More attentive readers may have noticed that I’ve fallen behind on my goal of providing new content every week. I’ve been pretty busy with some cool projects (including this interview) and can finally take some time to update you all. So you can expect a bunch of new posts over the next couple of weeks as I make up lost ground.
I was recently interviewed for the Uncommon Podcast. We covered heaps of stuff and it was really fun. Their summary of the episode, and the full interview, are below:
Daniel Kilov is an Australian Memory Athlete, Speaker, Writer and a Philosophy PhD student at The Australian National University (ANU).
Daniel is capable of memorising a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, over 100 random digits in five minutes and placed second at the Australian Memory Championships in 2011.
When I learnt about Daniel and his mentor Tansel Ali – through the best-selling book Deep Work by Cal Newport – I knew I had to get him on the podcast. The use of memory is probably one of the fundamental tools we have as humans, aside from communication through language. Yet we are in an age where we’re handballing a lot of former memory tasks to our smart devices – foregoing the classic techniques of mnemonics is becoming all too common. As Cal Newport says in his book, the “Art of Memory” is incredibly important to becoming a “Deep Worker” who can not only increase performance but also your attention through the process.
I was recently interviewed for the Zoë Routh Leadership podcast. Her summary, and the full interview, are below:
Edge of Leadership UnConference speaker Daniel Kilov reveals some amazing tips and tricks to enhance memory for reading books, recalling information, committing information to knowledge, and remembering names at networking functions.
Daniel shares critical mnemonics (memory) techniques, explains how these techniques are the single best predictor of top performance in any field and how we can create generations of geniuses.
For those who would prefer it, there is also a video version (unedited, so far as I can tell) available here:
I didn’t post much in 2018. But I’m committing now to posting at least once a week in 2019! Each week I’ll share a video, article or interview centred around memory and other mental skills.
To get the ball rolling, here is an episode of Child Genius I appeared in late last year. In addition to appearing as a guest judge, I also designed the memory rounds for this season.
These kids are extremely impressive. It’s all worth watching but the memory rounds begin at around the 30 minute mark.
SBS offers the following summary of the show:
Presided over by quizmaster Dr Susan Carland, Child Genius follows Australia’s cleverest 7 to 12 year-olds and their extraordinary families as they compete for the title of Australia’s brightest child.
I can’t embed the video but the full episode can be found by clicking below:
Mnemonics: added memory may power classroom success
Published: February 14, 2016 – 6:00PM
Upwey High students Aviv Dolan, centre, and Rory-Clay Edwards have improved their memories and academic performance with mnemonic techniques taught to them by their teacher Dan Mayes. Photo: Supplied
It’s 35 degrees outside but high in an RMIT University tower in Swanston Street the air is chilled to just 19 – brain temperature. Around the room, nine people sit bent over their desks. Most wear noise-cancelling headphones. No one speaks. This is the second day of the 2015 Australian Memory Championships and it’s crunch time.
In one final lightning round, the top memorisers in the country are going head to head for the tournament title – including students Rory-Clay Edwards and Aviv Dolan of Upwey High School.
They’re nervous, both newcomers to the world of memory sports, but already the pair have broken three national records between them.
A few desks away sits their teacher, Dan Mayes, another first-time competitor and head of Upwey High’s “Memory Club”. By the day’s end, he will have placed third overall in Australia – after memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than three minutes.
While Mayes and his students are quick to assure they are not blessed with extraordinary abilities – no photographic memories, genius IQs or superpowers to report – they do share a secret. It was the same secret known by Aristotle in Ancient Greece and by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages: a 2500-year-old system known as mnemonics, or the art of memory, which encodes information into the memory using visual imagery.
Today, it has survived almost exclusively as the sport of “memory athletes” but, thanks to Mayes, both Edwards and Dolan are among the first people to learn mnemonics in an Australian classroom. And now, with a world-first trial of the techniques being carried out in schools this year by tournament host and former silver medallist Daniel Kilov, they won’t be the last.
