Category Archives: Musings

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


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