Title of the book by Lynne Kelley. Ways of encoding environmental, ethological and cultural knowledge directly into the environment (or objects). Oral cultures tap into two immensely powerful forms of human memory for storing knowledge:

  • our memory for geography: we may not be great at remembering list, but we are amazingly good at remembering places. Imagine your house. Almost nobody struggles to remember where the living room, bedroom, kitchen, toilet are, or even the furniture in those rooms. Modern memory champions still use this technique known as a memory-palace. Often the greek method of loci is pointed out as its origin, but that vastly underestimates how fundamental these principles were, stretching over tens of thousands of years of human history and across all continents.
  • our memory of character: you may forget someones name, but you never struggle to remember someones personality. More then “thinking stones and mountains are alive” oral cultures they give their landscape character.


Notes on a research program in collaboration with Sjef van Gaalen and Creative Coding Utrecht.

Stage1: Monster Code, Landscape as Mindpalace

Monster Code explores techniques for encoding environmental knowledge directly into the environment itself. Imagination (monsters) and geographic memory are key pillars this builds on. Basically associating knowledge to features and hooks in the landscape, by the power of imagination and story. That power is considerable, as evidenced by the practices of oral cultures around the world, showing knowledge remaining intact over thousands of years and spanning thousands of km. People who have started practicing it report their world is filled with new layers of liveliness: you are not just walking to the bakery or office, you are walking through the history of early humans, all indigenous dragonfly species (or whatever you happen to have encoded locally). But we will start at the beginning. This first phase of the research is about rapid prototyping, taking subjects and encoding them in different ways into the environment.
Prototyping phase:

  • timeline of presidents encoded into shopping street
  • timeline of hominids encoded into opposite side of shopping street (each block 1 million years)
  • mindpalace of damselflies

Stage2: Hiking with Monsters

Stephen Muecke on speaking with Paddy Roe

“Not only was his (Aboriginal elder Paddy) knowledge not reproduced in books like the ones he nevertheless wanted to write with me, but it had nothing to do with authorship. Knowledge didn’t originate with individuals, and the concept of mind was irrelevant. Knowledge was on the outside; it was held in ‘living Country’. And humans had to get together to animate this knowledge.

As Paddy and I were walking the beautiful coastline north of Broome, he would point out things, tell stories, call out to ancestors, and sing songs that belonged to particular places. The songs were important because they were inspirational (in the original Latin sense of a truth being breathed into someone). Their significance was, and is, multiple: they are handed down from ancestors; they tie human and nonhuman worlds together and animate those connections; they are mnemonic and practical, reminding people, for instance, that this is the place of yarrinyarri, the bush onion.

But how on Earth does knowledge transfer work without a concept of mind? Understanding, for Paddy, was ‘hearing’ and that was the word he used (as in, ‘that man can’t hear’), equivalent to the French entendre, which also embraces the meanings of hearing and understanding.”

Biggest Estate

Bill Gamage, Biggest Estate on Earth:

  • pg 126 every part of land, sea and sky must lie on a songline otherwise an ancestor can’t have created it and it would not exist
  • pg 126 repeat the song exactly because the creator ancestor is listening
  • pg 126 from far away they can discuss a tree or creek and who is responsible for it
  • pg 127 shape signifies life, in death they loose shape, so all things with shape have soul / Julian Barbour geometry is fundamental to the universe
  • pg 127 the soul passes from one chariot to another and this gives creation order, it moves through a particular set of things created by the same ancestor in the Dreaming.


  • The first step is looking at what structure / order makes sense for your 'data': which way of ordering gives you the richest data
  • Do I store it linearly? (for example a timeline)
  • Or grouped in a mind palace?(for example animal species)
  • A mindpalace is more limited to memorising and doesn't engage with the environment at all really
  • linear / narrative models have a much wider impact than retention of memory, because they help see relationships and patterns
  • usually there is a process of a few days figuring out what the most useful ordering might be and small tests with 5 or so elements trying out ways of encoding.
  • You may know an area from memory, but going there physically always gives much more lively associations and surprising “hooks” (things in the environment tat trigger associations).
  • I make very basic sketches as a shorthand to settle the hooks, associations, narrative, otherwise new variants keep coming up every time I walk through the street. Which is confusing. The sketches help me solidify the most effective associations: like George Washington washing his hair in the beautysalon
  • This sketching also helps to figure out how much character I need to generate to capture details.
  • What you are aiming for basically is little “scenes” that just instantly pop up like a flash when you pass the location
  • If characters are needed, what activity and prop can I give them? (these really help to enliven and thus make stronger the “picture” or little narrative for your data)
  • Later in the process I can see if I need extra emphasis using the physicality of make visible or tangible artefacts to endorse the memories?
  • Lynne says that once established you will be inclined to do additional research on your subjects, I can confirm that. Making a mind-palace or walk, does trigger curiosity and you start to add more and more details into your subjects, hooks, nodes.. (I observe this even after only two or three weeks of full-on engagement.)

