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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