The Scientist, The Mnemonist and The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

This article was originally printed in Issue 413 (September/October 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Our relationship with memory is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is utterly familiar – indeed, we would be lost without it. On the other hand, many details of its function remain rather elusive. Truly understanding the nature of human memory requires a multidisciplinary approach. In my capacity as a memory athlete I’ve had a chance to meet memory experts from a range of different backgrounds. Here I interview Ed Cooke, an expert in the Art of Memory, Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology from Washington University and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, whose remarkable story is recorded in her book “The Woman Who Changed Her brain”.

Ed Cooke is a Grand Master of Memory; he is capable of memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, more than a thousand random digits in an hour and at least ten decks of cards in an hour. Additionally, he is the founder of Memrise, a free online educational platform that uses memory techniques to optimise learning. Ed has also spent time in Australia studying the philosophy of cricket at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Henry L. Roediger, III is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Roediger’s research has centred on human learning and memory and he has published on many different topics within this area. He has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of memory. He is also one of the world’s leading authorities on the scientific study of memory athletes and recently published a book called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which details practical applications of his research.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen weak areas of cognitive function that underlie a number of learning disabilities. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s work, has been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime. The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities. This is documented in her internationally bestselling book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.


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Kilov: How did you develop your interest in memory? Why is memory important?

Roediger: My interest in memory began early, when I was 5 years old. My mother died, which was devastating, but I discovered I could mentally keep our experiences of being together alive by thinking about them again and again. So over the years, I naturally wondered how memory worked. Somewhat later in life, as a student, I discovered that many psychologists study memory using objective techniques. Cognitive psychology — the study of how the mind works — eventually became my field of study. 

Cooke: I’ve always been fascinated by the mind- I love experiencing thoughts and colours- but my practical interest in memory grew from a chance spell in hospital. I got ill and wound up by misfortune as an 18 yr old in a ward of wittering octogenarians for three months. I’d always been quite fascinated with psychology and philosophy, and really out of boredom and a desire to impress the nurses I decided to train my memory. So I got some books, and set about learning all about these ancient arts. It quickly became a favourite pasttime.

I’m not so sure what it means for memory to be important. Or rather- as a general phenomenon it’s obviously at the heart of all human mental life. I guess the reason why its worthwhile training memory is to become better aware of it, and because it leads to learning more and enjoying the mind better.

Arrowsmith-Young: For me my interest was very personal beginning at an early age.  Having severe learning problems growing up that did not allow me to understand concepts, I relied on my memory to compensate for my lack of comprehension. I believe I took what was already a strong memory capacity – both auditory and visual – and supercharged it through a series of practices I developed starting in grade 1 to work around my other learning challenges. I built myself a visual photographic memory for text and a verbatim auditory memory for what I heard which allowed me to get through school.

As an adult, I have devoted my life to working with individuals from age 5 to those in their 80’s to improve cognitive functioning – various aspects of memory being some of those functions.  I see how devastating memory problems can be in people’s lives – academically, vocationally and socially.

Two quotes come to mind that illustrate the importance of memory to our lives:

“Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves. If on no other ground, most Americans are joined in our shared desire to improve the curious, elusive faculty we call ‘memory’.”

               — Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology, Barnard College,

in her review in The New York Times of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Dr. Eric Kandel, the author of In Search of Memory, underlines the critical role of remembering. “Memory,” he says “is the glue that binds our mental life together. It allows you to have continuity in your life.”

So I think memory is critical to our well-being.


Kilov: What do you consider to be the biggest myth or misconception about memory?


Roediger: One myth is that memory is passive: Experiences happen to us, they lay down memory traces, and then in remembering we just read off the contents of these traces in a more or less passive way. This view is not totally wrong — experiences do leave their mark in the brain/mind — but there is so much more to it than this simple account. 


