Author Archives: Paul

Metaphor and Memory


In the construction of a memory palace the fundamental skill required is the ability to create idiosyncratic associations between the information being learnt and the specific location within the memory palace itself. The cognitive effort necessary to build these associations; whether based on visual cues, word play or any other associative ‘hook’ is the critical step. What the exact neurological processes are when making these associations and why it is such an effective memory technique is still a matter of conjecture. However, as a practitioner of artificial memory techniques myself I have come to appreciate the similarity between these associations and the uses we make of metaphor.

Metaphor is a cognitive tool that we as a species have been utilising since time immemorial. It has even been argued that our capacity to think metaphorically forms the neurological basis of our uniquely human intellectual abilities. In Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind, (1996), he uses the image of a cathedral to describe our evolved capacity for ‘cognitive fluidity’, where “the mind acquires not only the ability but a positive passion for metaphor and analogy”. Mithen uses the term ‘metarepresentation’ to describe metaphorical thinking, which he then goes on to describe as the ‘superchapel’ of the mind. Thus, “when thoughts originating in different domains can engage together, the result is an almost limitless capacity for imagination.” Thus it seems the very architecture of the human mind itself gives rise to our capacity for making metaphorical associations between disparate things. A very similar skill, I would argue, is being utilised when practicing artificial memory techniques.

Metaphors work by harnessing our common knowledge and experiences and effectively ‘piggy backing’ our intended meaning. Thus when Shakespeare writes, “What light through yonder window breaks? ‘Tis the east and Juliet is the sun,” we make the association between the universal experience of sunrise and Juliet’s radiant beauty. The wonderful capacity metaphor has to express meaning simply and easily equips us with the cognitive shorthand to readily encode and then recall various concepts. Frances Yates’ influential The Art of Memory, (1966), makes references to many historical examples of those mnemonists (practitioners of artificial memory) who held metaphor in very high regard. Metaphor is described as having been, “invented in the Earthly Paradise”. Or that, “metaphorica ‘move the soul more and therefore better help memory’”. Even Aristotle is, I believe, referring to metaphor when he described imagination as, “the intermediary between perception and thought… Hence ‘the soul never thinks without a mental picture.’” Within the context of what Yates labels the ‘mnemotechnics’ of various memorisation traditions it is clear that our metaphorical predisposition lies at the heart of how these methods actually work.

Metaphors are allusive however, and highly culturally specific. Often loaded with the many biases and prejudices of any given cultural paradigm. Hence the reason metaphors are rarely used in legal documents and scientific journals. Yet there are many examples of grand metaphors that continue to produce serious consequences for many people throughout history: notions that entrench cultural prejudice and bigotry. For the sake of brevity I will focus on only one example to illustrate my point.

Granville Stanley Hall was an American psychologist who drew together the fields of evolutionary biology and the study of childhood development. He is famous for developing the ‘general psychonomic law’. According to Arthur D. Efland in his book A History of Art Education (1990), this supposed ‘law’ declares that,

“’ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ – the biologist’s maxim asserting that the development of the individual follows the pattern of the evolution of the species – applied as well to the psychological development of humans: In the process of growth, the child passes through all the stages from savagery to civilization. If we want to understand the evolution of humanity, we need to study the evolution of the child.”  

Efland goes on to describe how Hall’s theories essentially began the modern study of childhood development in ‘scientific’ terms. Thus began the many pedagogical practices that responded to what we now describe as Social Darwinism.

It must be acknowledged that this new scientific approach to the study of childhood development led to considerable progress in the ways and means we educate our children. Just one example is the progressive education models espoused by the likes of John Dewey and Francis Wayland Parker at the turn of the twentieth century. But this progress is only the silver lining to the considerably darker cloud of prejudicial ideologies that view both ancient peoples and children as uncivilised and intellectually inferior ‘savages’.