For Kilov, it began in August with teachers’ boot camp – the memory athlete was flown to Darwin to train nine handpicked educators at the invitation of occupational therapist Greg Wills.
After more than 30 years working in Australian classrooms, it had been the sight of a little girl racing off to her principal’s office in excitement that convinced Wills it was time for a revolution in education. The girl had fetal alcohol syndrome yet, using Kilov’s techniques, she had just memorised 10 words for the first time.
“She was so delighted,” Wills says. “This was a student who would forget spelling words the day after she learnt them, who was always in trouble, and three weeks later she still remembered them.”
In consultation with Kilov, Wills is co-ordinating four research projects in mnemonics across four schools in the Northern Territory.
Kilov says science shows the best learning methods are “visual, colourful and diverse”, yet students are taught with repetitive, black-and-white note-taking.
And this disconnect marred Kilov’s own path through school. Ten years ago, the 27-year-old PhD candidate could barely remember to bring his books to class.
But, in 2011, Australian memory champion Tansel Ali took Kilov under his wing for intensive mnemonic training. Within six weeks, Kilov was competing by his side at the Australian Memory Championships.
Having funded his own successful schools program in 2014, the School Mind Games, Ali shares Kilov’s passion for “disrupting” traditional education models.
“Rote learning is brute force,” Ali says. “It’s moving information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory by repeating it over and over. But the short-term memory isn’t designed for loads of information; it’s designed so we know where we parked the car.”
By contrast, he says, mnemonics play to the brain’s strengths. Hard-to-remember information such as numbers and names can be converted into visual or spatial memories – things the brain loves to learn – by making up stories and images to go along with them.
“It’s fun,” says Monash University student Sophie Tversky. She’s just finished explaining how she remembered the name of a particular criminal case by imagining a giant chicken schnitzel holding a knife in her kitchen.
“The case was called Snatzel, which sounded like schnitzel to me,” Tversky says. “These days, I’m always giggling at my notes.”
Two years ago, Tversky trained for a month under Kilov and last year she saw her hard work pay off – sitting a gruelling open-book law exam closed book.
“My friends were giving me weird looks because I’d left my notes under the table but I could see all the material clearly.”
While Kilov and Ali are adamant anyone can learn mnemonic techniques – from law students to children with intellectual disabilities – Professor John Sutton, the world expert on the philosophy of memory at Macquarie University, is not convinced.
“I think the current challenges about memory in the classroom are not quite the ones those techniques would solve,” Sutton says. “My hunch is that they’re not as easy and workable for everybody.”
At Upwey High, Mayes, a former psychology teacher, is still regularly contacted by former students benefiting from their early memory training. But he agrees that mastering the techniques is often up to the individual.
“I teach mnemonics every week to about 20 kids,” Mayes says. “The difference with Rory and Aviv is that these guys took the system and adapted it to themselves.”
Now in year 10, Edwards and Dolan spent two semesters in “Memory Club” last year, intensifying their training before the November championship.
“We didn’t expect to break any records,” Dolan says. “Now, my dad’s telling everyone about it and I’m even teaching my big brother stuff.”
“I think I have a better memory just in general from practising it,” Edwards says.
At Munich University in Germany, memory champion and neuroscientist Dr Boris Konrad is one of the few people in the world to have put his techniques through rigorous empirical testing. He recently compared levels of improvement in memory training between those of high intelligence and those of average intelligence.
“While we did find that memory athletes all on average have high IQs, both groups improved at the same rate,” Konrad says. “So it really shows that anyone can learn it.”
Early feedback from Kilov’s Art of Memory Schools program is equally encouraging. One teacher at a Darwin primary school reported remarkable improvement in two students with “extreme emotional problems”, writing: “It’s a bit like therapy for them and also they’re learning.” Another two students moved up two reading levels after just one month.
Still, Wills knows better than anyone how hard it can be to get teachers “on board with new ideas”.
“It’s the first time this has been done so the education system is going to be wary,” he says. “We’re starting small, testing its value, and the students are loving it. If we can show they’re also learning long term, then I’m sure these techniques will be picked up.”