Remembering is an active process — we selectively encode some information (and not other information) from rich experiences. After encoding, our memories can be changed by later information that can serve to distort (or to affirm) our memories. The act of retrieval is also an active, constructive process. We usually remember events more or less like they happened — we could not exist if we did not usually get things right — but memories are malleable, too, and we can be highly confident in a memory only to have it turn out to be false. That is one of the topics I study, illusions of memory.


Cooke: Besides the existence of photographic memory, I think the most damaging misconception about memory is that it is inert, like a store-house. To state the same idea positively, the most interestingly fruitful way for most people to reconceive of their memory is as a power of action. Memory doesn’t just sit waiting to be accessed by some other part of the brain. It’s present in perception, in language and in thought. Memories change the shape of your experience from the inside.


To ask why memory is important to the mind is like asking why walls are important to a house, or streets important to a city- it’s basically their shape. 


Arrowsmith-Young: As I wrote in my book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, “There is no one type of memory. There is a memory for faces, one for objects, one for written motor plans, one for steps in a process, one for phonemic pronunciation, one for spatial maps and patterns, one for body movements, and there is semantic memory for concepts, to name a few. Each type depends on the functioning of different cortical areas within its neural networks.  Anthony J. Greene, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he operates a learning and memory lab, contributed to a special report on memory in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Memory is dispersed,” he wrote, “forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions.” “



Kilov: What advice would you offer to those interested in memory improvement?


Roediger: Many techniques exist for memory improvement. Some are formal mnemonic techniques that have been known since the time of the ancient Greeks. Others have been uncovered in more recent research. For example, one great strategy to learn a set of material (say from chapters in a textbook) is to test oneself on the material, to show that it can be actively brought to mind when needed. This is called retrieval practice, and a person should also provide feedback when he or she fails to retrieve correctly. Self-testing via retrieval practice is a much more effective study technique than repeatedly reading text material (e.g., highlighting and rereading), which is what students generally do. 

I recently published a book with Peter Brown and Mark McDaniel called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning that discusses many methods for improving learning and memory. We wrote it not just for educators, but for people in many walks of life — trainers in industry and sports, those in the military and in for others in many occupations. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to improve their learning no matter what their age. Teachers have found it especially rewarding, because some of the advice from the research literature is counterintuitive to the way people usually think about learning. 

Cooke: Most of memory skill is learning to perceive and trust and exploit the peculiarities of your mind. A lot of the time, we sort of deny the associations we make, aim to bring them under control and normalise them. But really getting the most from your memory means learning to trust and delight in the random associations and meanderings of your attention. If you’re mental pathways are senseless or appalling from an outside perspective then that has no bearing on their utility internally. Great memory is always a very intimate and open internal dialogue, so to speak. One where you’re not just unembarrassed by the peculiarities of your mind, but you’ve no interest whatsoever in what it seems like from the outside.

Arrowsmith-Young: I would encourage people to work on improving memory through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce that cognitive decline that impacts memory as we age. We do not have to associate getting older with a poor memory. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so memory exercises can keep our brain healthy.


Kilov: Is there anything else people really ought to know about memory?

Roediger: Yes! The topic is huge and fascinating. Consider topics like: Flashbulb memories — memories that are often emotional and seem (but are not) permanently etched into memory; or deja vu — when we seem to be re-experiencing or reliving a prior event, but we know we are not; or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when we can almost (but not quite) retrieve a bit of information from memory. Why? What stops us? Relatedly, there is a phenomenon called the feeling-of-knowing experience. You are asked a question (What is the capital of Croatia?). If you fail to answer it, I ask you to give a rating on a scale about the likelihood that you would get the answer right on a multiple choice test. People are generally quite good at doing this, at predicting how well they can answer the question. So even though they do not know the answer, their feeling-of-knowing judgments are generally highly correlated with their performance on the later multiple choice test. The puzzle is: How does one not know an answer, but then can still show how much he/she knows about the topic and be accurate? 


Psychologists study these phenomena above and many more. You could read books (or at least chapters and papers) on all these topics. The field is rich and fascinating. 


