This article was written by Kathy Graham and originally published on the Happy + Well blog here under the title “The art of memory”.
I don’t remember a lot of things. I have a shelf full of books I’ve read that I could easily read again and experience as if I was picking them up for the first time. I can look at old diaries and find it incredible that I have no recollection of many of the events I’ve described that once clearly had a big impact on me. I can spend a week or two researching to death a topic that I have to write about and then once the piece is published, forget it entirely.
In other words, I have a crap memory though I would love dearly to change this state of affairs. Hence I’m very interested in hearing about any techniques that might help me do this, including those described here by accomplished memory athlete Daniel Kilov, who presented at our Mind & Its Potential conference.
But Kilov wasn’t always a star at remembering stuff. He says that at school, his teachers despaired of his sieve-like mind. Now, though, they wouldn’t recognise their former student. In 2011, Kilov competed in the World Memory Championships and secured second place behind his coach and mentor Tansel Ali, as well as broke the Australian record for the abstract images event, having memorised the order of 99 abstract shapes. He says this was only after a few months of practice, and convinced him of the power of what he describes as “a small set of very simple techniques.”
Kilov says that when he tells people he’s a memory athlete, many wonder why he bothers given it’s so easy in today’s world to retrieve whatever information we want by clicking on Google or Wikipedia. He believes their question goes to the “heart of the conception we have of memory and of the relationship that we think it has to learning”, a conception that’s formed when we’re at school and asked to memorise through boring repetition. “It’s a conception of memory as being a dull, impersonal and ineffective parroting,” he says.
His preferred conception of memory is that it’s creative, personal, fun and highly effective. Moreover, he espouses the value of memory techniques as a potential revolution in education. Not that this would be the first time excellent recall skills have enjoyed high status in academia. As a matter of historical fact, the art of memory has its origins in ancient Greece where, says Kilov, it was practiced universally by the great thinkers of the time who “recognised that creativity, focus and critical analysis were the kinds of things that could only happen in the minds of well-trained mnemonics.”
Kilov explains that such techniques, for example, the use of imagination to create links and associations, continued to be used right up until the time of the Renaissance “where they formed a cornerstone of the education system and were taught alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic. In fact, it was only with the Protestant Reformation that the art of memory was driven underground and replaced with the kinds of rote methods of memorisation that we know today.”
The good news is these techniques can be easily resurrected for use in the 21st century. Kilov says, “I think it’s time for the art of memory to make a return to our classrooms. Of course, learning isn’t just about memorising. It’s about being able to retrieve information, to critically assess it, to analyse it and to synthesise it. But none of these things can occur unless you have that information at your fingertips, unless you can see how it fits into a bigger picture and that can’t be done unless that information is stored in your memory.”