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?

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.


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.


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 )   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

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.


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, 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.

Talking to Nelson Dellis

This article was originally printed in Issue 425 (September/October) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.


Nelson Dellis


Nelson Dellis is a four-time USA memory champion and has twice placed in the top ten at the World Memory Championships. He can memorize 339 digits in five minutes and the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 40.65 seconds. He is also an accomplished mountaineer, having scaled Denali (the highest peak in North America) and Mt Kilimanjaro. He has also come within 200 metres of the summit of Everest. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Nelson about his relentless pursuit of peak performance of body and mind.

Daniel: You developed your interest in memory training in 2009, after your grandmother passed away as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s easy to appreciate why you’d develop an interest in mental training, but why memory specifically, rather than, say, competitive crossword solving or mental calculation? When did you first learn about the art of memory?

Nelson: Good question! Actually my interest in mental training started with mental math. I had always been fascinated with that, although not very good. When I was getting deeper and deeper into that world, I noticed a lot of mental calculators use memory techniques. So from there I jumped to memory. Once I first tried the techniques and saw how immediately I was able to do some seriously impressive mental feats, that’s what hooked me to memory.

Daniel: As a four-time USA memory champion you helped set a new competitive standard on the US memory scene. How do you structure your training? How many hours do you train in an average week? Do you think you have any methods or practices that set you apart from your competition?

Nelson: Yeah, that’s true. When I got into the game, Ron White had just won and set some serious records (in the US). I think that’s what really started the competitiveness in me and from then on I just made memory training my life. I was obsessed with it and couldn’t go a day without doing some form of memory training. Back in my peak days, I was training about five hours a day. I think the practices I had that set me apart were that I trained so hard. I would always tell myself that I was not going to be out-worked and out-trained. If there was going to be one thing I did better or more than any other competitor, it was going to be how much I trained.

Daniel: You’ve made three attempts to climb Mount Everest over the last few years for your charity ‘Climb for Memory’. Each time you’ve come nail-bitingly close. What is the relationship between your memory training and mountaineering?

Nelson: At first the relationship isn’t really that obvious. But if you look a little closer, you can see a connection. Most people don’t realize that mountaineering is hugely a mental sport. Sure it’s heavily physical too (after all, you’re climbing the mountain with your body), but the mind is what’s pushing your body through the immense pain and discomfort. When it comes down to it, any training, any challenge, is a mental game. You need to push yourself mentally to overcome the obstacles associated with the challenge. So for me, whether I’m doing memory training or climbing mountains, my mind is doing the same thing.

Daniel: Your recent projects have included a children’s book, the establishment of the Extreme Memory Tournament, a Kickstarter for a new memory training software package and you’ve also been vocal in your support of the new International Association of Memory. Which of these are you most excited about at the moment?

Nelson: The Extreme Memory Tournament! For sure! We first held the competition three years ago and it was a huge success. But I never thought it would be still ongoing in its success three years later. I think the most exciting thing about it are the big future plans that we have for it. These are plans we’ve had for a long time, but we finally find ourselves in a position to act on them. Memory sports is in the throes of a big change-up and I like to think XMT has a hand in that. Can’t wait to see where things go from here!

Daniel: One thread which seems to unite these disparate projects is a desire to raise awareness of the benefits of memory training. Does this mark a shift in your focus from competition to contribution? What’s next for you?

Nelson: I was hoping no one would ask me this but I guess it was inevitable, eh? I’m competitive at heart. It’s incredibly difficult for me not to compete. But there is also the fear of turning into a has-been. Nobody wants to be a has-been. I want to stay competition-relevant forever, but that just isn’t realistic. I’m going to lose, people are going to be better than me, and that’s that. And it’s not just a simple case of ‘well, just train harder, don’t lose’. You’re bound to get burned out. I trained every day for five years straight. When I won in 2014, the next day I decided to take a one-month break (it ended up being a six-month break). I needed it, I was so exhausted. It’s just hard to maintain the motivation to train with the same intensity when you first started and when you didn’t have any championship wins under your belt. Anyways, the answer to the question is I don’t know. I love contributing and teaching and will always do that, but I still love to compete. So I still plan on competing here and there. For how long? No idea!

Daniel: I’ve got one last question: I note that on your Wikipedia page, it says that ‘In Chicago, he worked at a local yarn shop, experimenting with large-scale knitting projects.’ Is this true or is somebody ‘spinning a yarn’?

Nelson: Haha, nope. True story. My mom is an exceptional cross-stitcher and knitter, so I was taught all that stuff at a young age. I only really got into it around 2005 when I was ‘forced’to go to a knitting class with my at-the-time girlfriend. She ended up hating it while I was there obsessed. I have been pretty much into knitting ever since. It sounds kind of funny but it’s a really cool pastime for a few reasons: 1. It’s knots, I love knots; 2. It’s mathematical and there’s a lot of counting and numbers involved; 3. You end up making actual pieces of clothes from string; 4. It has helped me woo many a lady (you knit a girl a hat, she will love you forever).