It is a widely held belief that as we age our memory deteriorates. However, Australia’s senior memory champion dismisses this as merely a myth. Author and academic Lynne Kelly, who lives in Castlemaine, Victoria, believes age is no barrier to retaining information, and has unearthed ancient indigenous memory techniques to improve and increase her memory capabilities as she grows older.

Dr Kelly, who won the over-60 category of the Australian Memory Championships in 2017 and 2018, states that she naturally has a very bad memory and said she was ‘living proof’ that memory could be improved.

So often people take to cryptic crosswords or Sudoku to try to keep their brains healthy, but Dr Kelly wondered why the emphasis wasn’t on memorising useful information. Instead she started exploring the ability of ancient cultures to retain vast amounts of information about plants, animals, survival and history using memory methods.

In her book Memory Craft Dr Kelly uncovers techniques and devices used by indigenous people across the globe, and shows how they can still work in today’s evolved society.

The first memory device she came across was a portable wooden item called a Lukasa once used by the Luba people from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Working as a sort of ‘landscape,’ with different beads, shells and stones carefully hammered into it at specific places as locations on the landscape. The brain links each bead to a story, encoding more information, then more and more complex knowledge is built on that.

Initally Dr Kelly had thought it was ‘a load of rubbish,’ until on making her own she found she was able to successfully memorise more than 400 birds native to Victoria. “I was shocked at how effective it was” Dr Kelly said.

After this initial discovery Dr Kelly went on to investigate other devices and techniques from different ancient cultures.

Another memory device that has been unearthed is a ‘winter count’ as used by the Sioux Native American people. This records a key memory of each year of a person’s life, with a pictogram representing the events being drawn travelling outwards from the centre of a spiral. Each winter a new picture is added to summarise the past year, and the finished product shows the significant people, events and places that have had an impact on someone’s life, including births, deaths and travels.

Dr Kelly has used her memory techniques to transform her life – having struggled to learn languages at school she has recently been able to learn and retain French and Mandarin, proving that age is no barrier to retaining information.

“It’s a myth that being old means your memory has to decay,” Dr Kelly said. “The problem is that instead of using our memories to their full capacity we are outsourcing it to writing and now to technology. Memory is like other muscles in the body, it will waste away if you do not use it.”