Dr Lynne Kelly on cracking The Memory Code

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Dr Lynne Kelly walking through a memory palace – the Avebury Avenue

Dr Lynne Kelly is a science writer and Honorary Research Associate at LaTrobe University. Her work focuses on orality and the mnemonic systems used by ancient and modern oral cultures around the world. She is most famous for her theory that Stonehenge served the purpose of a memory palace for recording and transmitting knowledge by Neolithic Britons. This was the thesis of her book The Memory Code. It’s a bold idea and one I was keen to explore. Lynne was kind enough to indulge me.

Daniel Kilov: Your book begins with the observation that individuals in non-literate cultures frequently display an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the land and skyscapes that they inhabit. Indeed, it seems that your journey into memory was motivated by the question of how this is/was achieved. What is the most impressive memory feat that you came across in your research?

Lynne Kelly: Two feats stand out as unbelievable achievements just because they really captured my attention, one in terms of the complexity of the information and the other in terms of the longevity.

The Navajo were able to describe a field guide to over 700 insects to ethnozoologists a few decades ago. The information not only included identification but also habitat, behaviour and stories integrating that insect into the cultural whole through mythology. Of these insects, ten were known because they cause bother such as gnats, lice, fleas or insects which attack crops. One was eaten, the cicada. All the rest were known because, as the ethnographers said, the Navajo love to classify. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not a trait of only literate humans. Once you add in all the other invertebrates, birds, mammals, amphibians, fish…the memory feat becomes even more extraordinary. Then add in a thousand or so plants, navigation, genealogies, laws, management of crops and domestic animals, hunting…the memory feat simply becomes overwhelming.

This feat particularly astounded me because I have attempted to identify insects and got nowhere. They are so much harder than the birds and mammals and other genres of critter. How many people can even identify the few hundred birds in their environment?

In terms of longevity, there are a number of examples of our Australian Aboriginal cultures retaining accurate descriptions of the changes in landscape dating back thousands of years. For example, the Dyirbal people from north-east Queensland have a story about the past when it was possible to walk across to the islands now called Palm and Hinchinbrook Islands. Geographers have since concluded that the sea level was low enough for this to be the case at the end of the last ice age, at least 8,000 years ago. It is simply mind-boggling to think that descriptions of events from so long ago could be retained so accurately without writing. I’m not surprised that these events tend to be linked to landscape formations because it is the landscape which acts as the primary medium for sequencing memory locations.

My research is about the mechanisms through which these feats are achieved.

Daniel: Your visit to Stonehenge was an important catalyst for the development of your theories, correct? Could you tell us a bit about your first visit to Stonehenge and why you think it is best interpreted as a memory space?

Lynne: I expected my visit to Stonehenge in 2008 to be fairly mundane. I was just visiting as a tourist with my husband Damian who had recently graduated in archaeology. I was researching my PhD on indigenous knowledge of animals through which I had started to glimpse the way non-literate cultures use the method of loci to memorise vast amounts of information. By that stage I had realised that the information they stored was so much more complex than I had ever realised, and I was including many genres along with zoology. My thesis was being derailed by a bigger question: how on earth did they memorise so much stuff?

I realised that out Australian Aboriginal cultures were using sequences of locations in the landscape as a memory device, sung pathways better known as songlines. At each sacred location along the hundreds of kilometres of songlines, they would perform a ritual, that is a repeated song, dance or story. It was these rituals which stored the pragmatic information I was looking at, encoded through mythology and integrated with spiritual beliefs. I also knew that the same methods were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans using locations within their built environment.

But what happened in the transition? Standing on Salisbury Plain that day, my thesis topic on animal knowledge in indigenous cultures got totally derailed as I added archaeology into the ever-expanding research topic. My precious animal knowledge was being engulfed by bigger questions. I realised that in order to settle, cultures would need to replicate the songlines in the local landscape to ensure that the information associated with this vast expanse of sacred locations was not lost. I realised that the perfect way to record the annual cycle of knowledge associated with the annual cycle of movement, seasons and ceremonies would be a circle of stones. That is why there are so many across the British Isles and Western Europe. The changes in the Stonehenge complex of monuments reflects exactly what you would expect of a memory palace as it moves from the needs of  a fairly open mobile society to a larger settled society, but that takes a lot of explaining.