I raise G. Stanley Hall’s ‘general psychonomic law’ as an incidence of a misguided metaphor. Not only does this demonstrate the inherently racist doctrines of Hall’s era, but the pernicious effect these doctrines continue to have on our modern ideas in relation to both traditional cultures and childhood behaviour. I believe this metaphorical misrepresentation is a result of what Professor Stephen Novella describes in his course notes for his lecture series, The Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, (2012), as a cognitive “stereotype” that “enables us to boil down a very complicated set of data into some simple rule.” These stereotypes, “can be helpful and adaptive when we understand that the rule is just a schematic, or an oversimplified representation of a much more complicated reality.”  He then cautions against the very real danger inherent to these stereotypes when, “accepting our oversimplified versions of reality as reality leads to bigoted mindsets.”

Within the practice of orality however, any misrepresentations depicted by the associations generated during the construction of a memory palace are ultimately irrelevant. The main difference is that in the ‘mnemotechnics’ of orality the association is only ever the link to the information memorised, and is thus not prone to being mistaken as the information itself. What’s more, the mutability of the information contained within artificial memory is eventually self-correcting as you continue to store more detailed information over time.wattle-leaves Venecian_blinds_shadowIn my Art history memory palace the period of the Venetian and Northern European Renaissance is encoded by a copse of black wattle trees merely because the shadows cast by the trees reminded me of the shadows cast by Venetian blinds. Taken literally there is no confusion between a style of window shade that became popular across Europe in the 18th century and an art movement of the 16th century! These trees merely serve as a prompt to memory; they have no intrinsic meaning beyond that mnemonic association. Similar in purpose as Novella’s ‘stereotypes’ in that they serve as a cognitive shorthand, not as a depiction of the information itself.

Strictly speaking the mnemonic associations made in the creation of memory palaces are not metaphors as such, but they do share many of the same cognitive features. So much of the process of creating a memory palace is in fossicking through the many nooks and crannies of the ‘cathedral of our minds’ in order to find an associative link to the information we wish to recall. Once found there is little chance of mistaking the representation of reality as the reality, any more than mistaking a poetic description of Juliet’s radiant beauty with the sun as the sun itself.

Paul Allen


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


Reconnecting Art and Science

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…” Albert Einstein

When we are faced with something new and unfamiliar it is examined to distinguish its differences from what is known. Our survival depends on being able to recognise subtle unique characteristics that separate one thing from another. What is edible or toxic, what is safe or dangerous, who is friend or foe. We have become very good at sorting knowledge into highly specific niches, genres, categories and taxonomic groups. Everything in its own separate box. Differences are important yet over enthusiastic classifying has perhaps lead to the disconnection of subjects that share far more similarities than not. My left and right hands are certainly different but it is their similarities that make them work so well together. This is true of many things but let us focus on the unfortunate divide that has formed between the Arts and Sciences.
As a child, everything is so marvelously interconnected. So much of life is still a mystery. The beginnings of discovery and understanding come from constant experimentation, through creative and deconstructive play, storytelling, dance, song and the eternal question, “why?” Give a child some paint for the first time and instantly it becomes a sensory study of texture, tone…and probably even taste. Squeezing it through fingers, mixing the colours, before exploring beyond the bounds of paper to other surfaces within reach; wood, brick, floor, wall, cloth, skin, hair. It becomes difficult to distinguish these actions as being specifically art or science based. They may well end up with an abstract expressionist masterpiece, but they will also know a great deal more about the physical and practical qualities of paint. Art and Science appear to naturally cooperate in the developing human mind, yet this connection seems to erode with age and we are left with more choices between one or the other and less opportunities to explore them together.
Thankfully I had a family that encouraged both my scientific curiosities as well as my creativity and imagination, but my journey to adulthood and career was often faced with frustrating decisions. One passion invariabley had to give way to another. At secondary school, I frequently had to pick between either Biology or Drama, Music or Maths, Art or Physics, Chemistry or Literature. And at a Tertiary level the institutional push to create specialists tends to restrict diversity even more.
Surely it wasn’t always this way. Early evidence of art, preserved in caves across the globe, like Sulawesi and Chauvet, show careful depictions of animals, plants and people, culturally and astronomically significant events and concepts exploring mortality. Important aspects of biology, geography, social law, moralistic lessons and history are still commonly conveyed through song, dance and performance by many indigenous people today. These creative expressions also reflect our inherent scientific fascination with the natural world around us and a striving to understand our place within it.
The first humans must have faced many situations that required the full spectrum of their capabilities. A dramatic change in the environment, the discovery or loss of a resource, a new tool made. Adaptability is a vital trait of our species. With new information, we can reprogram our behavior to better assure survival. We can accomplish, in one life time or even a moment, what most organisms may take hundreds of generations to achieve through chance mutation. Adaptation on this scale requires a certain kind of mind that doesn’t just learn from the past but also plays with potential futures.
The ageless art of storytelling has provided a means for documenting and remembering our past as well as a way to test and practice possible future scenarios. In the same way animals play fight so they can hone their skills for the real thing. The ‘what if’ ponderings of fantasy, science fiction and philosophy are the creative sparks that fuel curiosity and drive us toward science fact.
Science is valued for inventions; the tools and technology it has given us, but also for ideas. Copernicus and Heliocentrism, Darwin and Evolution, Einstein and Relativity. Ideas such as these required great leaps of the imagination, often amidst widespread opposing beliefs. When art and science have combined in the minds of our most esteemed intellects it makes for powerful outcomes.
Dr Lynne Kelly’s research and the work of The Orality Centre into oral based memory technologies, from cultures across the expanse of time and wisdom, has given us a new glimpse of old ideas and has helped revive the highly compatible relationship between art and science. Orality is a fusion of all disciplines and naturally creates positive feedback loops with information, because the components of knowledge are not kept isolated. The technical and the romantic are entwined in a symbiotic striving for understanding and greatness.

