Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Mnemonic Gaze


Jean-Victor Bertin, ‘Landscape’, 1802. An idyllic depiction of nature.

For the most part we are fairly oblivious of the world around us. We generally look without seeing and hear without listening. We can all recall that trip home where we have absolutely no recollection of the journey itself. Or the conversations we overhear on a daily basis that register no real memory of the actual words spoken. We seem to be able to perform the complex actions of daily life on what feels like ‘auto-pilot’.

This is partly a result of what Buddhists call ‘the monkey mind’ constantly chattering away and filling our attention with an endless inner dialogue. Cognitive psychologists call this same phenomenon ‘introspective neglect’ and have conducted studies to prove that a good proportion of our day is spent ‘off task’ as we focus inwardly rather than upon the stimuli that surround us. For the most part this obliviousness is the result of our brain’s efficiency, its capacity to successfully negotiate our environment while actually ignoring most of the extraneous details that would otherwise overwhelm our senses. We are free to focus our attention on those details which matter most to our current intention whilst ignoring all the rest. The cost of this ‘neglected’ attention however is a true appreciation of the finer details of the environment in which we live.

Observation of these finer details is generally the purview of an artist. The particular curve of the gentle hills on the horizon, the particular tone of the shadows beneath the trees as evening light wains towards sunset, or the particular mix of purple and red as the sunset colours gradually envelop the sky. Although art is not solely confined to mimetic representation, there is no better test of your observational skills than an attempt to depict the world around you in line, shape and colour. Attempting to reproduce the observable world on a page really teaches you to look (as opposed to merely see). As a drawing obsessed child I recall my visual attention focused on details such as the curving lines of muscular arms in order to more accurately depict my pantheon of superheros. Slowly but surely I have noticed and remembered these finer details of line, shape and form that help me with my art making. But there is always more to see, more to discover, more to amaze me at the exquisite details in which the world has been rendered around us.

Having an ‘artist’s eye’ proves invaluable in my efforts to build memory palaces. As a visual artist my biases are towards the visual cues that help establish a memory palace, despite the fact that there are many other sensory prompts that can assist you. What surprises me is not so much how my artistic skill helps me to make the appropriate observations, but rather how the act of encoding memory within these observations has itself improved my visual acuity. Not only do I find myself noting finer and finer details in the objects within which I encode my information, I now remember these details for later reference.

In representational artworks that strive to reproduce visual information accurately all you need to practice is the observation and then immediate reproduction of those observations upon the page. The information enters through the eye and then leaves through the hand: it has no need to linger in memory. If you draw, or paint or sculpt enough figures the details do tend to stick, but there is always another angle or perspective which requires fresh observation. Often, when I am making a new artwork the study involved is to discover these fresh observations. I study the world around me and take notice of the subtle variations of facial structure, or note the particular geometric swirl of a flower petal or the gentle twist of a tree branch.

Yet what I have found is that the observations I make for the sake of building memory palaces are fundamentally different compared to those I make as an artist who merely wishes to reproduce these observations in two or three dimensional form. This is due to the different purpose the observations serve.  The artistic gaze is confined to the parameters of making a convincing representation of the object depicted. Whereas the gaze of a mnemonist is open to any kind of association perceivable between the object and the information that needs encoding. In these terms the ‘artistic eye’ is narrow and specific, while the ‘mnemonic eye’ is comprehensive and holistic.


The spot on my Art History memory trail that locates the Neo-Classical period. Here the creek is dry in late summer and the morning sun is behind me. Yet I still vividly recall the flowing water and the glistening light when I first established this location on my memory trail.

Another difference I have discovered is that the observations I make in the construction of a memory palace have a temporal element. An artistic representation needs only depict the form in the fleeting instance of a frozen moment. However within the memory palaces I have built the constant revisiting and reappraisal has introduced the element of time. For example, within my Art History memory palace, located throughout my back garden, the period of the Neo-Classical just happens to be at the edge of the small creek that borders my property. At the time of year when I first established this memory palace the early summer sun was in a specific place in the sky, bouncing late afternoon light off the trickling waters of the creek (hence its association in my mind with Neo-classical depictions of idyllic images of nature.) Yet when I return to this same spot over the course of a year the sun is elsewhere and the quality of the light it emits entirely different: golden in the summer compared to a steely grey in the winter months.

These changes don’t impede memory, but rather enhance the variations upon which memory may be hung. As the creek dries in summer, or floods in winter; as the setting sun slowly migrates along the westerly horizon; each change allows different information and detail to be continually added. The grey winter light may be used to evoke information about the contemporaneous Napoleonic Wars; or the warm summer sun used to encode information about the developing Age of Enlightenment. In short, it is important to appreciate that a memory palace is not a fixed entity like the ink stained pages of a book. Rather a memory palace is dynamic and alive, constantly changing and adaptable to the insertion of new information, new knowledge and thus new understanding.

It is this insight that demonstrates one of the superior qualities of the practice of orality. Knowledge and information grows as we grow in our understanding and changes with the seasons and the incremental unfolding of the years. Not only is the information readily accessible in our memory, it is also mutable and infinitely adaptable.  The knowledge garnered reflects both the changes within ourselves and articulates our connection to the ever changing patterns of the seasons and the yearly cycles of the natural environment. This practice also makes you acutely aware of those finer details of which you would otherwise be oblivious.

Paul Allen