HAPPY + WELL

A manifesto for memory

This article was written by Kathy Graham and originally published on the Happy + Well blog here under the title “The art of memory”.

images3I 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.”

Ancient memory tips for modern businesses

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

imagesThe Art of Memory is a collection of techniques and methods that can quickly and dramatically improve one’s memory. These techniques originated in ancient Greece but today their leading proponents are competitors at the World Memory Championships and associated national competitions.

In part one of this three part series, I explained the principles and techniques by which memory athletes perform their feats of high-speed learning. Part two explored the potential for these techniques in a modern educational setting and made the case for their return.

In this concluding post, I’ll demonstrate how modern businesses can benefit from the ancient Art of Memory. In particular, I’ll explain how the techniques of memory athletes can be used to learn more at higher speeds, to communicate more effectively and memorably, and how they can be used to drive innovation and creativity.

Memory athletes are super learners. The world record for memorising (fictional) historic dates stands at 132 dates over five minutes. The record for memorising cards in 10 minutes, held by a different athlete, is 370 cards. And yet any of us could, with the same techniques and training, perform these feats.

Although no-one needs to be able to learn fictional dates or the order of a deck of cards, all of us could stand to upgrade our mental software. Today, almost all professions require us to continually absorb and assimilate new information. This increased volume of learning leaves us with two options: we can either spend more time trying to learn or we can accumulate techniques which allow us to learn faster. For most of us, already time poor, the former is not an option.

The solution, then, is to adopt the techniques of memory athletes; to become more mindful, to create visual mental images of what we are trying to remember and then to organise that information by creating mental associations.

Taking the principles of mindfulness, visual encoding and organisation seriously has additional benefits beyond our own learning. Understanding the kinds of things that make information ‘sticky’ means we can also use these techniques to communicate in more memorable ways, an essential skill in the world of business. While many good presenters are entertaining, engaging and humorous, it is all to no avail if their message is forgotten. They may even communicate very clearly, but if they fail to engage your imagination and mind’s eye, their message is soon lost and forgotten.

Contrast these two messages:

In 2009, 8277 people died from dementia in Australia. This is a potentially important figure, but not particularly memorable.

Now, picture yourself sitting at home or at your favourite café with three of your close friends or siblings at the table with you. Really make an effort to visualise this scene. A fortune teller walks in. She takes a seat and begins to tell you your future. To your horror, she reveals that, should you all survive into old age (85yrs old), one of you will have Alzheimer’s, and two more will be cognitively impaired.

Test yourself. Do you remember the number of people who died from dementia in Australia in 2009? Probably not. However, you probably remember the story above. This is the same information, but by creating mental pictures, we transform mundane statistics into memorable images.

The modern business world places a particular premium on creativity and innovation. Here too, memory techniques could be of enormous benefit. These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity. Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mental playground of a trained mnemonist.

The techniques of the Art of Memory all involve the creation of colourful mental stories. The most effective of these capitalise on a cognitive bias known to modern psychologists as the ‘Von Restorff effect’. According to this, we are more likely to remember something if it is distinctive and creative. The more unusual or original a mnemonic image, the more likely it is to be remembered. The relationship between memory and creativity was something the Ancient Greeks knew well; In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses, the goddesses of creativity.

Divergent thinking, an essential part of the creative process, is a skill that can be consciously developed through mental training. The practice of coming up with creative associations in an effort to memorise information increases the ability to generate new ideas and synthesise old ones, to create and innovate in a professional environment.

We are all mental athletes; in a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.

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.

An educational revolution

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

imagesIn 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.

The Secrets of Memory Athletes

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

In just over a week from now, over a hundred men and women from more than 30 different countries will converge on Hainan, China, for three days of intense competition. As much as any athlete, these competitors embody the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger. This, however, is a competition of a very different sort. These athletes will be competing in the World Memory Championships.

Competitors at the World Memory Championships can perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics. For instance, the world record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is a mere 21.9 seconds. The world record for binary digits is 1080 binary digits memorised, without a single error, in five minutes. These achievements are, of course, astonishing but they are not the most remarkable thing about these mental athletes. Rather, what is most remarkable about the participants in the World Memory Championship is that there is actually nothing particularly special about them at all! By this, I mean that memory athletes are not savants and were not born with super powers. Rather, they all know and use a small set of ancient mnemonic techniques, known collectively as the Art of Memory. With a little bit of practice, anyone can learn to think and remember like a memory athlete.

In this post, the first of a three part series, I’m going to uncover the secrets of these mnemonic wizards. In part two, I’ll demonstrate how their methods and techniques could revolutionise our classrooms and in part three, I’ll explain how these ancient techniques could catalyse innovation and success in a corporate and business setting.

The memory championships were established in 1991 by Tony Buzan (also known as the creator of ‘mind-maps’ and a presenter at Mind & Its Potential 2011) as a way of promoting the techniques of the Art of Memory. The techniques themselves, however, predate the sport of competitive memorising by more than 2000 years. The techniques used by modern memory athletes originated over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece. These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.

So how then, do these techniques work? Although memory athletes employ a wide range of different strategies in competition, they all involve the same three steps. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is to create a visual, mental image of whatever you are trying to remember; the third step is to organise it in a way that makes it easy to recall later.

Without cheating, try answering the following question: on the one dollar coin, which way does the queen’s head face? How did you go? If you got it right, were you sure, or did you have to guess? Even though hundreds of coins pass right under our noses (and through our fingers) each month, and have done for many years, because we have never really made ourselves aware of the direction the queen is facing, most of us do not know. You cannot remember something you never knew in the first place, so the first step to remembering is being mindfully aware. And for the record, she faces to the right. As Sherlock Holmes, who in the stories was gifted with a phenomenal memory, put it, most of the time, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organisation, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of a friend’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to learn the layout by rote. A few minutes of wandering around and we can mentally navigate the house without any difficulty. Our brains are primed for this kind of learning. Thus, the key to memorising is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form.  An easy way to do this is to visualise a story involving the things you want to remember. The more energetic and vivid the mental images are, the more effectively they will stick.

All of us could stand to improve our memories; whether we are looking to pick up a new language in months instead of years (like Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships who learnt 2000 foreign words in 18 hours); to cram for an exam (I would memorise weeks’ worth of notes in the hours preceding my undergraduate exams); or just to remember a shopping list. The techniques of the memory athletes offer us a way to do exactly that.

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.