Allow a moment for playful thought. Imagine a desirable future where students of all ages are encouraged to explore the whole repertoire of tools used to build the foundations of human intellect. A world where Polymaths are not just the remarkable exception to the norm, where it’s less about choosing between left and right brain and more about finding the similarities and connections that allow both to work so well together. Perhaps we can’t all be Leonardo da Vinci with his famously exquisite drawings and elaborate inventions, but if our minds are cultivated in an environment where thinking can thrive in all directions, we will be more ready to adapt when life presents new mysteries.

Alice Steel

Story and Our Sense of Place

We all share a strong emotional connection with the concept of home. Where we live, or more specifically where we were raised as children, is an integral part of our self-identity. My father for instance, was born in southern Queensland and although he lived the vast majority of his life in Victoria he always considered himself a Queenslander first and foremost. These parochialisms seem increasingly outdated within a highly mobilised society such as ours here in Australia, where we often move to far flung corners of the country (if not the world) for the sake of work or family. How many people living in a modern urbanised society still live in their family homes, or even the same suburb or town in which they grew up?

Our childhood homes are laden with our earliest recollections and our burgeoning ‘narrative of self’ is the result of these memories. Thus we are, in essence, a product of the places in which we were born and raised. Personally I have a strong attachment to the city in which I was born and grew up. Melbourne holds the ghosts of my past: the streets I walked as a child provide the link with my past self whenever I walk those same streets today. So much of my identity tied to memory by the multisensory experiences of smell, sound and the highly tactile sensation of Melbourne winter sunshine. All of our senses act as tethers to place, and whether we are conscious of them or not, they become a part of us and serve to ground us in place with strong emotional attachments.

The unique way place evokes memory is the fundamental mechanism that lies at the heart of the method of loci. We remember things better when they are hitched to our memories of place: our sensory perceptions and the myriad of emotional attachments that are associated with them. These memories and sensations then evolve into stories, or narratives, that serve to evoke this sense of place. In the technique of creating a memory palace, stories are the key to unlocking the information encoded by the specific place in which it has been stored. How much more memorable then would these stories be if we used our personal history to help encode and then unlock vast stores of knowledge and information?

As I have begun to experiment with my own memory palaces I have come to appreciate the profound inter-relationship between the mnemonic stories I create and the broader context of the place I now call home. The distinctions between the realms of knowledge and understanding I am encoding are gradually diminishing. There is no single thread of information that follows its own unique path. I can only wonder at how inextricably intertwined the stories, histories and pragmatic knowledge encoded in indigenous cultures around the world must be after many centuries of continual practice.