Cooke: Well, regarding memory training, people should know that here’s no magic bullet that will suddenly change your mind, but rather that there is a collection of reliable ways of attuning and focusing your attention and guiding your mind that together can make learning things robustly achievable – and pretty fun. ■

Misunderstanding memory in the classroom


This article was originally printed in Issue 412 (July/August 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus under the title “The Art of Memory forgotten in education?”.

The deepest dispute in education is based on a mistake.

In what must be now the most watched talk on the internet (and thus likely all of human history – what other speech could have ever reached twenty six million viewers?) Sir Ken Robinson calls for a revolution in the way we are educating children. He calls for a move away from fact-filled curricula and instead champions the teaching of creativity. He does not offer much in the way of a positive vision of what this revolutionary classroom would look like, but others using his talk as a rallying point often speak in terms of “21st century learning skills” which include information literacy, critical thinking, analysis and creative thinking.

The putative dispute between defenders of fact-based learning and advocates of 21st century thinking skills is however based on a false dichotomy and this dissolves once we understand the relevant science of memory. A synthesis of these views, as we will see below, suggests that the best way to promote 21st century skills is to embrace a 500 BC Art of Memory.

Supporters of 21st century learning skills conceive of thinking skills as being, in some important way, beyond the mere accumulation of memorized facts. However scientific research has determined that memory is central to complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving.

The ability to sift through and critically appraise the value of information in any subject cannot be acquired without a significant body of knowledge in that area. The scientist George Miller demonstrated the importance of background knowledge to the use of reference materials, for instance, by asking a group of students to use a dictionary to learn new words. The results are humorous but clearly demonstrate the pitfalls of the anti-fact philosophy:

‘Mrs. Morrow stimulated the soup.’ (That is she stirred it up.) ‘Our family erodes a lot.’ (That is they eat out.) ‘Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn’t be here.’ ‘I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.’ ‘I relegated my pen pal’s letter to her house.’’

If we really want to be able to understand and appraise information that comes our way we cannot be content to just look it up on Google.

Even something like ability in chess, often considered a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy, depends crucially on memory. Herbert Simon, whose research in this area won him a Nobel Prize, demonstrated in a series of experiments that a player’s chess ability relied not on IQ or raw mental processing power but on that player’s memory-bank of typical chess positions and sequences.

In these experiments, players of various levels were shown different configurations of boards from high level chess games. The participants were then asked to reconstruct the boards from memory. The results were astonishing. Chess experts were able to recall the configurations of the chess pieces with almost perfectly. Novice players could only recall about a third of the pieces. The reason for this is that the expert chess players saw the board in a completely different way. Their vast memories of previous chess games meant that the configurations of pieces all had meaning. The superior memory ability of the chess experts was not just a by-product of expertise; it was the essence of their expertise.

For expert players, the source of their skill is what they can remember about a game and the way that those memories influence how they perceive the board in front of them. Similar results have been found across a range of different disciplines.

This should not come as a surprise. No creative idea that has changed the way we view the world has been invented in a vacuum of knowledge: Nobel Prize winners are able to develop their insights only after years spent accumulating knowledge. If their memories of their disciplines were lost to them, say through amnesia, so too would be their creative capacities.

If expert skill, and the creativity it entails, lies in the accumulation of vast stores of knowledge then anything that is going to increase our capacity to form memories and the speed with which we do it should be treasured. This is true even for those of us without aspirations to become world class experts. All of our mundane, every-day projects depend crucially on memory. Imagine, for instance, being able to absorb foreign language vocabulary like a sponge, internalizing the words needed to speak a new language in weeks rather than years.

Real life examples of high-speed learning exist. Every year, athletes gather from all over the world to compete in the World Memory Championships and, every year, they demonstrate startling learning abilities.  One competitor at the first world memory championships, Bruce Balmer, taught himself 2000 foreign words in a single day. Another competitor from the 1999 World Memory Championships famously taught himself Icelandic in only one week and then went on a talk show in that language. The most remarkable thing about these competitors, however, is that there is nothing special about them at all. Rather, they all employ a small set of simple techniques, known collectively as the “Art of Memory”.