Daniel: I’ve heard people refer to your book as the ‘Stonehenge book’. I found your arguments for Stonehenge as a memory space compelling, but your theory is really much broader than that, and is intended to explain many different sites. Could you give us a quick sketch of your theory concerning the role of these architectural structures as landscapes-in-miniature?

Lynne: I felt pretentious enough thinking I had a new theory for the purposes of Stonehenge, so my self-doubt became almost crippling when I realised that if I’m saying this is the natural way for a culture to memorise information in the transition from hunter gathering to settle farming, then it wouldn’t only be the British Neolithic.

In the small-scale cultures I’ve been looking at, in particular Australian Aboriginal and Native American, power was in the hands of those who controlled information. Power was not maintained through individual wealth nor coercion through using violence as it has been in all larger communities since. I identified a set of indicators which would imply that a monument was primarily memory space. These indicators formed the basis of my academic monograph published by Cambridge University Press, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.

Archaeologically, there should be no individual burials with wealthy grave goods. There should be no indication of a hierarchy where some members of the community were clearly far better off than others materially. If the major monuments built by these cultures were memory spaces, then that had to be the source of power. All of the Neolithic and American Archaic monuments met this requirement. They were all built in that transition from hunter gathering to farming, which is not a rapid transition.

Essentially what is required is a set of locations in a clearly defined sequence of memory locations. I started looking for all the other indicators for enhancing memory that I was learning about from Australian, Native American and other non-literate cultures.

Knowledge is performed in non-literate cultures. That is it is danced and sung and stories enacted. Monumental spaces are also performance spaces. Some form of acoustic enhancement is often present but what is essential is that there are both public and restricted performance spaces. As a member of a society is initiated higher and higher into the knowledge system, information is kept secret. This is essential to protect against the so-called Chinese whispers. This is particularly important when survival is dependent on the accuracy of information, such as how to handle extreme resource stress, long-term agreements with other tribes, resource boundaries and rights as well as changes in the distant landscape.

Timekeeping is an essential part of any society to run a calendar for ceremonies, agriculture and seasonal resource gathering. A wide range of methods are used in mobile cultures, but with settlement, maintaining a calendar according to the solstice, equinox and lunar alignments is the preferred method. Astronomical alignments are an essential part of the knowledge system. The timekeepers were always very powerful people.

All non-literate cultures use some form of handheld memory device, often abstract signs inscribed on stone or wood such as the Australian tjuringa, the African lukasa or the Native American songboard or birchbark scroll. Details of these devices were often hard to find as no one has made an inventory of these objects before and there is no common name for them. Wherever I looked, I found portable memory devices. Most used wood or stone decorated objects, while many used sculptures, sets of figurines and paintings on bark. Some cultures used bundles of objects while others attached information to the various arrangements of seeds or shells. The Inca used the incredibly adaptable knotted cord device known as the khipu. These mnemonic technologies are not used in isolation. Indigenous cultures integrate a range of mnemonic devices into a system where one method reinforces another.

All the indicators of a memory space were in the Stonehenge archaeology, as long as you consider the entire Stonehenge complex of monuments which the archaeologists say are linked, and as long as you look at the way they changed over the 1,500 years or so of use. These same indicators were also present in monuments all over the world which were used in the transition from mobile to small-scale settled cultures. Each site has to be analysed independently, considering the degree of settlement, size of the society, materials available and subsistence methods. I was able to show that the huge glyphs on the Nasca Desert of Peru also fit the same pattern. So do mounds and pyramids right across the Americas in the early stages of settlement, including the mound-building hunter-gatherer site of Poverty Point in Louisiana and many others. Understanding non-literate memory systems also explains the purpose of the extraordinary ‘great houses’ of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and why the non-literate Inca managed to outshine the literate Aztecs and Maya and control a massive empire without writing. By adding in the way Pacific cultures use genealogies to structure information, the purpose of the moai of Easter Island becomes clear. Unravelling the purpose of these monuments is just a matter of acknowledging the critical role of memorising vast amounts of pragmatic information in the absence of writing.