The cultural stories, folk lore, legends and fables that encode the memory of a nation (such as the ANZAC legend in Australia, or the ‘Thanksgiving’ of the early settlers in the US) become the matrix of perception and understanding of a nation’s shared identity. In the modern context of mobility and displacement from our childhood homes however, these cultural associations and affiliations have been completely disrupted. As a result, our cultural stories have become increasingly disassociated from the places we actually inhabit and so the deeper purpose for which they were intended become corrupted and rendered meaningless.

Here in Australia, those of us of European descent straddle two distinct worlds. That of the stories from our displaced culture and the realities of the new country in which we actually live. For example, think of the strong cultural association between the celebration of Christmas and the falling of snow, reindeer sleighs and hot pudding, while it swelters outside in a blistering Australian summer! Or the fertility celebration of Easter that heralds the end of a long cold winter in the northern hemisphere, while here the crops are being harvested and the non-native trees are beginning their colourful retreat into dormancy. Or the pointless definitions of the four seasons that may well match the seasonal changes in Europe but provide little practical use in the various environmental contexts of the vastly diverse Australian continent.

The inconsistencies and contradictions of these broader cultural narratives undermine the true depth of meaning we might otherwise attribute to the more personal stories we tell ourselves. We have come to think of ‘story’ as mere entertainment: a past-time that we may enjoy, but which holds no real importance to the ‘reality’ of our daily lives. Yet it is story that grounds us in place, linking us with the larger narrative of where we came from and who we are as individuals in relation to other people and other things. Our removal from a true sense of place makes the stories that help ground us in our natural environment become increasingly irrelevant. Without the stories to help us understand and appreciate our natural environment we become even further removed from a sense of place. Untethered as we are from this profoundly important connection with the ‘country’ that sustains us, is it any wonder we heedlessly destroy the forests, drain the rivers, and dig up our natural resources?

Dr Lynne Kelly’s research provides us with an insight into the once universal connection all humans had to their natural environment. As a member of an urbanised culture that has lost this connection to the natural environment I am only beginning to truly appreciate how profoundly important these issues are by engaging with my environment in a whole new way. Not by exploiting it as a resource, but using it as a tool for memory.

Paul Allen

Orality in the Classroom

Much has happened with the Artists in Schools Project at Malmsbury Primary School since the end of second term. Specifically our work developing memory techniques to help students with their spelling, and a similar principle applied to learning the Times Tables. At the heart of all these techniques is the profoundly significant application of the Rapscallion figures to the creative exercise of learning how to spell and do multiplication.


The first step is to create characters of the alphabet itself. Students spent an entire art class devising these characters: drawing them in the guise of their newfound personality. The students had so much fun and were so imaginatively prolific that many variations for individual letters were developed. The final step needed in this process was for the students as a whole to vote for their favourite characterisation.

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Molly’s ‘w’ is ‘weird’. Isn’t it weird when they say ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, but not in this word.

Next is the process of applying these characters to an actual spelling difficulty. An example is the word ‘does’: a conundrum for many students since the rules do not follow the pattern of sounds and letter combinations in other words. The four letters (d as deadly, o as obese, e as energetic and s as sporty), in their specific order, now give us the bones of a story, and so, the activity swaps from a spelling memorisation activity to a creative writing task.

There are many variations of the story that could be devised, so this one below is just a single possibility. Through our research we have discovered it is critical that each and every student creates their own story, for it seems the cognitive process of making narrative sense of the order of the letters is how the technique embeds itself so effectively in memory.

“It is potentially deadly to be obese so be energetic and sporty, because that is what a healthy person does.”

Times Tables:

                The same principle applies to the use of numbers. Change each number into a concrete object and transform an equation into the plot for a story.

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Emerald’s depiction of her Rapscallion Ziggy flying up to the sun (one).

In this instance the method is to devise a rhyme with the number: such as 1 with sun; 2 with shoe; 3 with tree; etc. We have found that despite the importance for students to create their own number/word associations, there is a strong enough link between the rhyming words to make it obvious which word relates to which number. The critical step is for each student to create the stories that make sense of the numerical equation being learnt.