The techniques of the Art of Memory originated over two thousand years ago in Ancient Greece. These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.  Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mental playground of a trained mnemonist.  Appropriately, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses, the goddesses of creativity.

These techniques formed the cornerstone of western education and were employed and advocated by thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Giordano Bruno, Bacon, Leibniz and Descarte. For most of the history of education, the view of memorization was one entirely alien to those of us concerned with so-called 21st century learning skills. The deepest dispute in modern educational debate is based on a mistake: If we really want to promote the abilities of critical reasoning and creativity then we would do well to recognize that the right place for the art of memory is not in memory competitions or in history books but in our classrooms and workplaces.

Review of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein

This review was originally printed in Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 6, Issue 1, 


In his captivating book Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer details his journey from journalist to memory master during his research for an article on the US memory championships. Moonwalking with Einstein explores the world of memory, setting out on a journey that takes the reader from the bizarre world of memory sports through the relevant cognitive science and all the way back to Ancient Greece to the birth of mnemonic techniques. This is a popular, rather than scholarly, book, and the historical and scientific details are gleaned from Foer’s journalistic investigations, rather than original research.

There was a time, Foer reflects, when it was more practical to remember information than it was to record it. In ancient times, recording information was a lengthy and expensive process. Consequently, students in the ancient world were taught, ‘not just what to remember, but how to remember it’ (p. 96) using mnemonic techniques referred to collectively as the Art of Memory. The techniques of the Art of Memory all revolve around the composition of elaborate and colourful mental images. In one instance, for example, Foer memorises a shopping list by conjuring mental images of Claudia Schiffer swimming in cottage cheese and anthropomorphic bottles of wine getting into a punch-up.

During the Middle Ages, books were not considered substitutes for memorisation but rather as aides-memoire. Books of this period were written without punctuation or spacing, in an unending stream known as scripto continua (p. 139). Without punctuation or paragraphs, page numbers or an index, referring to a work written in scripto continua required an intimate knowledge of the text. As Foer puts it, these works existed ‘not to hold its contents externally, but rather to help its reader navigate its contents internally’ (p. 141). By the time of the Enlightenment, improvements in technologies designed to externalise memory resulted in a decline in the popularity and practice of mnemonic techniques.

Even during the Enlightenment the idea of using memory techniques to preserve information was beginning to appear outdated; how much more so now in the age of smartphones and smarter search engines? Foer explores the idea that we might be ‘moving toward a future, it seems, in which we will have all-encompassing external memories’ (p. 155) by introducing us to an engineer named Gordon Bell, who has taken to recording everything he does via a miniature camera he designed to act as a surrogate memory. Bell can search through his recorded ‘memories’ using customised software to ‘recall’ particular details which are all downloaded and stored on his computer.

Bell’s internal and external memories do not yet interface seamlessly; his external memory does not allow for the same speed and ease of recall as his biological memory, yet his project raises crucial questions about the role and nature of our memories. It is these questions that motivate Moonwalking with Einstein.

Given that it is so easy to relegate so many of our memory tasks to external devices, what is the point of remembering anything? For a person who has invested hundreds of hours in developing his memory (by the end of his journey, Foer is capable of memorising a deck of shuffled playing cards in one minute and forty seconds) Foer’s answer is a surprising one.

Foer’s answer as to why we ought to train our biological memories rather than rely on external systems is not, as one might expect, inspired by any of the prodigious memorisers he introduces us to in the course of his book. Instead, His most compelling argument is one he ‘received unwittingly from EP’, an amnesiac who is entirely unable to form new memories and ‘whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people’ (p. 268). Without his memory, Foer writes, ‘EP has fallen out of time. He has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate’ (p. 74).