Daniel: Inspired by many of the indigenous memory systems that you’ve observed, you’ve conducted a number of your own memory experiments. Could you tell us about some of these?

Lynne: I have taken examples of each of the mnemonic technologies I researched and copied them in order to understand how the technology worked, not just how the indigenous cultures used it. For example, I have encoded a field guide to the 408 birds of Victoria to a memory board made of wood, shells and beads, based on the African lukasa. The birds are encoded in taxonomic order and I am constantly adding more information to it. I don’t need the board in the field to use it—I know it so well. I would never have considered attempting this before I understood the effectiveness of abstract designs on hand held objects as a mnemonic device.

I have set up landscape sequences based on the Australian Aboriginal songlines. To one songline I have encoded the 250 countries and independent protectorates of the world in population order. That is a set of discrete locations. In another kilometre or so of the local neighbourhood, I walk through continuous time from 4,500 million years ago to the present, watching all sorts of events play out and nodding to a vast array of historic figures.

I have created a knotted cord device based on the Inca khipu/quipu, sets of objects to manipulate, a totem pole, a series of stones and many more. To each I am encoding practical information for contemporary life as that is what I felt I had to do to see what was happening in my brain as I implemented these mnemonic technologies. I am astounded how effective they are and how differently my brain works when I use them. I am also astounded that we don’t use these methods in education. I am seeing patterns and asking questions that would never have occurred to me without the information stored in memory first.

Daniel: Your beautiful description of the songlines of Australian Aboriginals, with their use of the landscape as a way of ordering and retrieving memory images, is strikingly similar to the techniques used by contemporary memory athletes. These techniques, of course, are thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. When did you draw the connection between the song-lines and the Art of Memory?

Lynne: I was originally doing a PhD as a creative science writer in the English program at LaTrobe University. I was looking at the way the stories encoded accurate details of animal behaviour, identification and ecology. Then I realised how many animals there were once you add in the hundreds of invertebrates. Then all the plants and so on. Given that I am blessed with an appallingly bad memory, I started asking how on earth they could remember so much stuff. That changed my research question and I stumbled on the role of songlines.

At the same time I was looking at Walter Ong and his book Orality and Literacy which led me to Frances Yates and The Art of Memory. It just seemed obvious that the two techniques were exactly the same: take a set of locations in a fixed order and encode information to each location. Make the stories vivid, the characters grotesque, vulgar, extreme, very active—anything which makes them memorable. That is a perfect description of mythology, which Walter Ong identified as a mnemonic technology. It went from there.

Daniel: One thing which sets the techniques of the Art of Memory apart from most contemporary mnemonics (ROYGBIV, for example, as an acronym for the sequence of hues in the rainbow) is its general purpose nature. The principles and techniques can be applied to practically any learning task. To what extent do you think the memory techniques of oral cultures share this feature?

Lynne: They share this feature completely. The stories tell of all the practical knowledge, but enmesh that information with the laws, ethical stories, spiritual domain and all use the same set of mnemonic technologies. One device can encode a huge range of knowledge domains. The African lukasa, for example, has the history of the Luba Kingdom at one level, battle strategies and animal behaviour, ceremonial and initiation cycles and then, higher and higher levels of training add more and more information. But the higher levels were so restricted to protect the accuracy of the information, that with all the lukasa experts gone, there is no way to know what they stored. They would not have told uninitiated ethnographers.