For instance, 4 x 6 = 24 becomes door x sticks = plenty of doors. Once more the lesson changes from being an overtly mathematical focus to one of creatively devising a story about a door, some sticks and the end result of plenty of doors.

Rather than giving an example of our own it would be a wonderful exercise for you, the reader, to reply below with your story about the ‘door’, the ‘sticks’ and the resulting ‘plenty of doors’.


Central to everything explained above is the Rapscallion of each student in the school. The stories devised in maths and literacy class all use the Rapscallion as protagonist. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the Rapscallions serve as a ‘step removed’ from the individual students themselves. For many children there is a high level of emotional baggage that they bring into a spelling or mathematics class. Previous negative experiences imprint themselves upon the student and they are lead to believe that “I can’t do maths” or “I’m lousy at spelling”. By using the Rapscallion as the central character we circumvent these preconceptions about the student’s own ability and make it about the Rapscallion instead. Thus the negative internal dialogue of the student changes into, “I’m not doing the maths my Rapscallion is doing the maths for me”. If the final answer is found to be wrong then it is the Rapscallion who failed, not the student themselves. This is a profoundly significant outcome in our work using Rapscallions in the classroom and how it relates to student self-image as learners.


Natalie’s Rapscallion “Paul”. Why is he so cranky?

Secondly, the distinct character of each individual Rapscallion, (friendly, evil, Ninja, sporting hero, bully, demon, etc.) gives the students somewhere to start when devising these number/word or letter/character associations. It is their Rapscallion who has to eat healthily, or who is doing the thing with the door and the sticks. Further still, as these many stories with the Rapscallion build up over time more qualities of the Rapscallion’s character continue to develop in tandem with the student’s learning and development as they grow themselves. In a sense, the increased sophistication of the Rapscallion’s character mirrors the increasing sophistication of the student’s own self-understanding.

Thirdly, by making the Rapscallion the central figure in all the various stories: from a literacy, second language (LOTE), history, geography or maths class, the segregated curriculum of the modern classroom becomes re-integrated through the Rapscallion itself. Thus a story devised to help a student learn a new word in French, for example, may apply to a story related to a maths or literacy lesson. These new associations that result can only serve to strengthen student learning across the curriculum, setting students up for a lifetime of seeing the interconnectedness of all areas of learning and knowledge, which then gives rise to a better understanding of the world in which they live.

Finally, the Rapscallions give students a concrete form with which to engage their internal cognitive dialogue. They legitimise this internal conversation and serve to develop the mental facility of thinking more deeply about a subject. The Rapscallions allow students to simply continue on with the pre-existing propensities they bring to school when they engage in imaginative play with their toys. In a sense, the ultimate purpose the Rapscallions serve is to teach school children how to focus their playful and creative imaginations upon the increasingly refined subject matter of their formal education.

In the few short months of experimenting with the Rapscallions in class – students playfully engaging with them as learning tools and, as teachers, carefully observing the various educational outcomes that arise – we are only just beginning to fully realise the true potential of the Rapscallions in relation to student learning, student self-image and their overall cognitive development.

CreativeVictoria_logo-printWe gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Creative Victoria in the funding of the Malmsbury Memory Trail Project.

Paul Allen

Art and Aesthetics

There are many ramifications of Dr Lynne Kelly’s research. Foremost is the impetus to question our modern ideas about the level of knowledge and intelligence of indigenous people.  As with any historical inquiry the insights derived often tell us more about ourselves than the traditional cultures under examination. In particular, exposing the level of hubristic self-importance we attribute to the technological advances of the modern world and our condescending attitudes towards those we deem as less sophisticated, ‘primitive’, and therefore inferior. We tend to equate the ‘modern scientific wonders’ that surround us with the teleological notion of progress and the inevitable improvements in the human condition.  As if the slow unfolding of human history is akin to the dawning understanding and maturation of a child as they grow to adulthood. In a sense we have conflated the notions of the natural ‘state of grace’ of childhood with the concept of ‘the noble savage’.

Dr Kelly’s research not only refutes this view of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures, but inverts these concepts entirely. It is our present day globalised Western culture that acts as the child, while the adults among us are those many cultures that precede our own by millennia. Cultures with their own highly sophisticated non-literate technologies, knowledge and profound insights into the natural world. And yet, like petulant children, we refuse to accept how much we have to learn from them. Blinded as we often are by the arrogance of our own self defined cleverness.