Kilov is also optimistic. “It’s hard to overhaul a system that’s been around since the industrial revolution,” he says. “But if you give these techniques to students, you’ll empower them to transform the stuff they’re learning into something memorable for them, without having to overhaul anything at all.”
Over in Germany, Konrad is now studying the effectiveness of mnemonic learning aids on university students. His results should line up with those from the Northern Territory program – where student post-testing is due back by the end of first term this year.
“Revolutions have a tendency to come out of nowhere, don’t they?” Kilov says. “In Darwin, we’ve got a small group of dedicated teachers who are hopefully going to be a catalyst for something bigger, a kind of groundswell.”
But, according to Sutton, the biggest spark in the mix might just be Kilov himself.
“One of the advantages of getting that knowledge out into the education system is seeing the enthusiasm someone like Daniel has,” Sutton says. “I think those children are going to benefit very much from it.”
This article was originally printed in Issue 417 (May/June) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Tansel Ali is Australia’s most successful memory athlete. He is three-time Australian memory champion and holds a handful of Australian records. He is also the author of The Yellow Elephant and is famous for having memorised 2 Yellow Pages phone books in only 24 days. His work has been featured on a variety of media including the award-winning ABC TV documentary ‘Redesign My Brain’ with Todd Sampson. Tansel is also a dear friend and coach – It was he who first taught me the techniques I used in the 2011 Australian Memory Championships. I caught up with him recently at the Creativity and Innovation Conference in Melbourne and scheduled an interview. Fortunately, we remembered.
Daniel Kilov: Aside from being the 3x Australian Memory Champion, you are probably best known for memorizing the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in only three weeks. How did this opportunity come about? How did you learn such a huge volume in such a short time?
Tansel Ali: A PR company contacted me wanting me to memorise the Yellow Pages as marketing for their display advertising. Initially I thought it was a crazy idea, however after some basic calculations I decided I could be up for the challenge. Once I accepted to do the memory feat I was informed that I only had 24 days to memorise everything. After 24 days I was flown to Sydney and tested at a large convention as well as several live TV and radio interviews. In order to learn such a huge volume in the time that I had, I had to develop a thorough plan and analysis of the feat. This included finding out how many ads to memorise, which techniques to use, duration of memorisation, the number of times for review, recall period, as well as the type of sacrifices I had to make like taking time off work, finding quiet memorisation spots, and so on. Once the plan was developed then I had to make sure I executed it accordingly.
Daniel Kilov: The title of your first book on memory, The Yellow Elephant is definitely evocative of the Yellow Pages. Is there a link there?
Tansel Ali: The yellow represents the yellow from the Yellow Pages and elephant symbolising memory. It is also the term I used to form my own memory concept, which is to take abstract data and encode it into meaningful information. By naming something that is visual, it helps the person remember the book title, rather than a bunch of words that may not make sense. It is very much like an icon. As they say, a picture is a thousand words.
Daniel Kilov: You’ve been involved in competitive memory sports for over ten years now. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sport?
Tansel Ali: There are many more people around the world that are involved in memory sports today, and it is much more competitive. When I first started, the world championships used to have 20 odd competitors. Last year saw 169 compete in China. Records have been consistently broken and it is a lot tougher to crack the top 20 than ever before. The interest has definitely grown over the years and it will only be a matter of time until we have full-time memory athletes vying for prestigious titles and huge prize money. Not only are we seeing a growth in memory competitors, but also memory coaches training the next lot of superstars. I still find it very interesting what the human mind can do and believe we still haven’t reached anywhere near our capability in memory competitions.
Daniel Kilov: What’s been the most memorable experience of either the Australian or World Memory Championships for you?