Lynne Kelly's tips:

From Lynne Kelly, Memory Craft

First order your data:

No matter what topic you choose, as soon as you have your information structured into some sort of order, you are ready to go.


I make new associations at a rate of perhaps a few a day, and revise them later that day, the next day, in a week, and again in a month if I need to.

  • First review: Immediately
  • Second review: 24 hours later
  • Third review: One week later
  • Fourth review: One month later
  • Fifth review:Three months later

(Theun: I do at least 5 to 10 reviews the first days for longer sequences, before it really starts to settle, but apparently with practice this becomes quicker.)

Don’t worry there is enough detail:

I kept expecting to strike trouble making up images or puns or other ways to make the families and species memorable. But whenever I pondered for a moment, playing with the name and letting my mind wander, I always found a link to the bead or shell, or the position on the board, or the grain of the wood.

Naming places:

My Prehistory Journey posed a problem: I couldn’t instantly recall the dates of most of the locations that I had chosen as the key divisions. I knew where the locations were, but I had noted them in the spreadsheet as ‘edge of the fence’ or ‘blue house’. Not exactly memorable. The driveway at 65.5 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out, is now ‘Dead Dino Drive’.

How to deal with dates or numbers:

I have Friedrich Nietzsche philosophising from the stone fence of a house across the road from home, so I already know he was born sometime between 1840 and 1850. To remember his year of birth and year of death, I need to add together my person for the number 44 (4=A, 4=A, Andre Agassi) and my object for 00 (0=O, 0=O, Old Oldfield).

Just remember the story scene:

The images flash into my head momentarily when I walk the History Journey and it is exactly that, just a flash. That’s the beauty of the system: I don’t decode the image unless I need it. I have an endless array of images which I can call up and decode at will. As long as the image exists, I can always work out the dates.

Using characters:

It is not necessary for you to conjure up a perfect photographic image of these characters / monsters / people. You just need to recognise them for what they represent. The best way to do this is to assign an action and prop to each one.

Handhelds, the Lukasa (board with beads):

  • A simple board will do. Glue beads onto it. Each bead needs to be distinctive, so I strongly recommend using a variety of shapes and colours, but there are ways to distinguish them even if you are using identical beads. For example, the grain of the wood around where you place each bead can be quite distinctive if you look closely. The beads are also differentiated by those around them and the gaps between. Each bead will have a different distance to the edge of the board, so when you hold the board and touch the beads the position of your hands will change. All of that becomes valuable when adding meaning to apparently mundane objects.
  • There are 412 birds in 82 families in the taxonomic list deemed acceptable to most serious birders. I started at the first bead on the top left-hand corner and associated it with the first family on the list, the Dromaiidae. This family has only one bird in it, the emu. All the families end in -idae so I only needed to get the Dromai- bit associated with the bead. As it was the first bead on the lukasa, I imagined a drum roll. I imagined the emu pecking at the drum was creating my drum roll.
  • Halfway through the families, near the edge of the board, is the extraordinary Australian lyrebird, family Menuridae. It so happened that when I attached the bead some glue dribbled down the side of the board. There are advantages to being pitiful at crafts, because my imagination immediately associated that dribble with men urinating. My brain refused to forget that association, despite my best efforts to use something more mature.

How to store a whole duck family in one bead, create a story:

  • Sixteen members of the duck family needed to be attached to one bead, which took a story. The story became a tale of a football match that ends in a massive brawl. The names of the first eight ducks became the players involved in this fight. Two tea ladies came onto the field at half-time (the grey teal and the chestnut teal) and the Australasian shoveler dug graves to bury the dead. The musk duck wore musky cologne for seduction in the stands, while the hardhead duck clobbered the pink-eared duck around the ears and left others black and blue with bruises, the blue-winged and the blue- billed ducks.
  • I chose to remember the sixteen ducks in that order because those close to each other in the narrative are also similar scientifically. Those in the same genus I turned into partners, like the two tea ladies. Those tags just give me a bit more information. I now have sixteen duck-characters on which to build with more and more information about their identification and habits.