For Foer, to be human is to remember. Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly coloured by the things we think, believe and know, all of which resides in our memories. There is no clear line between remembering and creating. Cultivating a better memory is not (or not merely) about storage or efficiency: in these respects, external recording technologies are either already superior to our biological memories or might be so one day soon. Our ability to notice connections between previously unconnected ideas, to find humour in the world and to share in a common culture are all essentially human acts that depend on memory (p. 269).

Foer deals a blow to the fantasy of cultivating a faultless memory (a fantasy which motivated his entry into the world of memory sports) but does so with such sensitivity and enthusiasm for his topic that one comes away feeling inspired rather than disillusioned. His argument that memory is the seat of identity is compelling, but does not, on its own, clearly justify the training of memory. Foer’s experiences, however, provide another argument for practising the ancient techniques of the Art of Memory: memory training is fun. The mental images that Foer and his fellow mnemonists create are playful and the process of remembering is as much an exercise in creativity as it is in fidelity. The final lesson of Moonwalking is that we ought to approach our memories with a sense of playfulness, because that is how they work best.

The Memory Systems of Mark Twain

TwainThis article was originally printed in Issue 411 (May/June 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

In 1883, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, began work on a game designed to teach his children to remember the names of the English monarchs. The game involved using the garden path around his home to spatially represent the relative reigns of the kings and queens. As both a family activity and as a memory aid the game was a great success, and the idea began to take on new configurations in Twain’s mind. He began to reimagine and redesign the game and even stopped working on Huckleberry Finn so that he could devote more time to his new project. In 1885, he patented “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” Twain believed that all of human knowledge could be learnt through his game and his notebooks reveal plans to organize national clubs and competitions organised around his game, as well as an accompanying book and periodicals. The game, however, was a failure and Twain (fortunately) returned to writing, stating to a friend that “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game, don’t.”

Twain had a tortured relationship with his memory throughout his life. In “Old Times on the Missisippi”, Twain identified memory as the “one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has brought it to perfection” and regarded a well-developed memory as “the most wonderful thing in the world”. Twain’s own memory, however, was famously bad. Albert Paine, a well-known biographer of Twain’s, wrote that, even as a young man, Twain would lose his way in familiar neighbourhoods, or fail to recognize pictures that had been hanging in his own home for years. Clearly, Mark Twain, the writer-lecturer, was in serious need of an aide de memoire.

In 1887, Twain crossed paths with Professor Loisette a ‘memory doctor’ who made a living peddling a system of memory techniques bearing his name. Inductees into the “Loisette system” were sworn to secrecy, and charged the modern equivalent of five hundred dollars to learn the “natural laws of memory” which the doctor claimed to have discovered. Twain enrolled in a several-week-long course and at first was deeply impressed, even going so far as to publish a testimonial in favour of the Loisette system. He was soon to regret this; only one year later a book was published titled “Loisette” Exposed” which revealed him to have invented not only his academic degree but also his name. ‘Alphonse Loisette’ was born Marcus Dwight Larrowe and had no qualifications to speak of. His entire system, it turned out, had been either plagiarised from other sources or oversold as to its effectiveness.

Eventually, Twain discovered a system that worked for him. As he wrote, “It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away…The lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I could rewrite it from the pictures – for they remain.” In 1880 he shared his system of mental “hieroglyphics” with his friend William Dean Howells. After Twain’s death, Howells revealed the method which Twain used to memorize his speeches:

“It was his custom to think out his speeches, mentally working them out and then memorizing them by a peculiar system of mnemonics which he had invented. On the dinner-table, a certain succession of knife, spoon, salt-cellar, and butter plate symbolized a train of ideas, and on the billiard-table a ball, a cue and a piece of chalk served the same purpose.”

Essentially, the dinner table and billiard table served as loci to which his mental pictures were affixed. Although Howells believed that Twain had invented the system, Twain was actually drawing from a two thousand year old tradition of memory training known as the “Art of Memory” and employing one of its oldest techniques: The method of loci.