Tansel Ali: I’ve been fortunate to have competed in a number of Australian and World memory championships since 2002. The first ever memory championship will stand in my mind the most. My friend Metin and I were so excited about our new discovery and we would train until 4am at his place, often not really remembering much and mucking around most of the time. Come competition time, we ended up breaking a number of memory records together and coming second and third in Australia. My first world memory championships were in Malaysia in 2003. Training once again with Metin we both ventured into Kuala Lumpur for the first time and had an unbelievable experience. We met our memory heroes and hung out until very late with the world’s best memorisers. I went for the experience, however found myself in 13th position overall having broken 5 Australian memory records for a total of 6.
Daniel Kilov: You’ve recently begun exploring all kinds of new uses for memory techniques outside of the competition room. What are the most surprising and successful uses you’ve found for your memory techniques?
Tansel Ali: Memory techniques are extremely versatile. The more you delve into it, the more you learn from it, the more you can play with it to suit your lifestyle. Initially my interest was using memory for enhancing learning. Speed reading, which is also in the class of memory techniques, was a revelation for me as I was never a big reader and it gave me the confidence and ability to read like I’ve never been able to before. As I read more, I discovered that memorisation is a type of narrative visualisation. You make up stories with your imagination. The same can be used for meditation. Hence, memorisation can be used as a meditative tool. I’ve used it to manage extreme pain and things like stress. If you can visualise well and have a great imagination, then I believe you can untap amazing potential in yourself, and others as well. Getting your own visualisation out externally into the real world can also be called a ‘vision’. If you are good at memory, then you will have the ability to understand how to communicate better with others and relay your vision. Hence, memory is a great leadership skill to have.
Daniel Kilov: In line with your call for memory techniques to be put to practical uses you’ve recently masterminded and run the first School Mind Games event. Could you tell us a little about what this event involved? What are your plans for this event?
Tansel Ali: Usually when seminars and training are run in schools, it’s great on the day. However as time passes, usually the next day, students and teachers have forgotten the skills and generally go back to their usual ways of learning. I wanted to create something that engaged the students’ new skills throughout the year. I wanted students to not just learn memory skills, but apply them regularly so that it became strong studying habits. Along with the help of a young leader Raquel Woods, we spent almost a year planning and preparing our event. We trained three schools in memory, speed reading and Mind Mapping skills. By the end of the year, these students came together in the school mind games event and competed in the three skills they were taught. The first was to speed read a 200-page book, which they all did collectively in 15 minutes. They then created a large Mind Map on a wall of the whole book and presented that back with great detail. And finally, memorise your 11 minute TEDxManly talk almost word-for-word. It was an incredible display by everyday students. The event proved that grades do not matter and that anyone can utilise the skills and perform exceptionally. There are plans to make it even bigger this year with more schools competing. I’m looking forward to it.
This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.
In the first part of this three part series, I introduced the Art of Memory, a two and a half thousand year old method for memory training, and discussed its greatest living exponents, the competitors of the World Memory Championships. In addition, I highlighted the three key principles that animate all of the techniques used by memory athletes. In this post, I’ll argue that the right place for these techniques is not in history books, or in competitions, but in our classrooms.
For almost two thousand years, the Art of Memory was a cornerstone of western education. Taught during the renaissance alongside rhetoric, grammar and logic, these mnemonic techniques and training methods were employed and advocated for by many of the greatest minds of the western intellectual tradition including Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Francis Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. It was only during the Protestant reformation that the Art of Memory was driven underground.
In modern times, support for the importance of memory in education has come from the cognitive sciences. Research from across a range of fields of scientific inquiry has converged on the conclusion that memory is the king of cognition. Research has shown, for example, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players.
In 1946, Adriaan De Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high-level chess players. What he found was that it was remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent that give birth to elite chess performance. Chess is often thought to be a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy. But in reality, the most important difference between players is how many chess facts they have stored away in memory. Similar discoveries have been found across a range of fields.
To see just how powerful these techniques can be in an educational context, let’s run through a quick example.
As I explained in my first post, the key to these memory techniques is to create colourful mental images and organise them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later. For instance, perhaps we want to remember the word ‘por’, which in Spanish means ‘through’. To do so, we might imagine someone pouring something through a window. ‘Por’ sounds like the English word ‘pour’ and so we link an image containing the phonetics of the Spanish word to its meaning. To make it more memorable, we might imagine a great ocean pouring out of a tiny cup, and perhaps landing on some unfortunate passer-by.