The difference between linking information to physical locations, be they in the landscape of on physical devices, is that you can add layer upon layer of information in an infinitely expandable way. You don’t need to learn them in order. If you take something like ROYGBIV, or Thirty-days-hath-September …, then you can’t add any more complexity to the database. Songlines, memory boards, Stonehenge…they are all essentially database structures with the data held in memorable oral forms: songs and stories, dance and mythology. That data is in variable length data cells, each one infinitely expandable. But, if human memory is lost, then only the database structure remains. The monument, cave art or enigmatic decorated object remains but the knowledge encoded to it died with the last elder.

Daniel: It seems to me that the Ars Memorativa presents some interesting challenges to your theories. If I’ve understood correctly, your theory predicts that once a group of people fully transition from a nomadic lifestyle to permanent settlements, they lose interest in memory systems. Even more so for those settled cultures that develop written language. Yet the Ancient Greeks are often considered to have developed the first ‘true’ alphabet (i.e. one involving the consistent use of letters for both vowels and consonants) as well as the most advanced expression of mnemotechnics.

To push this even further, it could be argued that the Art of Memory, which played an important role in European thought until the 17th Century, even experienced something of a renaissance after the invention of the printing press.  I’m talking here about the work of Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno and others in the hermetic tradition, but also Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. What are your thoughts on this?

Lynne: I sincerely hope I have never given the impression that once the transition to permanent settlement is complete that any culture loses interest in memory systems. In fact, I draw heavily on Native American cultures, especially the Pueblo who have long ago left their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Before I continue, I also need to get picky about the term ‘nomadic’. A nomadic lifestyle is when a group of people wander through the landscape with the clear impression that they do not follow fixed paths. Australian Aboriginal cultures have not been nomadic for thousands of years. They are ‘mobile’. That is they move between a number of semi-permanent campsites over the annual cycle to optimise use of resources. Some of our 300 different Aboriginal cultures may live almost permanently in one location, while others are much more mobile. It depends very much on the habitat and availability of resources in one location. For me to talk about the method of loci, they must be constantly revisiting the same locations. A songline is essentially a set of locations that are known well enough to be able to sing in sequence and are revisited regularly.

I think the point you are picking up on is that I say that the monuments, such as Stonehenge and other stone circles, were abandoned once the society had grown larger and settled permanently to agriculture. The reason I give for abandoning the monuments is that much of the knowledge system is then maintained by specialists—the farmers, bakers, warriors and tradesmen. The society by this stage had become much more hierarchical and those in power maintain control through wealth and force. All the cultures I am talking about maintain power through control of information and therefore those in power could muster the resources to create the ancient memory palaces. Everyone in the society would have seen their value because of the dependence on those knowledgeable elites.  So what happens when the knowledgeable elite is no longer in power? They are still required to maintain a great deal of the information of the culture, especially the legal system, the history, much of the knowledge of plants and animals that still exist in the wild, astronomy, trade agreements and so on. In the British example, a thousand years after Stonehenge you have the Druids performing this role. But they are no longer the top of the heap. They serve the chiefs but are still powerful. They still use memory palaces, but these are embedded within the built environment, such as the Iron Age hillforts. You can see exactly this hierarchy in Pacific cultures and Native American and of course eventually in ancient Greece and Rome.

The development of writing and the impact on the memory spaces is one of the areas I’m looking into at the moment, but I will offer some opinions anyway in the understanding that I am more than willing to be corrected. Writing served to store tallies for trade and names long before it was used to record the narrative which told the stories of the culture in the performance mode that had always been used because performance is so much more memorable than a list of facts. So as you move from Homer to Cicero, Augustine and those you mention right up into the Renaissance, the nature of the memory techniques stays similar because that is how the human brain works.

However, you lose the complexity of the indigenous elders and their interwoven set of mnemonic technologies. And apparently that’s because of the genres of information which are still being stored orally. Slowly (very slowly) the performances move from being the encyclopaedic knowledge of the culture in purely oral cultures, to being a major repository for some aspects such as history and technology in Homer’s day to becoming primarily the medium for rhetoric, ethics and laws and eventually recalling screeds of religious beliefs. In order to retain power as the knowledge of critical pragmatic information is taken over by other members of society, the knowledge elites slowly adapt the mythological characters into gods and claim an exclusive link to them, thus retaining power in the role of priests.

