From The Archives: The Art of Memory @ AMSA 2018

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The Q&A following my talk at AMSA 2018

Late last year I had the privilege of delivering a plenary talk to the 1000 or so attendees of the AMSA National Convention.

From the techniques of modern memory athletes, to the painted mnemonic walls of Campanella’s fictional ‘Città del Sole’, to the encyclopedic memories and mnemonic systems of indigenous cultures around the world, we managed to cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes. I even had time to teach them some mnemonics to remember some bits of the brain! There was also a Q&A at the end.

There is lots of content that I haven’t covered here on the blog before so I thought I’d share. The full talk can be viewed below.

Feliks Zemdegs, Master Speed Solver

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Feliks Zemdegs is a big deal in the world of competitive speed-solving. He can unscramble any one of the Rubik’s Cube’s 43 quintillion permutations in less than half the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 metres (his fastest current official time is 4.73 seconds). With almost a hundred world records under his belt, he is an unofficial ambassador for his sport. What is most striking about this 21 year old, however, is his humility and easy-going nature. I asked Feliks to share a little about his experiences as one of the world’s greatest mental athletes.

 

How did you first get interested in speed solving? What is it about the Rubik’s Cube that so captured your interest?

I first got interested in speed-cubing when I came across a bunch of speed-cubing videos and tutorials whilst browsing YouTube one day. I’d previously played with a Rubik’s Cube (but didn’t really get anywhere with it), and I was amazed that people could not only solve the cube, but also solve it at incredible speeds. Being generally interested in puzzles and games, I decided to buy a Cube and learn how to solve it with an online tutorial.

 

What do you find most interesting about the Rubik’s Cube today?

I find it very interesting that the Rubik’s Cube continues to grow and grow in popularity—and that despite being a pop culture icon for so many years, still has a huge place in the world today. The growth of speed-cubing has certainly played a role in its rejuvenation, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. It’s hard to say whether speed-cubing will ever become mainstream, probably not, but I think it will continue to grow for a while to come.

 

Can you describe the methods you use in competition?

For the standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, I use the CFOP method. CFOP stands for Cross, F2L, OLL, and PLL, which are the four main stages of this solving method. Essentially, this method solves the cube in layers—the cross and F2L stages solve the first two layers of the cube, and I do this intuitively. The last layer of the cube is solved using algorithms, and generally in two stages—orienting and then permuting the last layer pieces. I don’t always follow this exact process, and I know a bunch of supplementary algorithm sets and intuitive solving techniques that I use in addition to the basic CFOP method.

 

Can you describe what’s going on inside your head during a solve? What are you focusing on or thinking about (if anything at all)?

When I’m solving the cube, it’s pretty much completely subconscious—I’m just executing a process that I’ve practised time and time again. Of course, no two solves are the same, each solve is completely different, but I use the same fundamental process each time, which is why I don’t need to think about it. With enough practice, speed-cubers can rely on their recognition skills and muscle memory to do a solve, whilst doing very little active thinking or problem solving.

 

In the same vein, is there a difference as to what’s going on inside your head during a competition performance versus a practice session?

Definitely—I generally get pretty nervous at competitions, even after all these years. I try to make my solving as automatic and subconscious as possible, because as soon as you actually start thinking or analysing too much during a solve, mistakes will happen. I have a couple of things I try and do to counter nerves and shaky hands, such as taking a deep breath before the solve, and making sure my grip on the cube is solid and doesn’t slip.

 

In an interview, you gave about your performance at the 2015 World Rubik’s Cube Championships, you said that you recognized after the fact that you’d made a mistake. Did you mean that you realized only after you finished the solve or after you’d moved the piece?

Ah yes, on the third solve in the finals (actually my fastest solve), I could have saved about 10 moves on the solve if I recognised a certain last layer case and executed it in one algorithm. Instead I performed two algorithms (although they were two very easy and fast cases).

 

New records seem to get set every competition—you’ve broken over 70 world records yourself, right? What drives this progress? Is it the development of more efficient methods or algorithms? New and better finger tricks? Sheer volume of practice or something else?