Suppose we wanted to remember the Spanish word for monkey, which is ‘mono’. To do this we might imagine a monkey wearing a monocle.
Finally, to remember that the Spanish word for milk is ‘leche’, imagine a family of big, black leeches swimming around in a pitcher of milk.
As you go about your day, test yourself on these examples. To recall them, simply bring the relevant images to mind. What does the Spanish word ‘por’ mean? What is the Spanish word for milk? What does ‘mono’ mean? If you got these all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only a single viewing of each word you have taken your first steps towards learning another language. As well as being faster, mnemonics are much more enjoyable method of learning vocabulary.
Teaching students memory techniques would open up new vistas of learning to them – imagine being able to learn a new language in weeks instead of years as one competitor from the 14th World Memory Championships has done – and transform their relationship to learning. Given how little it would cost to do so, the case is strong for bringing these techniques back into the classroom. The techniques of the Art of memory represent a potential revolution in education, both in the obvious sense of the word, and because, as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.
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.
This article was originally printed in Issue 413 (September/October 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Our relationship with memory is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is utterly familiar – indeed, we would be lost without it. On the other hand, many details of its function remain rather elusive. Truly understanding the nature of human memory requires a multidisciplinary approach. In my capacity as a memory athlete I’ve had a chance to meet memory experts from a range of different backgrounds. Here I interview Ed Cooke, an expert in the Art of Memory, Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology from Washington University and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, whose remarkable story is recorded in her book “The Woman Who Changed Her brain”.
Ed Cooke is a Grand Master of Memory; he is capable of memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, more than a thousand random digits in an hour and at least ten decks of cards in an hour. Additionally, he is the founder of Memrise, a free online educational platform that uses memory techniques to optimise learning. Ed has also spent time in Australia studying the philosophy of cricket at Macquarie University in Sydney.
Henry L. Roediger, III is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Roediger’s research has centred on human learning and memory and he has published on many different topics within this area. He has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of memory. He is also one of the world’s leading authorities on the scientific study of memory athletes and recently published a book called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which details practical applications of his research.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen weak areas of cognitive function that underlie a number of learning disabilities. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s work, has been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime. The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities. This is documented in her internationally bestselling book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.
* * *
Kilov: How did you develop your interest in memory? Why is memory important?
Roediger: My interest in memory began early, when I was 5 years old. My mother died, which was devastating, but I discovered I could mentally keep our experiences of being together alive by thinking about them again and again. So over the years, I naturally wondered how memory worked. Somewhat later in life, as a student, I discovered that many psychologists study memory using objective techniques. Cognitive psychology — the study of how the mind works — eventually became my field of study.
Cooke: I’ve always been fascinated by the mind- I love experiencing thoughts and colours- but my practical interest in memory grew from a chance spell in hospital. I got ill and wound up by misfortune as an 18 yr old in a ward of wittering octogenarians for three months. I’d always been quite fascinated with psychology and philosophy, and really out of boredom and a desire to impress the nurses I decided to train my memory. So I got some books, and set about learning all about these ancient arts. It quickly became a favourite pasttime.
I’m not so sure what it means for memory to be important. Or rather- as a general phenomenon it’s obviously at the heart of all human mental life. I guess the reason why its worthwhile training memory is to become better aware of it, and because it leads to learning more and enjoying the mind better.
Arrowsmith-Young: For me my interest was very personal beginning at an early age. Having severe learning problems growing up that did not allow me to understand concepts, I relied on my memory to compensate for my lack of comprehension. I believe I took what was already a strong memory capacity – both auditory and visual – and supercharged it through a series of practices I developed starting in grade 1 to work around my other learning challenges. I built myself a visual photographic memory for text and a verbatim auditory memory for what I heard which allowed me to get through school.