The memory arts were never lost, they merely changed in their role within the power structure, the genres of information stored and their pervasiveness within the culture. We have gone too far. They need to come back and be embedded within our education system without losing any of the benefits that literacy has bought.

From The Archives: Memory for Buisness Leaders

This article was originally published in issue 17 of Acuity magazine and can be found in its original form here. In this brief interview, I discuss the value of memory techniques in a buisness setting.


Remember to think

01 December 2015 – Aaron Watson

Daniel Kilov is a “memory athlete” who teaches mnemonics to help business leaders get the best out of their brains.

1. What is mnemonics and why did you learn it?

I became interested in memory techniques in 2011 as a way of improving my grades at university. To help me, I sought out Tansel Ali, the Australian Memory Champion. After six weeks of training, I entered the Australian Memory Championships and set a national record, securing second place overall. I was also the silver medallist in 2012 and broke my own record for the memorisation of abstract images.

The mnemonic techniques memory athletes use are more than 2,000 years old and are known collectively as the “Art of Memory”. These techniques originated in Ancient Greece and were used to memorise poems and speeches. Today, these same techniques are used by memory athletes in the World Memory Championships and associated national competitions to perform some astonishing feats of high speed learning. For instance, the world record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds.

2. A good party trick, but how will that help me in my career?

I believe we are all mental athletes. In a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused.

I’m particularly interested in the practical applications of these techniques – after all, I was looking for a way to improve my study techniques. I went from average to 1st class honours student and now I’m undertaking a PhD. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.

That said, some “party tricks” are also very useful in a career setting. It’s easy to be stand out (ie be memorable) when you can memorise the names of everyone in a meeting room in a minute or two and repeat their names back to them.

3. Can anybody, even those with poor memory, learn it?

Anybody can learn these techniques. I’ve had students from all educational levels, age groups etc. I’ve never met anybody who can’t significantly improve their memory after a very short time.

4. How long does it take to develop basic skills?

One of the great things about these skills is that they can be learned fairly quickly. As I mentioned, it was only six weeks after I first began learning these techniques that I entered the Australian Memory Championships. My private coaching course consists of only ten lessons of about an hour each. Many of my students have gone on from this course to compete successfully in the Australian Memory Championships.

5. Are there other techniques of “mental athletics” that you advise businesspeople to investigate?

Being a mental athlete is just like being a regular athlete. Top performance requires that, in addition to the specialised training of memory skills, we manage our sleep, eat the right foods and do enough cardiovascular exercise. People often neglect these things when thinking about brain health but these things really are very important.

Interested in improving your memory? danielkilov.com

Decoding Genius With Lily Serna

Is it provenance or practice that makes for prodigies?

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Lily Serna for her new podcast, Decoding Genius. In this episode, I discuss the role of deliberate practice in producing world class performance, and the role of memory techniques in bending the 10,000 hour rule.

More information on this episode and others can be found here.

2016 Australian Memory Championships

This weekend past I participated in my 3rd memory competition, the 2016 Australian Memory Championships.

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Competitors at the 2016 AMC

The field was incredibly strong this year. I had a disastrous first few events and by lunchtime of the first day I was barely holding on to 5th place. However, I managed to rally and eventually secured 2nd place in the competition.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t secure the win but am also thrilled at the high standard of the Australian competitive scene this year. My hope is that this event marks the beginning of a new era of memory sports in this country.

I’d like to congratulate Anastasia Woolmer on becoming the first ever female Australian memory champion. I’d also like to congratulate my training partner, Zeshaan Khokhar, for becoming the third ever Australian to memorize a deck in under 2 minutes, thereby completing the first of 3 requirements for the title of International Master of Memory.

