This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
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 speedsolving.com, 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!