Tactile works too:

It’s not just the look of a memory board that will serve your purpose. As I recite the board, I naturally touch each shell or bead. Their feel and position on the wood helps to make each unique. An illustrated design will still work, but you can make a lukasa even more powerful with a tactile response.

Eventually you may not need the board:

My lukasa soon became so familiar to me that I didn’t need to have it with me in order to use it. I occasionally sketched it to burn it into memory, but I now have it with me all the time, safe in my imagination.

How to change data once stored:

This is not a problem. You just need to add to the story. Do not try to un-memorise (also known as forgetting) what you’d previously learned—it won’t work. You need to incorporate the change within the story until eventually the old knowledge fades and you are left with the new.

If the data becomes too much, set up a mind-palace for it:

Adding new information is just a matter of adding more to your stories. If there is so much information that your story has become too complex, then you can link it to a memory palace. I have done that for our honeyeaters. The 36 birds encoded in a single story to a single bead was fine until I wanted to add lots of detail about identification, behaviour, habitat and breeding for each species, many of which are very similar. So I created a honeyeater memory palace. The board and the palace work together seamlessly. Or you could use multiple boards.

Carved neolithic balls:

  • It may be that the original Neolithic balls were painted to make each knob different. I haven’t found this necessary. With use, I found that each knob is uniquely identifiable. This might be due to its position in my hand as I hold the ball or the slightly different feel as I touch it. I use a ball for short songs from many of my memory experiments. And on another ball half is for my language songs (French, Chinese). The other half is for world geography, where I use a knob for each verse. For example, my Africa song has four verses that are encoded to four sequential knobs. In the verses I move clockwise around the continent, occasionally jumping inward.
  • I work around each carved ball over a week or so, singing each song in the sequence defined by the wooden balls. I sing in the shower, when cooking or gardening, or while walking in the bush. Every few months at least, each song will be sung. It is my 'ceremonial cycle'.

Greek mythology, objects on a tiny stage:

  • The highland Mayan timekeepers arranged seeds on the ground as a mnemonic technique. Australian Aboriginal storytellers, still active, draw in the soil and use leaves, sticks and stones to tell stories on a stage set in the cleared ground. The human brain is a pattern-seeking device. It naturally responds well to the layouts and movement. This seemed like a worthwhile method to try.
  • In replaying the Greek myths, I move my stones, shells and wooden hearts around the table to act out scenes. Husbands have a home base next to their wives, but they jump across the table when they play away. Zeus does an awful lot of jumping.
  • Each layout, each stage setting, is fixed in my memory, which enables me to recall rela- tionships at will. Bit by bit, the acts of the play were added and the movements settled into their permanent choreography. I found that the rhythm of the story evolved alongside the rhythm of the movement of my hands as I rearranged the props. I have developed some rather melodramatic hand gestures to aid my narration. Any time I want, my memory will replay the stylised movements. I perform a dance with my hands almost without thinking about it. (muscle memory)

The tiny stage is not about total recall, but about the inner relations or when there is no neat linear format:

My purpose for this specific memory task was not to be able to reel off all the stories in order and give hours of performances for anyone else. The purpose was for me to be able to think about any character and recall his or her story in their mythological context. A memory method employing performances on a miniature stage with objects is a particularly strong method when your information will not fit into a neat linear format.

Applied to radioactive decay:

  • I wanted to see if it would work for more abstract concepts. I chose to act out the radioactive decay chains for uranium, thorium, neptunium and actinium with the same objects. This just required one more step—giving the elements a personality to link to the objects. The stone that looked like a dog (pluto) became plutonium, etc. I turned them around as they changed isotopes, so U-238 is the same stone but at a different angle to U-235. Those that became stable, such as lead when it reached Pb-208, I placed my hand firmly on so they could dance no more.
  • I had previously included the decay series in the memory palace for the periodic table but found this performance method worked much better. I didn’t need to remember the atomic number of any element; the memory palace did that. The two memory methods meshed together seamlessly. The more you play with a range of memory methods, the more you will be able to detect which works best for the data you are trying to encode.

Cross generational:

The entire knowledge system of Aboriginal peoples is bound up in stories and songs, taught through performance. If the songs and stories are entertaining, that is good. If they stir the emotions, that is better. And if they educate, that is best of all. So, sing and dance and tell stories about the teachings you want to remember.

  • memory_code.txt
  • Last modified: 2022-08-03 15:06
  • by theunkarelse