As an adult, I have devoted my life to working with individuals from age 5 to those in their 80’s to improve cognitive functioning – various aspects of memory being some of those functions. I see how devastating memory problems can be in people’s lives – academically, vocationally and socially.
Two quotes come to mind that illustrate the importance of memory to our lives:
“Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves. If on no other ground, most Americans are joined in our shared desire to improve the curious, elusive faculty we call ‘memory’.”
— Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology, Barnard College,
in her review in The New York Times of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Dr. Eric Kandel, the author of In Search of Memory, underlines the critical role of remembering. “Memory,” he says “is the glue that binds our mental life together. It allows you to have continuity in your life.”
So I think memory is critical to our well-being.
Kilov: What do you consider to be the biggest myth or misconception about memory?
Roediger: One myth is that memory is passive: Experiences happen to us, they lay down memory traces, and then in remembering we just read off the contents of these traces in a more or less passive way. This view is not totally wrong — experiences do leave their mark in the brain/mind — but there is so much more to it than this simple account.
Remembering is an active process — we selectively encode some information (and not other information) from rich experiences. After encoding, our memories can be changed by later information that can serve to distort (or to affirm) our memories. The act of retrieval is also an active, constructive process. We usually remember events more or less like they happened — we could not exist if we did not usually get things right — but memories are malleable, too, and we can be highly confident in a memory only to have it turn out to be false. That is one of the topics I study, illusions of memory.
Cooke: Besides the existence of photographic memory, I think the most damaging misconception about memory is that it is inert, like a store-house. To state the same idea positively, the most interestingly fruitful way for most people to reconceive of their memory is as a power of action. Memory doesn’t just sit waiting to be accessed by some other part of the brain. It’s present in perception, in language and in thought. Memories change the shape of your experience from the inside.
To ask why memory is important to the mind is like asking why walls are important to a house, or streets important to a city- it’s basically their shape.
Arrowsmith-Young: As I wrote in my book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, “There is no one type of memory. There is a memory for faces, one for objects, one for written motor plans, one for steps in a process, one for phonemic pronunciation, one for spatial maps and patterns, one for body movements, and there is semantic memory for concepts, to name a few. Each type depends on the functioning of different cortical areas within its neural networks. Anthony J. Greene, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he operates a learning and memory lab, contributed to a special report on memory in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Memory is dispersed,” he wrote, “forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions.” “
Kilov: What advice would you offer to those interested in memory improvement?
Roediger: Many techniques exist for memory improvement. Some are formal mnemonic techniques that have been known since the time of the ancient Greeks. Others have been uncovered in more recent research. For example, one great strategy to learn a set of material (say from chapters in a textbook) is to test oneself on the material, to show that it can be actively brought to mind when needed. This is called retrieval practice, and a person should also provide feedback when he or she fails to retrieve correctly. Self-testing via retrieval practice is a much more effective study technique than repeatedly reading text material (e.g., highlighting and rereading), which is what students generally do.
I recently published a book with Peter Brown and Mark McDaniel called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning that discusses many methods for improving learning and memory. We wrote it not just for educators, but for people in many walks of life — trainers in industry and sports, those in the military and in for others in many occupations. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to improve their learning no matter what their age. Teachers have found it especially rewarding, because some of the advice from the research literature is counterintuitive to the way people usually think about learning.
Cooke: Most of memory skill is learning to perceive and trust and exploit the peculiarities of your mind. A lot of the time, we sort of deny the associations we make, aim to bring them under control and normalise them. But really getting the most from your memory means learning to trust and delight in the random associations and meanderings of your attention. If you’re mental pathways are senseless or appalling from an outside perspective then that has no bearing on their utility internally. Great memory is always a very intimate and open internal dialogue, so to speak. One where you’re not just unembarrassed by the peculiarities of your mind, but you’ve no interest whatsoever in what it seems like from the outside.
Arrowsmith-Young: I would encourage people to work on improving memory through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce that cognitive decline that impacts memory as we age. We do not have to associate getting older with a poor memory. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so memory exercises can keep our brain healthy.