Right now, I’ve actually broken 94 world records in official competitions—I’m almost at the century! Certainly, there will come a time when progression in world records slows down and the fastest solves are very difficult to beat. In the early part of this decade, records were certainly driven by individual practice and method development; however, you don’t need to know hundreds of algorithms to solve the cube at world-class speed. Equally as important was the development of better cubing hardware. There are a bunch of companies in China that continue to produce and enhance speed-cubing technology and create awesome speed-cubes that deliver better and better performance.

 

What recommendations would you make to someone new to speed-solving who wanted to improve? What do you think is the most important thing that most people fail to focus on in their practice? Do you think there is anything many cubers spend too much time on?

Like with many other things, it’s important to have good fundamentals and good technique before you go all out with practice to try and improve. The improvement process in speed-cubing involves learning techniques, algorithms, and developing good habits, and then grinding practice to implement those in your solves and get faster. I think the most important thing people fail to do is actually take a step back and self-evaluate. This can take the form of videoing yourself and then recognising what the weaknesses in your solves are, and then doing deliberate practice to improve those components. This is something that can be applied to many things, not just speed-cubing. I think most speed-cubers are actually pretty decent at practice, but sometimes cubers spend too much time doing heaps and heaps of speed-solves without thinking about whether what they’re doing will actually help their solves.

 

What’s the funniest, strangest, or most memorable story you have from a speed solving competition?

Haha, I really should have a list of these written down somewhere, because whenever I get asked this question I don’t have a good answer—even though there are probably many things! One guy actually said that he would legitimately get a tattoo of my signature on his ass if I was willing to sign it—we discussed it for a few minutes and then decided not to proceed with that plan, lol.

 

Are there any ways in which you feel like your cubing skills have informed or influenced other aspects of your life? Relatedly, what do you think the average person could gain from learning how to solve a cube?

The biggest lesson I have learned is that practice is the key to just about anything. Things don’t often come quickly and easily without a lot of hard work and dedication. I apply this to other things including my studies and occasionally work and other pursuits. I know that if I put in the work and do it in an intelligent manner then I can trust that I’ll get, for example, good results in my exams and other things like that. Being a world champion also opens doors to some cool opportunities both inside and outside the speed-cubing world—I’ve been lucky enough to travel and compete in Rubik’s Cube competitions on all six continents!

 

The main skills that people can develop by learning how to solve the Rubik’s Cube are things like pattern recognition, memory, patience, finger dexterity, spatial awareness and general problem-solving ability.

 

What do you wish more people knew about Rubik’s Cubing?

That anyone can do it! You don’t have to be good at maths or physics or puzzles—all you need to solve a Rubik’s Cube is a bit of time and patience! To learn a beginner’s method for solving the cube, you just need to be able to follow some instructions and a process. After that, you develop and improve your techniques—once you understand what you’re doing it becomes a lot more fun!

From The Archives: House of Wellness ft. Daniel Kilov

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Fellow mnemonists,

I thought I had this post scheduled to publish last week but I must have done something wrong. Here it is, a little late!

This week, I’m sharing an interview I did for an Australian TV show called ‘House of Wellness’. In this clip, I teach the host the method of loci (or memory palace), a fundamental technique in the Art of Memory. We used actual rooms and physical objects to make it obvious what’s going on.

Although only one room is shown in this clip, Ed actually memorised three rooms, each with 12 items for his final test and scored 100 percent.

Here is a brief summary of the show from their website: “Welcome to The House of Wellness show – your weekly slice of TV goodness that helps you live, look, and feel well. Hosted by Ed Phillips and Zoe Marshall, with regular appearances from Resident Pharmacist Gerald Quigley, we explore the world of health and wellbeing, addressing your health concerns in an entertaining, interactive and informative format. From raising your kids, to staying fit, ageing gracefully, and keeping beautiful inside and out, as well as the A to Z of every vitamin under the sun, The House of Wellness is designed with one thing in mind – to help you ‘Live Well’.”

The full episode can be found here: https://www.houseofwellness.com.au/sh…

A New Years Resolution

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Happy new year everyone!