The invention of the Art of Memory is usually attributed to the Ancient Greek poet, Simonides, and although the art was mentioned in writings by Aristotle, the earliest known systematic account of the memory techniques come from the anonymously written Rhetorica Ad Herennium as well as works by Cicero and Quintillian, all of which were penned around four hundred years later. We know that these techniques were almost universally practiced by thinkers of the ancient world precisely because of the shallow way in which writers treat the subject. Just as a modern writer about, say, the various uses of the internet, wouldn’t bother to spend much time explaining what the internet is or, for instance, what Google is, writers of ancient memory treatises simply took knowledge of the Art of Memory for granted.

Although the Art was originally developed to help aspiring students of rhetoric to remember the content of their speeches, the techniques of the Art of memory, and in particular the method of loci, was widely influential and found expression in a surprising number of ways. During the Middle Ages the Art of Memory was incorporated into the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Another persuasive hypothesis put forward by modern historians is that Dante’s Divine Comedy is properly understood as a memory system with its striking images organized along a series of loci.

During the Renaissance period, the influence of the Art of Memory was ubiquitous in art, religion, philosophy and science, and its practitioners included Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Giordano Bruno and probably Shakespeare.

Mark Twain’s memory building game was an externalized version of the internal special mnemonics used in the Art of Memory. However, although he almost certainly didn’t know it, he was certainly not the first to do so.

In 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo Delmino published an eighty-seven page book outlining plans for the construction of what he called a memory theatre.

The theatre was designed to act as a physical repository of memories and consisted of a small pulpit which opened onto an auditorium divided into seven sections. In each section, various images and messages would be inscribed, which Camillo claimed would allow the occupant of the pulpit to “be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero”.

Although hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Camillo and his work fell into obscurity after his death. It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published “The Art of Memory” in 1966 that Camillo’s work once again caught the public imagination. Yates identified Camillo’s ideas as being a continuation of a much older tradition of the the method of loci. This mental technique is often considered the crowning jewel of the art of memory, and, like Twain, Camillo believed his personal contributions towards the memory theatre were a giant leap forwards in mnemonic techniques and in learning. Just like Twain, Camillo was wrong. His memory theatre was not the revolution he had hoped for. Indeed, it was never constructed.

Unlike the mysterious and mystical memory theatre of Camillo, however, Twain’s memory techniques were remarkably simple and were designed so that they could even be adopted by children. Consider his advice to children for learning historic dates:

“Dates are difficult things to acquire… But they are very valuable” wrote Twain in his article How to make history dates stick. Dates are hard to remember, he lamented, because “they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance”. To aid memory Twain advised that would-be historians create vivid mental pictures; “Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick”

The ‘trick’ to Twain’s memory system was to create mental simulacra and then organize them in locations, as described above. The distance between these locations encoded the comparative length of their reigns. To remember the reign of William I, for instance, Twain recommended using the image of a whale; “We choose the whale for several reasons: its name and William’s begin with the same letter; it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history…” Henry II was to be remembered as a hen and Richard the Lion-heart as a lion.

The Art of Memory, Twain believed, also benefited his writing: “The effort of inventing such things will not only help your memory, but will develop originality in art. See what it has done for me.”

Twain’s memory game was a financial failure. His dream of transfiguring education never came to fruition and his writings on memory techniques weren’t published until after his death. Nonetheless, his techniques supported a successful lecturing career, helped him conquer his chronically poor memory, inspired his literature and transformed his children’s attitudes towards their own learning; in their biographies both Susan and Clara Clemens recall fondly the outdoor memory game. Although our own memories may not be as bad as Twain’s, we could probably all nonetheless benefit from some of his memory techniques.

An ancient art for modern classrooms

Note: This article was originally submitted as a conference paper for the 2013 Mind and Its Potential conference (

Can you name the year in which the first fleet landed at Sydney Cove? Do you know the year the City of Melbourne was founded? If not, you aren’t alone. Even the minds of university level history students are sparsely furnished with particular historical facts.  History professor Derek Matthews gave a list of five questions to a group of history students from some of the top research universities in the United Kingdom; 89% of them could not name a 19th century British prime minister while 70% did not know where the Boer Wars were fought1.