Kilov: Is there anything else people really ought to know about memory?
Roediger: Yes! The topic is huge and fascinating. Consider topics like: Flashbulb memories — memories that are often emotional and seem (but are not) permanently etched into memory; or deja vu — when we seem to be re-experiencing or reliving a prior event, but we know we are not; or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when we can almost (but not quite) retrieve a bit of information from memory. Why? What stops us? Relatedly, there is a phenomenon called the feeling-of-knowing experience. You are asked a question (What is the capital of Croatia?). If you fail to answer it, I ask you to give a rating on a scale about the likelihood that you would get the answer right on a multiple choice test. People are generally quite good at doing this, at predicting how well they can answer the question. So even though they do not know the answer, their feeling-of-knowing judgments are generally highly correlated with their performance on the later multiple choice test. The puzzle is: How does one not know an answer, but then can still show how much he/she knows about the topic and be accurate?
Psychologists study these phenomena above and many more. You could read books (or at least chapters and papers) on all these topics. The field is rich and fascinating.
Cooke: Well, regarding memory training, people should know that here’s no magic bullet that will suddenly change your mind, but rather that there is a collection of reliable ways of attuning and focusing your attention and guiding your mind that together can make learning things robustly achievable – and pretty fun. ■
This article was originally printed in Issue 411 (May/June 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
In 1883, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, began work on a game designed to teach his children to remember the names of the English monarchs. The game involved using the garden path around his home to spatially represent the relative reigns of the kings and queens. As both a family activity and as a memory aid the game was a great success, and the idea began to take on new configurations in Twain’s mind. He began to reimagine and redesign the game and even stopped working on Huckleberry Finn so that he could devote more time to his new project. In 1885, he patented “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” Twain believed that all of human knowledge could be learnt through his game and his notebooks reveal plans to organize national clubs and competitions organised around his game, as well as an accompanying book and periodicals. The game, however, was a failure and Twain (fortunately) returned to writing, stating to a friend that “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game, don’t.”
Twain had a tortured relationship with his memory throughout his life. In “Old Times on the Missisippi”, Twain identified memory as the “one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has brought it to perfection” and regarded a well-developed memory as “the most wonderful thing in the world”. Twain’s own memory, however, was famously bad. Albert Paine, a well-known biographer of Twain’s, wrote that, even as a young man, Twain would lose his way in familiar neighbourhoods, or fail to recognize pictures that had been hanging in his own home for years. Clearly, Mark Twain, the writer-lecturer, was in serious need of an aide de memoire.
In 1887, Twain crossed paths with Professor Loisette a ‘memory doctor’ who made a living peddling a system of memory techniques bearing his name. Inductees into the “Loisette system” were sworn to secrecy, and charged the modern equivalent of five hundred dollars to learn the “natural laws of memory” which the doctor claimed to have discovered. Twain enrolled in a several-week-long course and at first was deeply impressed, even going so far as to publish a testimonial in favour of the Loisette system. He was soon to regret this; only one year later a book was published titled “Loisette” Exposed” which revealed him to have invented not only his academic degree but also his name. ‘Alphonse Loisette’ was born Marcus Dwight Larrowe and had no qualifications to speak of. His entire system, it turned out, had been either plagiarised from other sources or oversold as to its effectiveness.
Eventually, Twain discovered a system that worked for him. As he wrote, “It was now that the idea of pictures occurred to me; then my troubles passed away…The lecture vanished out of my head more than twenty years ago, but I could rewrite it from the pictures – for they remain.” In 1880 he shared his system of mental “hieroglyphics” with his friend William Dean Howells. After Twain’s death, Howells revealed the method which Twain used to memorize his speeches:
“It was his custom to think out his speeches, mentally working them out and then memorizing them by a peculiar system of mnemonics which he had invented. On the dinner-table, a certain succession of knife, spoon, salt-cellar, and butter plate symbolized a train of ideas, and on the billiard-table a ball, a cue and a piece of chalk served the same purpose.”