I didn’t post much in 2018. But I’m committing now to posting at least once a week in 2019! Each week I’ll share a video, article or interview centred around memory and other mental skills.

To get the ball rolling, here is an episode of Child Genius I appeared in late last year. In addition to appearing as a guest judge, I also designed the memory rounds for this season.

These kids are extremely impressive. It’s all worth watching but the memory rounds begin at around the 30 minute mark.

SBS offers the following summary of the show:

Presided over by quizmaster Dr Susan Carland, Child Genius follows Australia’s cleverest 7 to 12 year-olds and their extraordinary families as they compete for the title of Australia’s brightest child.

I can’t embed the video but the full episode can be found by clicking below:

http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1358206531870/child-genius

Forget easily? Put things in visual context: Expert

Note: This article about my recent talk was published about by the Times of India, here. I share it here, unedited. More coverage of my talk can also be found in this article from The Hindu.

CHENNAI: Imagine a loaf of bread soaked in milk, grains of rice bouncing
off an umbrella or a hot boiling cup of coffee being poured over your
mobile phone. Instead of remembering these objects mentioned
individually in the form a list, placing them in a visual and spatial context
makes it automatically easier for your brain to remember them, according
to international memory athlete Daniel Kilov who interacted with students
at Anna University on Wednesday.

Kilov, who has won several memory championships, spoke during the
international techno-management fest of Anna University, Kurukshetra, on
the campus.

“The language of memory is association. There are two ways to remember – one is through memory for things and other being
memory for words. Don’t treat your memory as a filing cabinet but as a laboratory where alchemy takes place,” said Kilov. He
stated that practising recalling and testing ourselves over and over again was a better technique for embedding long-term
memory rather than even writing. He also encouraged using mnemonic techniques like the ‘method of loci’ which is based on
linking something to a place you are familiar with to embed it in your memory.

The fest was inaugurated by governor Banwarilal Purohit who said the fest will help bring about more industry-academia
exchanges. Higher education minister K P Anbazhagan, who was also present, said the university was taking up all
preparations to conduct the Tamil Nadu Engineering Admissions online for the first time this academic year.
This 12th edition of the fest which will continue till February 3 will feature more than 35 competitive event.

Alex Mullen, World Memory Champion

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

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Alex Mullen is the first American to win the World Memory Championships and the highest point-scorer in the 24-year history of the competition. Holder of seven memory world records, he is the top-ranked memory athlete in the world. He is also the 2016 USA memory champion and holds a Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029). He is also a third-year medical student at the University Of Mississippi School Of Medicine. A truly dominant force in the world of memory, I wanted to know how Alex used his memory systems to enhance his real-life learning.

Daniel Kilov: Your ascendancy to world memory champion has been nothing short of meteoric. Can you give me a sense of what your training looked like before you won the WMC? Are there any drills, methods of training techniques that you think might have given you an edge over the competition?

 

Alex Mullen: Well, I certainly don’t think I have any secret formulas! My training methods and systems aren’t too different from any other competitor. Most of my practice is just based on whatever motivation I’m feeling in the moment, which tends to skew toward chasing personal bests in the sprint disciplines, like speed cards. Those types of events are generally more fun for me, so I’m usually focusing on going fast, rather than training for endurance or accuracy or something like that.

 

Daniel: I understand that your entry into the world of memory was motivated by a desire to learn more effectively. You’ve obviously found a great deal of value in memory techniques since then but I’m curious as to whether or not the techniques met your original expectations as a tool for practical learning.

Alex: At first, they didn’t, funnily enough. I first tried to use them for a biomedical engineering lab course I took in college. While the techniques worked to some extent, I found them pretty inefficient, slow to use. And they didn’t seem to give me the giant leg-up on everyone else I’d been hoping for. After getting frustrated and setting them aside for a while, I finally picked them back up again before starting medical school. Luckily, as a memory competitor, I had some extra motivation to do so. The techniques themselves are quite powerful, but I’ve learned it’s not so obvious how to apply them to learning complicated subjects in an efficient way. It’s just about finding the right set of tweaks to eliminate the roadblocks keeping the techniques from being useful. Elucidating those approaches and giving real-world examples of how the techniques can work well is what my wife and I have been working on with our http://www.mullenmemory.com project over the last few years.