Memorization doesn’t feature much in modern classrooms. Schools today deemphasize the learning of facts, most of which are forgotten by students almost as soon as they have been successfully tested on them, in favour of developing the capacity for critical analysis and the capacity to mine external records of information such as books and the internet instead. Of course, it must be asked whether this is really any kind of problem. Rote memorization drills, once thought to build discipline and improve the memories of young minds, were shown by psychologists Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth to be ineffectual. Skills at the memory drills were not transferable to new tasks, and the proposed auxiliary benefits of mental discipline were found to be “mythological”.  So undermined, traditional methods of rote memorization soon gave way to the methods espoused by a group of progressive educators led by John Dewey, an American philosopher who championed experiential learning2. Dewey, and those like him, exchanged biology textbooks for student-run gardens, and geology books for excursions to cliffs.

In their war on remembering, Dewey and his contemporaries were guilty of creating a false dichotomy; reflection on the history of memory and education reveals that rote memorization is a fairly recent (and unfortunate) chapter in the story of memory. For most of history, facts were regarded as important signposts that guide students towards cultural literacy and the act of remembering them was one of creativity and imagination.

The last century of educational reform has been especially unkind to memory. Memory however, has not always had such a bad rap.  In fact, from the Ancient Greeks right up until the Renaissance, the art of memory, a collection of mnemonic techniques unrecognizable to those of us familiar only with rote methods of memorizing, formed the cornerstone of education; for hundreds of years, students were taught how to furnish their minds with memories.

The earliest record we have of the techniques that make up the art of memory come from an ancient Roman treatise known as Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was written sometime between 86 and 82B.C.  The Rhetorica ad Herennium attributes the origins of memory techniques to the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, who lived during the fifth century B.C.

Legend has it that Simonides was invited to perform at the banquet of a nobleman of Thessaly. During his performance, the poet sang praise to the twin gods, Castor and Pollux.  This was apparently a faux pas in Ancient Greece and when the performance was complete, the nobleman told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed fee, and that he would have to extract the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned.

Simonedes was then summoned outside by a mysterious messenger.  As he exited the banquet hall it collapsed, crushing everyone inside. The great tragedy for the Greeks did not lie in the death toll, but in the fact that the bodies had been so severely disfigured that they could not be identified for burial rites befitting their stations.  At this point, Simonides realized that by closing his eyes and visualizing himself travelling around the hall, he could recall the exact location where every guest had been seated.  From this experience, Simonides extracted the principles of visualization and association which became the basis of all memory techniques.  These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.  Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mental playground of a trained mnemonist.

The techniques of the Art of Memory all involve the creation of colourful mental stories. The most effective of these capitalize on a cognitive bias known to modern psychologists as the ‘Von Restorff effect’. According to the Von Restorff effect, we are more likely to remember something if it is distinctive. The more unusual or original a mnemonic image, the more likely it is to be remembered. The relationship between memory and creativity was something the Ancient Greek’s knew well; In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses, the goddesses of creativity.

Memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks, who used the techniques of the art of memory as tools for composition and meditation.  The art of memory became the principle method by which Monks would read and meditate upon the bible after committing it to memory.  Safe within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries, the art of memory made it through to the later Middle Ages and The Renaissance.

By the Renaissance, mnemonic training was taught to almost all students, alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic. It was only during the Protestant reformation, which sought to eliminate the lush visual imagery of the Renaissance, including the elaborate mental images used in mnemonic training, that the art of memory was driven underground.

As we have seen, for most of human history, a well-stocked and well trained memory was considered a prerequisite, rather than an obstacle to higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and creativity.

