to mentally trace its surface and recall all the birds.

If all historic oral cultures used these methods, then isn’t it reasonable to think that the oral cultures which built the great monuments of the prehistoric world did the same? In order to settle, they must replicate their landscape memory places. They need performance spaces and portable devices. I found all the signs in the archaeology. Stonehenge is only 5000 years old, far more recent than many places we know from our Australian Aboriginal cultures. The statues of Easter Island, huge animal drawings on the desert at Nasca in Peru and the mounds and pyramids right across the Americas all fit the pattern—they were monumental memory places.

We need to respect the intellectual achievements of indigenous cultures but we also need to learn from the elders before the world loses an invaluable resource. The elders have expertise in the oral memory skills which could so greatly enhance our education system. Orality and literacy can work together.

Dr Lynne Kelly is a science writer and an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University. She is the author of sixteen previous books, including popular science books The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal, Crocodile and Spiders. With a background in engineering, physics, mathematics, information technology and gifted education, she has spent decades in teaching and encourages her students to reach beyond the regular curriculum into the awesome world of knowledge. www.lynnekelly.com.au

The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly (Allen and Unwin, 2016), $32.99AU.

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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