Essentially, the dinner table and billiard table served as loci to which his mental pictures were affixed. Although Howells believed that Twain had invented the system, Twain was actually drawing from a two thousand year old tradition of memory training known as the “Art of Memory” and employing one of its oldest techniques: The method of loci.
The invention of the Art of Memory is usually attributed to the Ancient Greek poet, Simonides, and although the art was mentioned in writings by Aristotle, the earliest known systematic account of the memory techniques come from the anonymously written Rhetorica Ad Herennium as well as works by Cicero and Quintillian, all of which were penned around four hundred years later. We know that these techniques were almost universally practiced by thinkers of the ancient world precisely because of the shallow way in which writers treat the subject. Just as a modern writer about, say, the various uses of the internet, wouldn’t bother to spend much time explaining what the internet is or, for instance, what Google is, writers of ancient memory treatises simply took knowledge of the Art of Memory for granted.
Although the Art was originally developed to help aspiring students of rhetoric to remember the content of their speeches, the techniques of the Art of memory, and in particular the method of loci, was widely influential and found expression in a surprising number of ways. During the Middle Ages the Art of Memory was incorporated into the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Another persuasive hypothesis put forward by modern historians is that Dante’s Divine Comedy is properly understood as a memory system with its striking images organized along a series of loci.
During the Renaissance period, the influence of the Art of Memory was ubiquitous in art, religion, philosophy and science, and its practitioners included Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Giordano Bruno and probably Shakespeare.
Mark Twain’s memory building game was an externalized version of the internal spatial mnemonic used in the Art of Memory. However, although he almost certainly didn’t know it, he was certainly not the first to do so.
In 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo Delmino published an eighty-seven page book outlining plans for the construction of what he called a memory theatre.
The theatre was designed to act as a physical repository of memories and consisted of a small pulpit which opened onto an auditorium divided into seven sections. In each section, various images and messages would be inscribed, which Camillo claimed would allow the occupant of the pulpit to “be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero”.
Although hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Camillo and his work fell into obscurity after his death. It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published “The Art of Memory” in 1966 that Camillo’s work once again caught the public imagination. Yates identified Camillo’s ideas as being a continuation of a much older tradition of the the method of loci. This mental technique is often considered the crowning jewel of the art of memory, and, like Twain, Camillo believed his personal contributions towards the memory theatre were a giant leap forwards in mnemonic techniques and in learning. Just like Twain, Camillo was wrong. His memory theatre was not the revolution he had hoped for. Indeed, it was never constructed.
Unlike the mysterious and mystical memory theatre of Camillo, however, Twain’s memory techniques were remarkably simple and were designed so that they could even be adopted by children. Consider his advice to children for learning historic dates:
“Dates are difficult things to acquire… But they are very valuable” wrote Twain in his article How to make history dates stick. Dates are hard to remember, he lamented, because “they consist of figures; figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance”. To aid memory Twain advised that would-be historians create vivid mental pictures; “Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick”
The ‘trick’ to Twain’s memory system was to create mental simulacra and then organize them in locations, as described above. The distance between these locations encoded the comparative length of their reigns. To remember the reign of William I, for instance, Twain recommended using the image of a whale; “We choose the whale for several reasons: its name and William’s begin with the same letter; it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history…” Henry II was to be remembered as a hen and Richard the Lion-heart as a lion.
The Art of Memory, Twain believed, also benefited his writing: “The effort of inventing such things will not only help your memory, but will develop originality in art. See what it has done for me.”
Twain’s memory game was a financial failure. His dream of transfiguring education never came to fruition and his writings on memory techniques weren’t published until after his death. Nonetheless, his techniques supported a successful lecturing career, helped him conquer his chronically poor memory, inspired his literature and transformed his children’s attitudes towards their own learning; in their biographies both Susan and Clara Clemens recall fondly the outdoor memory game. Although our own memories may not be as bad as Twain’s, we could probably all nonetheless benefit from some of his memory techniques.