This Ancient Mnemonic Technique Builds a Palace of Memory

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In Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) we learn that Sherlock Holmes used the most effective memory system known: a memory palace. Although imagined memory palaces are still used by memory champions and the few who practice the memory arts, they are best known from Greco-Roman times when great orators, including Cicero, used them to ensure their rhetoric was smooth, detailed and flawless. The physical memory palace, usually a streetscape or building interior, would become so familiar to the orator that it was always available to them in their imagination. By ‘placing’ one piece of information in each site, they could mentally stroll through their memory palace, location by location, drawing out each portion of the speech in the required order without missing any element.

Received opinion is that this method of loci, as the technique is also known, dates to before Simonides of Ceos (c556-468 BCE), who is often credited as the inventor. However there is ample circumstantial evidence that indigenous cultures the world over have been using it for far longer than that. There is a continuous record dating back at least 40,000 years for Australian Aboriginal cultures. Their songlines, along with Native American pilgrimage trails, Pacific Islanders’ ceremonial roads and the ceque system of the Inca at Cusco all exhibit exactly the same pattern as the memory palaces described by Cicero. At each sacred location along these paths, elders would sing, dance or tell a story, all making the information associated with the location more memorable.

The memory skills of indigenous elders exceed anything reported for the ancient Greeks. Research with the Native American Navajo people, for example, shows that they memorise a classification of more than 700 insects along with identification, habitats and behaviour. And that’s just insects. A fully initiated indigenous elder would be able to relate stories equivalent to a field guide for all the birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and hundreds of insects within their environment.

Another study shows that the Hanunoo people of the Philippines were able to identify 1,625 plants, many of which were unknown to Western science at the time. Add to that knowledge of astronomy, timekeeping, navigation, legal and ethical guidelines, weather and seasons, complex genealogies and belief systems, and you have a vast encyclopaedia stored in an interwoven memorised web: a web that is tied to a real or imagined memory palace.

Cultures without writing are referred to as ‘non-literate’, but their identity should not be associated with what they don’t do, but rather with what they do from necessity when there is no writing to record their knowledge. Cultures without writing employ the most intriguing range of memory technologies often linked under the academic term ‘primary orality’, including song, dance, rhyme and rhythm, and story and mythology. Physical memory devices, though, are less often included in this list. The most universal of these is the landscape itself.

Australian Aboriginal memory palaces are spread across the land, structured by sung pathways referred to as songlines. The songlines of the Yanyuwa people from Carpentaria in Australia’s far north have been recorded over 800 kilometres. A songline is a sequence of locations, that might, for example, include the rocks that provide the best materials for tools,…

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