Memory Craft - my new book on the best memory methods from around the world

Memory Craft arose from the responses from readers to my previous book, The Memory Code. It is available in bookshops and many places online, including BookDepository, where the Australian edition is currently the best selling book on memory.

The US edition is on Amazon and lots of other places:

My PhD and Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, looked at the extraordinary memory systems of indigenous cultures and the application to archaeology. I wrote the ideas up for a general audience as The Memory Code which was published here in Australia, the US, UK and translated into Czech and Chinese (Traditional). I am delighted with how well it has sold.

I get a lot of mail from readers, but 90% wasn’t about the new theories for Stonehenge and other monuments (as I expected) but asking “how do we apply these methods in contemporary life?”.

*Memory Craft *is the result. I have implemented 40 memory experiments to test out all the different techniques from memory palaces to handheld memory boards. I am encoding all sorts of topics from languages (French and Chinese) to every country in the world, all of history … the list goes on an on. All are open ended experiments:

*Memory Craft *has been out in Australia for 6 months (Allen & Unwin) and is selling really well. It has just been published in the US (Pegasus Books) hence my delight in being able to mention it here. It is being translated into Russian!

I have a very poor natural memory, which is why I started asking the questions about how the hell do Australian Aboriginal people memorise so much stuff. It all went from there. Over a decade after asking that question (and a PhD), I entered memory competitions just to get the experience to write about them. I took out the senior title for 2018 and 2019 in Australia. There was no competition last year. At 68, my memory is way better than it has ever been before.

You can memorise anything once you know the techniques. And they are fun!

Congratulations! Best wishes on sales.

Looks fantastic and just the kind of book my mother has been looking for. She turns 80 in about a week and will make a great birthday gift. She spent most of her life waiting on my father hand and foot so when he passed away two years ago she has taken the opportunity to devour knowledge any topic that interests her. Her only caveat has been that she wishes she could remember more of what she is learning/reading and is always asking me if I know of any ways to help her remember stuff.
I will let her know I have a direct line to the author if she has any feedback/questions.

The first book looks cool too.

It does look cool! My memory is shocking - I could do with something like that…

(your website is on the fritz for me, BTW. Now would be a good time for your ISP to be on the ball!)

What can I do if I mean to buy it, but keep forgetting?

And after I know how to memorise anything, how do I force myself to forget all the old phone numbers and actors’ birthdays and digits of pi? :slight_smile:

Delighted to answer anything here. Please tell her that there is research on people up to 100 years old showing that they can still lay down new neural networks - and keep learning. It is lack of use that causes memory loss in elderly (except for those who have a neurological disease).

Please wish your mother a happy birthday from me!

I assure you that my memory was worse. It is the fact that I struggled to remember anything that led me to ask the questions about other people’s ability to memorise so much more.

I am not sure what “on the fritz” means, but my ISP (husband - we run our own servers) was intrigued by the comment. We think that you are detecting that our SSL certificate runs out tonight - the server is based in London and they haven’t caught up to us Australians yet! It is now renewed. Thank you for the puzzle!

Love your sense of humour! Don’t worry about all those old things - they will fade into the background with lack of use - but you can reinforce them easily, so they can be rejuvenated. I have done 1000 digits of pi, just to test the methods. As for birthdays, I think that it is time to put in the family members. Bit poor that I can reel off 1000 digits of Pi and not tell you when my son-in-law’s birthday is.

It could have been that - I can’t remember exactly what the message was, but it was something like a “can’t find this website” twice in a row (then ten minutes later, it could be found perfectly well). I wondered whether maybe you were getting a spike in inbound traffic - which is usually a nice problem to have!

All good now. Thank you!

Ok, first question is about simple mnemonic alphabets where you are supposed to associate images to letters: in Semitic the letters are already named for you: Aleph = ox, Beth = house, Gimel = bent stick/camel, etc. Presumably these date back to individual hieroglyphs, but were those images ever used mnemonically? What about a language like Egyptian where hundreds of glyphs were in common use; is anything known about Egyptian mnemonic techniques?

Thank you for the question, DPRK. The main purpose of writing is to reduce the use of memory, so the best mnemonic technologies are from non-literate cultures. I focus on them. I have no doubt that the letters in other scripts would have had a mnemonic use, but not once you combine them into words - then writing takes away the need for memory.

In the best known mnemonic alphabets from the Middle Ages, the Visual Alphabets, the letters were associated with something visual, not their names. That makes them much more useful as a memory device, used as what is known as a peg system. Medieval mnemonists would use lots of alphabets to memorise the Bible, among other things.