 

Daniel: As I’m sure you are aware, there are innumerable books on memory techniques out there. Unfortunately, almost all of them teach the same, very basic techniques with fairly artificial examples. Can you give me a real example of how you use these techniques in your medical studies?

 

Alex: This was a big frustration for me when I was first learning to apply the techniques. A book or video might explain, say, how to memorize a 10-item list using a memory palace, and from there you’re basically on your own. But there must be more tips for structuring palaces, reviewing, and making good images, right? That’s essentially what we’re trying to explore with Mullen Memory, to give some answers to those questions.

Personally, I’m using a memory palace just about any time I’m trying to learn something for the long term, especially if the topic is information-heavy. For example, take the class IA antiarrhythmic drugs. I might start in the garage of a house along one of my usual driving routes. There I place the drug names: a golf cart—for quinidine, hard to explain that one—with a pro golfer’s club—for procainamide—in the back. On the far side are two stacked pyramids—for disopyramide. In the driveway, I imagine a kid falling off a skateboard to the right, which mimics the change in shape of the action potential. Then I imagine the basketball goal’s hoop is spinning, to signal that these drugs are often used for re-entrant or ectopic arrhythmias.

At every stage of this process, I’m doing my best to think about how the drugs actually work and justify their features logically. The images I just gave you are mainly just things I found unintuitive and difficult to remember.

 

Daniel: What does your current training schedule look like? What are your current competition and training goals?

 

Alex: Since this summer’s Extreme Memory Tournament and US Open, my training schedule has been pretty low-key. I generally try to keep it to less than 30 minutes per day. With the Memoriad coming up, I’m starting to pick things up again and do some longer events. Right now I’m focusing on getting ready for Memoriad. I’ve never been and would love to do well there. Beyond that I don’t have any definite plans. Day to day I’m usually working on breaking whichever personal best just happens to be most exciting in the moment.

 

Daniel: What habits, techniques or routines do you use to maintain your motivation and stay disciplined? Do you know where and when you developed these techniques? Was it only after you became a memory athlete or have you always been driven?

 

Alex: Much of my motivation to train memory competitively stems from the challenge of it. It’s fun to see your times drop and to push yourself to do things you previously thought weren’t possible. It’s almost like an addictive video game. You just want to keep driving up your high score. I also like that it serves as a kind of cross-training for using the techniques for learning.

But I think I have always been a pretty disciplined person, for some things more so than others. Like I said, I try to maintain a relatively low daily load to minimize burnout and maintain consistency. I try to spread different events throughout the week so there’s always some variety.

 

Daniel: Do you have any particularly memorable stories from your time as a memory athlete?

 

Alex: My first competition, the 2014 USA Memory Championship, really sticks in my mind. I remember just being thrilled during the recall of the first event, names, that I was actually remembering anything. I recalled the very first name and felt a sigh of relief that the techniques were still working and I hadn’t had some kind of mental meltdown. And meeting all the well-known competitors of the time, people I had read about all the past year, was a pretty surreal feeling. The 2015 World Championship was also really memorable. I got to meet so many people from all over the world, which was very cool. I even got to carry the US flag during the opening ceremony, although mainly because most of my teammates had ducked out to go see the pandas, which are seriously cute, in fairness.

 

Daniel: Is there anything you wish more people knew about the art of memory? Or perhaps wish the competitive community talked about more?

 

Alex: I’d be happy if more people knew what the art of memory was, period. Despite a fair amount of publicity, it’s still unknown to the average person. In the terms of the competitive community, I’d like to see more of a push in the direction of shorter, more audience-friendly events. The Extreme Memory Tournament has started a great precedent for that, but it’s still just one competition each year, so it’d be great to have more. Online challenges and events seem to be just starting to pick up steam, which I like. I’d like to see more interesting team events too. Right now, the only team thing is that the top three individual scores from each country are added together to get a team score. I think some actual team events—we even saw one at the XMT this year—could be really fun. Anything to make the sport more exciting!