The Secrets of Memory Athletes

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

In just over a week from now, over a hundred men and women from more than 30 different countries will converge on Hainan, China, for three days of intense competition. As much as any athlete, these competitors embody the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger. This, however, is a competition of a very different sort. These athletes will be competing in the World Memory Championships.

Competitors at the World Memory Championships can perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics. For instance, the world record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is a mere 21.9 seconds. The world record for binary digits is 1080 binary digits memorised, without a single error, in five minutes. These achievements are, of course, astonishing but they are not the most remarkable thing about these mental athletes. Rather, what is most remarkable about the participants in the World Memory Championship is that there is actually nothing particularly special about them at all! By this, I mean that memory athletes are not savants and were not born with super powers. Rather, they all know and use a small set of ancient mnemonic techniques, known collectively as the Art of Memory. With a little bit of practice, anyone can learn to think and remember like a memory athlete.

In this post, the first of a three part series, I’m going to uncover the secrets of these mnemonic wizards. In part two, I’ll demonstrate how their methods and techniques could revolutionise our classrooms and in part three, I’ll explain how these ancient techniques could catalyse innovation and success in a corporate and business setting.

The memory championships were established in 1991 by Tony Buzan (also known as the creator of ‘mind-maps’ and a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2011) as a way of promoting the techniques of the Art of Memory. The techniques themselves, however, predate the sport of competitive memorising by more than 2000 years. The techniques used by modern memory athletes originated over 2000 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.

So how then, do these techniques work? Although memory athletes employ a wide range of different strategies in competition, they all involve the same three steps. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is to create a visual, mental image of whatever you are trying to remember; the third step is to organise it in a way that makes it easy to recall later.

Without cheating, try answering the following question: on the one dollar coin, which way does the queen’s head face? How did you go? If you got it right, were you sure, or did you have to guess? Even though hundreds of coins pass right under our noses (and through our fingers) each month, and have done for many years, because we have never really made ourselves aware of the direction the queen is facing, most of us do not know. You cannot remember something you never knew in the first place, so the first step to remembering is being mindfully aware. And for the record, she faces to the right. As Sherlock Holmes, who in the stories was gifted with a phenomenal memory, put it, most of the time, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organisation, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of a friend’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to learn the layout by rote. A few minutes of wandering around and we can mentally navigate the house without any difficulty. Our brains are primed for this kind of learning. Thus, the key to memorising is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form.  An easy way to do this is to visualise a story involving the things you want to remember. The more energetic and vivid the mental images are, the more effectively they will stick.

All of us could stand to improve our memories; whether we are looking to pick up a new language in months instead of years (like Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships who learnt 2000 foreign words in 18 hours); to cram for an exam (I would memorise weeks’ worth of notes in the hours preceding my undergraduate exams); or just to remember a shopping list. The techniques of the memory athletes offer us a way to do exactly that.

Daniel Kilov, a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2013, is a Memory Athlete. He was the silver medallist at the 2011 and 2012 Australian Memory Championships and holds a national record for memorising abstract images. Daniel is also currently completing a PhD in philosophy at ANU and working as a memory coach and consultant.



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