In Memory Craft, I combine a number of medieval techniques into my own version of a Visual Alphabet, which is a device I use every day. I then link it to a Bestiary, because that was another memory device. I use that combination for memorising names and then anything with words. I am currently adapting it for Mandarin vocabulary, and creating one in French.

The alphabets arose from pictographs and the relationship to mnemonics is clear back then but reduces with the use of writing - as does the training of our memories until you get to contemporary times where, unlike in indigenous cultures, we do very little formal memory training. My research focuses on primary orality - the methods used by oral cultures who have no contact with writing.

I found nothing on mnemonic techniques with Egyptians, but then I didn’t look very hard. There isn’t a pre-literate archaeology with Egypt. The only living language with which we have the full sequence from pictographic to a contemporary script is Chinese, hence my research into that field. I believe, without having yet done the research, that there is a much stronger mnemonic property to Egyptian decorations than is usually credited. But I have not yet found much talk of that. The focus in the research is to read the hieroglyphs like a script.

For really strong mnemonic techniques, there are so many with non-literate cultures that it will take me a few lifetimes to explore them all, so fascinating as it is, I simply haven’t had time to look in detail with this. I’d love to, though.


This sounds fascinating. I was completely unaware of your previous book!

It also came to me that cuneiform, especially Akkadian, is another example where one can see the development from pictograms to something decidedly baroque. No longer living, but at least we have thousands of years of written documents. I see your point about literacy removing the necessity to memorise things like long works of literature word for word, and, if I have understood you, the Semitic alphabet was not used visually, despite the names.

Chinese children today still have to learn things like lists of radicals in order before they can look words up in a dictionary, and vocabulary lists, and I wonder if any particular techniques are instilled (and how they might differ from those used by aspiring scribes in ancient times in other lands). Actually, for a millennium or so Chinese students taking the civil service examination absolutely did have to memorize a vast amount of literature and other information verbatim— it’s not like you were allowed to carry any notes into the exam chamber— therefore they must have had some typical techniques to accomplish this.

Thank you. The archaeology I refer to in The Memory Code is only that built by non-literate cultures, so not Egypt. I have studied in terms of knowledge systems many different cultures within lots of non-literate groups: Australian Aboriginal cultures, Native American tribes, African, Pacific … In every one, they used extensive mnemonic technologies, especially performance - song, dance, narrative, active characters, all make information more memorable. Restricting knowledge stops the so-called Chinese whispers effect, so they had both public and restricted performance spaces. They all used the landscape as a memory palace, hand held memory devices, acoustic enhancement and astronomical alignments to maintain a calendar for both resource and land management and for organising ceremonies and other gatherings.

I saw this combination of indicators in monuments built by non-literate cultures such as Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Nasca Lines and huge animals in Peru and so on. All non-literate cultures need these things to maintain the knowledge on which they depend.

Memory Craft is about how we can use the same methods today by adapting them for contemporary use.

I trotted off to the library today and picked up both books. My local has several copies of each. I sat down a while ago with The Memory Code and a cup of tea. The preface was enough to get me committed. I particularly enjoy the fact that it is told as a very personal story and is not simply a dry treatise. Looks like I’m in for some fun.

You are adding lots of things to the long list of topics I want to research. For my PhD, the academic book and The Memory Code, I limited myself almost entirely to oral cultures with a small mention of the ancient Greeks. For Memory Craft, I ventured into the Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe and onto contemporary memory champions. I even competed for the research. I also got hooked on Asian narrative scrolls, mandalas and other mnemonic devices from Asia.

Then comes the long list of memory methods and cultures I have yet to research. There is so much to do! What you are talking about is an area I long to get into but haven’t managed it yet. So anything I say on Semitic alphabets and suchlike is not researched properly yet. I only know from writers like Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers that medieval monks used foreign alphabets as mnemonic aids.

What interesting questions! I have been reading more about Chinese cultures and the development of the script. But I need to do so much more to know enough to understand my own research. I am currently committing the radicals to memory, and working on vocabulary and the script, but have no intention of learning literature verbatim! I am really keen to know what techniques they used. I shall start asking my Chinese friends immediately. Their parents are elderly and live in China and may well be able to help. They have already been helping me with understanding the role of traditional art in Chinese narrative and knowledge.

Thank you so much for stirring up these topics. I have a new book commissioned with an Aboriginal co-author for the National Museum of Australia on Songlines (Aboriginal memory palaces) - and then I really want to get into so much more research into the Chinese memory methods, language and the role of art.

It is all so interesting! Thank you.


Thank you so much for these comments, Don’t Ask. I really appreciate it.