For the uninitiated, this competition sees athletes come together from across the country to compete in the following 10 events:

  1. Names and Faces
  2. Binary Numbers
  3. Random Numbers
  4. Abstract Images
  5. Speed Numbers
  6. Historic / Future Dates
  7. Playing Cards
  8. Random Words
  9. Spoken Numbers
  10. Speed Cards

The standards are incredibly exacting and in many cases a single error can cost you an entire event. In order to be successful, athletes have to memorize quickly, but also with near perfect accuracy.

From the outside, these competitions look a lot like a university exam, with the competitors staring in absolute silence at desks covered with intimidating sheets of paper. But the techniques themselves are fun and the competitors are all incredibly friendly. It’s a wonderful sport and a community I’m proud to be a part of. I’ll definitely be back next year.

Burkard Polster on cracking the Cube

This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Dr Burkard Polster, Associate Professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

Dr. Burkard Polster is an Associate Professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. His diverse research interests included finite and topological geometry, combinatorial designs, group theory and classical interpolation theory. He is also a passionate and talented communicator of mathematical ideas; His YouTube channel, Mathologer, has over one hundred thousand subscribers and he is the author of a number of popular books on the beauty of mathematics. I contacted Dr. Polster to see if he could shed light on how mathematical research helped speed-solvers crack the Rubik’s cube.

Daniel: Experienced speed-cubers are capable of ‘solving’ the Rubik’s cube in mere seconds. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this done by a world champion and it’s an incredible display of digital dexterity.
Nonetheless, I put solving in scare quotes because they are actually applying algorithms that they’ve learnt from books and the internet. As I understand it, these true solutions were developed by mathematicians and engineers, directing the tools of their trade to the problem of solving the cube.

Was it in-virtue-of the Rubik’s cube’s general popularity that it attracted the attention of mathematicians or is there something particularly interesting about this puzzle, as opposed to others?

Burkard: There are whole branches of mathematics that deal with structures that are very closely related to the Rubik’s cube (e.g. mathematical groups which are collections of symmetries that are treated like numbers). And so, in addition to the aspects to the puzzle that can be appreciated by just about anybody, a lot of mathematicians see a lot more in this puzzle.

Daniel: The standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube was originally marketed as having “over three billion combinations but only one solution”, but I understand that the actual number is much higher, at 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations. Can you please try to give me a glimpse, just the intuition, behind how these techniques handle this enormous complexity?

Burkard: The sheer number of combinations actually does not tell you anything about how difficult a puzzle is. In fact, as a puzzle the Rubik’s cube is much less difficult than is generally perceived, mainly because it is possible to find algorithms that just act on very few of the cubies without disturbing the rest of the cube. What this means is that there is a lot of “room” to move pieces around within the constraints of the puzzle. You can make puzzles with a very small number of combinations that are much harder than the Rubik’s cube, for example by bandaging the Rubik’s cube in various ways.

Daniel: I read that mathematicians have studied the maximum number of moves required to solve a Rubik’s cube, sometimes called ‘God’s number’ by the cubing community. Do mathematicians know the upper bound for the number of moves required to solve the cube? Do you know how it compares to what speed-solvers achieve in competition?

Burkard: You have to be careful when you say “maximum”. What all this is about is the following: Imagine all those gazillions of configurations of the Rubik’s cube. Any one of them has a minimum number of moves that it takes to solve it. Now take the maximum number of all those numbers, that is God’s number. Here it is also important to be precise about what you mean by a move (in the quarter turn metric God’s number is 26 http://www.cube20.org/qtm/ )   I’ve heard speed cubers mention that it takes them 60-70 moves on average to solve the Cube.

Daniel: The world of cubing, it seems, owes a lot to mathematics. Have the particular mathematical problems posed by the cube, or the resulting work informed or influenced other areas of mathematics?