For myself personally, the primary insight relates to matters of (capital A) Art and how it is currently perceived within the context of the modern Western world. Much has been written that both praises and derides current manifestations of Art and artistic practice. This short blog is not meant to recapitulate these issues, rather to overstep them entirely by acknowledging the different purpose Art serves, and the context in which it is created, in ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures. A purpose that offers much to us in the modern world by grounding art (with a small a) within the concrete reality of every person’s life.

As Dr Kelly puts it herself,

“In the western context, the primary measure of art is aesthetic. In non-literate contexts, the primary motivation is didactic.” (Page 41, The Memory Code, 2016)

Or to put it in less measured terms, in the contemporary world art serves little more purpose than decoration, whereas in traditional cultures art has always been a means of teaching and aiding them in their learning and understanding of the world. Contentious as this may seem, since there are many examples of Western art that serve the purpose of didacticism, it draws the broad brush stroke of delineating the different purposes art serves in these different manifestations of human society.

With these thoughts in mind let us turn our attention to how we, as modern Western citizens, have been taught to look at the art of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures.  Trained as we are to look for variations in line, the juxtapositions of colour, or the compositional elements of symmetry and balance, we have no conception of the artwork’s meaning beyond the parameters of these limited aesthetic considerations. An analogue of this is to consider a masterpiece of Western literature in the same light. Just imagine a book collector buying the complete works of Shakespeare based entirely on their attraction to the decorative attributes of the binding! Never is it imagined that there is a meaning and purpose that lies deeper than the mere appearance of the object in their hands. In a similar sense, ours is a culture that judges art only by its cover. Of course a magnificently bound book is a beautiful thing to behold, but this aesthetic experience is incidental to the essential purpose the book serves in the first place.

The artworks of indigenous cultures across the world certainly are aesthetically beautiful, but they are also purposeful in their creation. Just as those who have no knowledge of literacy cannot possibly conceive of what lies between the covers of a book, we too are unable to conceive of the rich seam of human knowledge and understanding that is hidden beneath the surface of these artworks. Yet even the illiterate are aware that a book’s primary purpose is to be read, regardless of their inability to read it for themselves. As a modern Western literate person myself, I am only just learning the same is true of much ancient and contemporary indigenous art.


“Pod”, by Paul Allen, 2010. How would you associate this artwork with the Unites States of America?

As a result of these musings I was intrigued by the observations I made of how attendees at our first workshop related to the artworks used as markers for the preliminary memory trail. Sculptures that had been made for the sake of aesthetic consideration were being utilised solely as a visual or conceptual link to the piece of information that needed encoding. Aesthetics had very little to do with the purpose these artworks currently served. Thus there was no question of being able to appreciate or comprehend the Art, and so no preconceptions tainted the experience of actual observation.  The viewer’s gaze was seemingly more objective and I wonder, as a consequence of this type of contemplation, if the sculptures acquired more meaning, more relevance, and were thus more memorable?


In the contemporary world we may never be entirely certain of how to correctly ‘read’ indigenous artworks, but we can at least learn to acknowledge the alternative purposes they serve in the cultures from which they derive.

Paul Allen

Our First Memory Workshops were wonderful

The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. We want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales.


The Orality Centre staff from left to right: Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steele and Damian Kelly

Details of the workshops on offer are in the previous post.

0-paul-connections-1000Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the first 20 most populated countries in the world to different abstract art works.

They did it brilliantly!


How would you link this artwork to Thailand on your memory trail?

And this is the type of thing they were puzzling over: Paul’s sculptures! Participants linked this to Thailand.

At the end of the workshop they could name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.

The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.



0-Alice-lukasa-1000Inside Alice ran a Winter Count workshop in the morning and a Memory Boards workshop in the afternoon.

The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.

0-lisa-minchin-1000Lisa Minchin encoded the local wattle species to her memory board. Rumour has it that her partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.

We will be running Memory Workshops in schools and other locations. Please email for more information.

Lynne Kelly