A giant of the competitive memory world

This article was originally printed in Issue 416 (March/April) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

OI4A3015Boris Nikolai Konrad is a giant of the competitive memory world. In 2009, he set two world records by memorizing 280 words and 195 names and faces (each in 15 minutes). In 2010, he beat his own record by memorizing 201 names and faces. Like all memory athletes, Boris utilizes a number of ancient mnemonic techniques known collectively as the Art of Memory. However, Boris is also an expert in the science of memory and is one of the few people in the world to have subjected these mnemonic techniques to serious empirical investigation. On top of all that, Boris is a member of the
Global Speakers Federation and travels the world as keynote speaker on memory and the brain. Somehow, he still managed to find time to answer some questions I had about his research as well as his personal journey with memory.

Daniel Kilov: You are, so far as I am aware, unique in the memory world, having reached the highest heights with the Art of Memory (currently ranked 9th in the world) but also having a deep passion for, and understanding of, the science of memory. Today, you work as Postdoc at Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen. How and when did you first develop your interest in memory?

Boris Konrad: It was in 2002 that I saw the multiple times German memory champion Gunther Karsten on German national TV. This was shortly before I finished high school. In the show Gunther trained a German actress in a mnemonic method that enabled her to triple her memory on a short word list learning task. I wondered, if these mnemonics could be worth a look, why no one had ever told me about them and if I should have a look into them before my final exam. I ordered a book and practised the mnemonics a bit and was highly fascinated by how well they worked. After high school and before university I trained those intensively to optimize their use at university, where they ended up helping me finish two degrees in the time of one with high distinction.

Already back then I had the question in mind, how it can be, that I can apply a somewhat artificial method to improve my memory. Shouldn’t memory work best by itself? I studies physics and computer sciences and when I was close to finishing my master’s degree, I had to decide how to proceed. A PhD student position was offered to me working at the LHC project of Cern, which most physics students would happily take, but I could not see myself spending my career in physics.
Coincidentally I was asked to be a participant in a study on superior memory at the Munich Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry that involved MRI investigations. I gladly joined but also addressed the studies` primary investigator, who also was a physicist by training, if he saw a chance for me to join these studies as PhD student. He did and that is how I ended up in the field, which I am most grateful for.

Even better, ongoing success also in the field of memory sports and professional speaking, allowed me to combine my scientific work with a secondary self-employed job as keynote-speaker, “tv personality”, memory trainer and author.

Daniel Kilov: Even the earliest manuals on the Art of Memory, such as the Rhetorica Ad Herenium (which dates back to at least 90 BC), stress the importance of creating vivid mental images when memorizing. However, your research has suggested that visualization abilities, as measured by the VVIQ, are largely irrelevant to one’s skill with mnemonics. This is a radical and surprising result – at least for the world of competitive memorizing! How did you react to this finding? By contrast, what traits or abilities do correlate with success with mnemonics?

Boris Konrad: It certainly did not meet my hypothesis. The VVIQ as you say is a widely applied tool to evaluate mental imagery abilities. I had many of the best memory athletes in the world fill it out and compared that to match (by age, gender, IQ) controls. My hypothesis was, that the
groups differ and that among the memory athletes, ability to visualize clearly correlates with memory sports success. But both were not the case. Additionally in a training study on mnemonics, the VVIQ score did not change much by training and also was non-predictive of success. A further look into that seems to indicate, that actually the activity of visualizing itself activates relevant areas of the brain that in sequence get involved in the memorization process. The perceived vividness of these images than is not important. Some memorizers actually have more narrative or even logical “images” rather than pretty visual ones. One downside remains: People with perceived low visualization ability are more hesitant to use mnemonics that is based on imagery – but my findings say they should not be, as they would profit highly anyway.