Burkard: Not really. You can find quite a few technical papers that have been written about the Cube and other twisty puzzles, but all of the ones I am familiar with just apply known mathematical results to derive information about these puzzles. Having said that maybe check out the following article https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140812-the-musical-magical-number-theorist/

Daniel: Are there any remaining mathematical mysteries to the Rubik’s cube or it’s variants?

Burkard: Sure, e.g. God’s number of the 4x4x4 is not known.

Daniel: I saw your impressive collection of magic cubes in one of your YouTube videos. Are these puzzles a source of inspiration for your work as a geometer? What is your favourite mathematical feature of the magic cubes? Finally, are you able to solve all of your cubes? Would you be willing to share your best time for solving the original cube?

Burkard: Yes, at least for me puzzles have always been part of what I do in life and mathematics. In many ways they reflect the way I do mathematics—I solve puzzles. Yes, I solve all my cubes, I don’t look up other peoples’ algorithms. I am not into speed solving at all. I can solve a normal 3x3x3 in about a minute using a handful of algorithms whereas Feliks & friends memorise hundreds very specialised algorithms to get to under 10 seconds.

Talking To Oliver Frost

This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Oliver Frost, Champion speed-cuber. Photo by Bernard Solomon.

Oliver Frost has set seven world records for solving the Rubik’s cube. Unsatisfied with the standard challenges presented by the puzzle, Oliver’s records all involve memorizing the cube and solving it blindfolded. His interest in speed-solving and memory influenced his decision to study cognitive science, wherein he conducted research on the cognitive profiles of elite cubers. Today, he works as a data-scientist, but still finds time to break world records. In September of 2015, he beat his own blindfold record for the 4x4x4 cube with a time of 2 minutes 02.75 seconds. I asked Ollie what forces drive him and what techniques and strategies ensure his dominance in competition.

Daniel: The World Cubing Association Website lists you as having broken seven world records for solving the 4×4 and 5×5 cubes while blindfolded. What brought you to speed cubing and what attracted you to those events in particular?

Ollie: I was given the original Rubik’s Cube puzzle as a Christmas present by my brother, who challenged me to learn how to do it in under a minute. Of course, sibling rivalry kicked in and I practiced until I was eventually solving in under a minute every time. But I truely got into speedcubing when I discovered YouTube videos and written tutorials of speed solves and speedsolving methods. One particular video of the blindfolded world record (done by Alejandro Orozco in 30.90s) was the most mind-blowing thing I’d seen at the time – my skeptical and analytical side needed to know how it was done.

The blindfolded events were the most appealing to me from then on because you don’t have to turn insanely fast in order to get great times. There are other more sophisticated methods like improving your memorisation method and lowering your move count. But a good turn speed helps too!

Daniel: What motivates you to break world records? How do you maintain that motivation and discipline through hundreds of hours of training?

Ollie: I didn’t think I would ever break a world record when I first started.

I originally challenged myself to go to competitions and win, and when I started to get faster and find more efficient ways of solving I started to challenge the UK national records held by my friend Daniel Sheppard. However, I had a lot of support from the UK community and the wider speedcubing community on speedsolving.com, so I did decide to pursue it properly and I soon realised my potential. I had a fair amount of spare time in my first year of University and for my age and cognitive abilities I was in my peak, so it made sense to at least try and get a world record.

I went for it and continued to practice right into my second year of University until I eventually got it.

Daniel: What does your training look like when you are gearing up for a record attempt? Does it differ from your regular routine?

Ollie: When I train for a competition, I usually practice accuracy and execution speed alone. This is because a world record can potentially happen at any competition, so long as it is official, but you will only receive three attempts for solving larger cubes blindfolded. Ensuring you get a successful time can set you up nicely for your remaining two attempts, as it can take the pressure off. It also ensures you can go home with a prize!

But training at home is a bit more of a stressful situation. I often push my memory system to breaking point, constructing images and rehearsing them at greater speeds that I am used to, with the aim of putting my ‘brain’ into a situation where it needs to adapt to continue. This method allowed me to push my memorisation time for 4x4x4 blindfolded from 5+ minutes to 50 seconds when I was at my peak.