More recently, support for the importance of memory in education has come from the cognitive sciences. Research from across a range of fields of scientific inquiry has converged on the conclusion that memory is the king of cognition. Consider this comment by Kirschner and colleagues:

‘Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.’3

Research has shown, for instance, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players. In 1946, Adriaan De Groot, a dutch chess master and psychologist conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high level chess players. The experiment is described here by Herbert Simon, whose research into this area won him the Nobel Prize:

‘He [de Groot ] displayed a chess position to his subjects for a very brief period of time ( 2 to 10 seconds) and then asked them to reconstruct the position from memory. These positions were from actual master games, but games unknown to his subjects. The results were dramatic. Grandmasters and masters were able to reproduce, with almost perfect accuracy (about 93% correct), positions containing about 25 pieces… Good amateurs (Class A players in the American rating scheme) could replace only about half the pieces in the same positions, and novice players (from our own experiments) could recall only about eight pieces (about 33%).’4

Educationalist Daisy Christodoulou highlights the key lesson of this research when she writes ‘Chess is supposed to be a game of pure reasoning, a game where strong and abstract ‘mental muscles’ separate the best players from the weakest. But in actual fact, one of the most important differences between the best players and the weakest players is the knowledge they have of typical chess positions.’5

If remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent give birth to phenomenal performance across a variety of fields, then the case for training our memories using the techniques of the Art of Memory is all the stronger.

This research also furnishes us with a response to the most common question I, as a memory athlete, get asked: ‘Why bother learning to remember more and faster in an age of smart phones and search engines?’

Being able to look information up is no substitute for having that material in your head. For instance, can you imagine trying to carry a conversation with someone armed only with an online translator? Would you be comfortable being operated on by a surgeon who was following a tutorial found on YouTube? Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly coloured by the things we think, believe and know, all of which resides in our memories. There is no clear line between remembering and creating. Cultivating a better memory is not (or not merely) about storage or efficiency: in these respects, external recording technologies are either already superior to our biological memories or might be so one day soon. Our ability to notice connections between previously unconnected ideas, to find, analyize and evaluate arguments, to appreciate humour in the world and even the performance of skills are all essentially human acts that depend on memory.

The Art of Memory is superior to technological ‘external-memories’ in another respect when it comes to the classroom. Many modern educational interventions/programs require expensive new equipment or technology. The Art of Memory, however, was invented in an age that predates even pencils and paper as we know them. It can be taught incredibly quickly (It was only 6 months after I began studying the Art of Memory that I competed in the Australian Memory Championships) and does not require any special equipment.

Teaching students memory techniques would open up new vistas of learning to them (imagine being able to learn a new language in weeks instead of years!) and transform their relationship to learning. Given how little it would cost to do so, the case is strong for bringing these techniques back into the classroom. The techniques of the Art of memory represent a potential revolution in education, both in the obvious sense of the word, and because, as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.


  1. Matthews D. The strange death of history teaching (fully explained in seven easy-to-follow lessons ) (2009), p. 33, assets/ documents/ subjects/ history/ br_matthews_deathofhistory_20090803. pdf (accessed 3 March 2010).
  2. Foer, Joshua (2011-04-07). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (p. 194). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.
  3. Kirschner P.A., Sweller J. and Clark R.E. Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery , problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 2006; 41: 75– 86.
  4. Simon H.A. and Gilmartin K. A simulation of memory for chess positions. Cognitive Psychology 1973; 5: 29– 46.
  5. Christodoulou, Daisy (2013-06-16). Seven Myths about Education (Kindle Locations 1401-1404). The Curriculum Centre. Kindle Edition.

Memory Athletics: Daniel Kilov at TEDxCanberra

Here it is; I’ve finally managed to get around to posting my talk from TEDxCanberra. This was one of the most exciting moments of my memory career. It was a phenomenal event and I think my talk came out very nicely too.

The talk itself was also illustrated by an audience member:

This image was created by Nick Ellis, an audience member at TEDxCanberra. He did illustrations of several other talks which can be found here:

This image was created by Nick Ellis, an audience member at TEDxCanberra. He did illustrations of several other talks which can be found here.