This article was originally printed in Issue 442 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Tansel Ali is a four-time Australian Memory Champion, Managing Director of the Tansel Institute and organiser/licensee of TEDxDocklands
Daniel Kilov: This isn’t our first interview. Memorious readers may recall our 2015 interview wherein we covered how you memorised the Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days, your attempts to bring memory techniques into the classroom and the School Mind Games event, and your use of memory techniques as meditation. However, I didn’t ask you about how you initially discovered memory techniques, or why you wanted to compete. So, what’s the story there?
Tansel Ali: I discovered memory techniques through curiosity really. A friend of mine back at uni had told me he could memorise a list of forty random items and I didn’t believe him. I naturally had to test him and surely enough he memorised every word I gave him in random order perfectly. I thought he was playing a trick on me, however he advised me he used memory techniques and to read up on it.
So, I went and did my reading and discovered a whole new world of self-development that actually worked. I always thought I had a pretty bad memory until I learned these memory skills myself. I wanted to learn more as I was excited about the benefits of having a better memory gave me, like learning and reading faster, and I stumbled across the Australian Memory Championships one day Googling memory training. I asked my friend to join me to enter the competition since we knew a few techniques. To our surprise we both did really well, broke Australian memory records and ended up on national television showcasing our memory skills. The rest as they say is history.
Daniel Kilov: It feels to me that the whole memory scene has changed since we last spoke, with the advent of new organizations and events and even new techniques like Lance Tschirhart’s ‘shadow system’. Would you agree? If so, what do you see as the most exciting recent developments in the memory world?
Tansel Ali: The memory scene has definitely grown, especially in the past few years. This is particularly exciting for me personally as I am not only a memory athlete but someone who is an advocate of the skills, as it has not only helped me but changed my life for the better. If more people can get a hold of and exposure to these memory techniques then they can only benefit from them.
The most exciting development I believe is the creation of Memory League. It makes a seemingly boring non-spectator sport now exciting to watch. Not only that, but much simpler for new individuals to quickly learn memory techniques and get into the sport without having to sit through an hour of memorising numbers and cards. I also have my coaching clients train on Memory League as the short one-minute memorisation bursts don’t overwhelm and provide great feedback for improvement.
Daniel Kilov: Of course, not all change equals progress. Do you think there is anything competitors have lost sight of? Anything we should rethink or revisit?
Tansel Ali: To be honest, I don’t necessarily think competitors have to have a vision. It’s more the organisers and leaders that will have to think how the sport moves forward and what the vision is. I think we will eventually get there, and do believe we can make memory competitions a spectator sport and gain huge exposure to further increase growth.
Daniel Kilov: People are sometimes suspicious of the idea that memory techniques have a real place in education. They doubt they can be used to memorise complex information. I think this stems from the fact that most of the examples used in books are simple lists, mostly. Can you give a detailed example of how you’ve used memory techniques to memorise more complex information?
Tansel Ali: I can understand how people can think that. From my experience even those that have a basic understanding of memory techniques doubt their use in education. I think it’s more than just knowing the techniques. Anyone can learn memory techniques. However, the real skill lies in the strategy. Knowing how to use memory techniques is much more difficult and requires a greater depth of knowledge than just remembering a list. This is where my work as a coach is centred around for people to utilise these skills so they can learn how to learn and implement systems that will help them achieve the things they want with the use of memory strategies.
A great example to give is studying. I’ve worked with many students over the years and it’s not as easy as showing them a memory palace or how to Mind Map. Students need to know how to best use the memory techniques so they actually learn and become efficient at it.
If you advised a student to just use a memory palace and link information then they would essentially be drowned in the amount of connections they would have to make and potentially double up on their study and learning time. This is counter-productive. A memory strategy in this case will allow the student to understand which technique to use and even not use, so that their time is maximised and their efforts are concentrated on the learning of information.
Daniel Kilov: Do you still do much formal memory training? If so, what does that look like? Do you do anything special that you feel has given you an edge over competitors in the past?
Tansel Ali: Yes, I use Memory League as well as my own resources to train regularly. Training clients assists me as well. I usually train different systems, new techniques I’ve developed as well as old systems I’ve revived. My training usually consists of making lots of recall mistakes by memorising faster than usual. This is so I can go back and analyse what I’ve done wrong, how I can improve and get better. I also train with speed-reading books as the visualisation from that helps greatly as well. I enjoy working out at the gym and swimming regularly. I think if you’re going to train your mind you should do the same with the body as well. I also do intermittent fasting and cold showers which generally keeps me alert. Aside from that, I don’t think I do anything special to give me an edge over other competitors. My only competitor is me.
Daniel Kilov: Mindfulness and meditation are all the rage right now, but, of course, medieval mnemonists would use memory techniques to meditate in various ways. Can you say more about how you use your memory techniques as a form of meditation?
Tansel Ali: Since visualisation is a big part of memory, every time I train, I make an effort to relax and use that as a form of meditation. Going through my memory palace and also being in the moment I think adds to that. Otherwise I don’t practise meditation as much anymore as I’ve embedded it mostly in my daily life instead of having a meditation session.