Daniel: Do you think there is anything about the way you train that gives you an advantage over your competitors?

Ollie: I think my knowledge of Neuroscience and models of human memory have served me well in my training. My understanding how the brain processes visual information, audio information, how the brain stores units of information and how it transfers it into long-term memory, is probably better than most peoples. I probably gained an advantage by combining this knowledge into a single system that complements the way I memorize and learn. But anyone is capable of what I can do! You just need to practice.

Daniel: I understand that you studied cognitive neuroscience as an undergraduate student and did thesis investigating the cognitive profiles of speedcubers. Can you tell me about the kinds of tests you did and what you were looking for?

Ollie: Here are some of the tests I provided to speedcubers and a control group to examine their overall frontal lobe functions:

  • Trial A and B – this is a test of a participant’s ability to locate written numbers in a pool of randomly arranged numbers from 1-25, join them up consecutively and do so as fast as possible. I tested them on their ability to join the numbers 1-25 consecutively and also their ability to switch between letters and numbers (so A -> 1 -> B -> 2 for example). This is to test their cognitive flexibility and their ability to maintain two thought streams simultaneously, as well as their ability to locate items quickly and react to them.
  • Spatial Span Test – this is a fairly straightforward test of short-term memory and participants’ ability to chunk visual information.
  • Verbal Fluency – I wanted to test speedcubers’ abilities to mentally shift between schemas and use search strategies to recall semantic and phonemic information under a time constraint. I presented them with tasks such as:
    • Name as many words beginning with ‘F’ in one minute.
    • Name as many alternate uses for a key, a shoelace and a button as you can in three minutes.
    • Name as many animals you can in one minute.

Daniel: Were these individuals successful because of their superior abilities or did they develop their abilities as a result of their training?

Ollie: That is the question I wanted to find out! The results suggest that it could be the latter, that it was down to their training. The number of years as an active speedcuber was a predictor of scores on certain tests and suggested that the more someone practiced speedcubing, the higher they were likely to score. We also found that practicing certain events was a predictor of scores on the Trial A and B and Spatial Span Tests.

Daniel: Do you have any recommendations for readers interested in pursuing a speed-cubing regime as a method of improving executive function?

Ollie: The study could benefit from a much larger sample size and from a more representative sample of speedcubers (the majority of speedcubers are male, white and aged between 15-30, for example). However, for anyone who is thinking of building a regime of their own from these findings, I would suggest the following:

  • Practice for at least 30 minutes a day for four days a week.
  • Practice a range of events. The ones I focused on were 2x2x2, 3x3x3, 4x4x4, 3x3x3 blindfolded and 3x3x3 one-handed.
  • Experiment with new strategies (in other words, do not just learn a single set of instructions). Try planning ahead the next few moves of your solve while you are executing the current set of moves. Search for pieces as you solve others, or look-ahead to the next part of the solve. Experiment with different solving methods like CFOP or Roux, which take different approaches to solving the cube with different levels of intuition.

Daniel: Is there anything else you think people should know about the Rubik’s cube?

Ollie:  That the Rubik’s Cube one day could be seen as something other than just a toy from the 80’s. Yes, it is an iconic symbol of the time, it is a toy, and it is unlikely to be featured in the Olympics any time soon (thankfully!) However, if it is true that practicing a hobby such as speedcubing can improve someone’s cognitive abilities, then there are huge implications for its role in research on treating brain damage and disorders such as ADHD. Just keep an open mind!

Life as a memory athlete

Fellow mental athletes,

Here is my interview from an ABC digital radio program called ‘It’s Just Not Cricket’ that aired last weekend. The host is Glynn Greensmith.

For reasons still mysterious, I mention on the program that the Art of Memory is “over 500 years old and originated in Ancient Greece”. I had meant to say that the techniques were over 2500 years old.

My silly error aside, I had a lot of fun and the host even had a go at memorizing a list of 10 random words at the end of the interview.