The only trait-like factor that was indeed correlated to the mnemonic success was processing speed. On the other hand, IQ was non-predictive of training success. While in general high IQ does correlate with memory and also memory champions (highest achieving participants of the memory competitions) on average were of high intelligence, regardless of IQ everyone who practised mnemonics benefited from them, even in comparable degree. In short that means, that highly intelligent people were also memorizing the most before and after training, but everyone
benefitted.

Daniel Kilov: Brain training is very popular nowadays with websites like Lumosity enjoying great commercial success. The evidence that these so-called brain-training games improve general cognitive abilities is almost non-existent, however. Although people get better at the specific games they play, the problem seems to be in achieving transfer effects to new tasks. One of the interesting findings of your research is that mnemonic training does seem to benefit other areas (e.g. processing speed). Could you elaborate on this?

Boris Konrad: My study was not designed to test this hypothesis, therefore my findings are only indicative and need further work. I only had one measure of processing speed tested, but on that one in the training study I indeed found significant improvements by mnemonic training compared to a control group. However, relevant criticism to brain-training games studies also apply to my training regime, as subjects obviously were not blind to it and Placebo effects probably played a role.

In my opinion however, regardless of a possible transfer to processing speed, since mnemonic training actually trains a relevant ability and not a specific game, I would still advocate for this form of training even if transfer to untrained domains does not persist. For some it might be disappointing to read that even general memory ability did not improve. Even the world’s best memory champions do not outperform regular controls on tasks of working memory capacity or actually any memory task not suited to their mnemonics when not being granted time to thing about to apply their methods, for example when presented nonsense syllables or sequences of letters. A former study (Maguire 2003) also found that in visual memory for snowflakes. While the memory athletes usually state they would do well in this task when having had the chance to prepare for an hour or two, if they cannot rely on mnemonics, their memory is totally average.

But on the positive side, staying on an anecdotal level, it is highly interesting to me, that well more of the memory athletes reported to benefit from their skills in their studies and work-life than often perceived. General media and even some scientific articles often stress the statements of a very small number of early day memory athletes who stated, they would not use the mnemonics outside of the sport and would not benefit from them. This does not hold in regards of the data I collected. This also includes the fact that, most of the memory athletes doing well in competition, are also doing very well in their job or studies.

This also matches my personal experiences: The mnemonics never became automatic. I do have to apply them. But I can do that rather instantly on a good number of tasks and problems and make use of them nearly every day.

Daniel Kilov: Your research supports a number of the theories of K. Anders Erricson (whose research was popularized in the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcom Gladwell as the ’10,000 hour rule’). What insights does your work on memory training tell us about skill and expertise more generally?

Boris Konrad: I found that memory champions indeed made use of their long-term memories even in very short term memory tasks, when applying their mnemonics. This fits well to Ericssons model of the Log-term working memory. By training the mnemonics, a reference model is built in long-term memory that can be used to store new memories rapidly. According to Ericssons theory, experts in different domains also build up these structures related to their field of expertise. As a chess expert can store new chess games and positions rapidly but nothing else, memory experts can store any material they can apply their mnemonics upon.

Daniel Kilov: How do you train for memory competitions? How has your research influenced your training methods?
Boris Konrad: I use a web platform called Memocamp for my training which mostly consists of doing the events and training to gain speed. Additionally I work on my mnemonic codes, so that I know my images for numbers or playing cards even faster. The same is true for the locations I have in mind that I use for the method of loci. Actually my research did not influence my training too much; I only reduced my training on improving the clarity of my visualization as I do not see this as beneficial anymore.

Daniel Kilov: Conversely, how have your experiences with the Art of Memory influenced how you study in an academic context?

Boris Konrad: Certainly it did. The work on superior memory in the past to my experience often missed some points on how memory athletes actually use their methods. Some papers in the field misunderstood this clearly. My own experience also allows me to design tasks matched to the skills a memory athlete has. Of course I have to keep in mind that I might be unconsciously biased and keep discussing my assumptions with memory researchers that know but do not apply mnemonics and constantly do so.

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