Late last year I had the privilege of delivering a plenary talk to the 1000 or so attendees of the AMSA National Convention.
From the techniques of modern memory athletes, to the painted mnemonic walls of Campanella’s fictional ‘Città del Sole’, to the encyclopedic memories and mnemonic systems of indigenous cultures around the world, we managed to cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes. I even had time to teach them some mnemonics to remember some bits of the brain! There was also a Q&A at the end.
There is lots of content that I haven’t covered here on the blog before so I thought I’d share. The full talk can be viewed below.
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.
Here it is; I’ve finally managed to get around to posting my talk from TEDxCanberra. This was one of the most exciting moments of my memory career. It was a phenomenal event and I think my talk came out very nicely too.
The talk itself was also illustrated by an audience member:
This image was created by Nick Ellis, an audience member at TEDxCanberra. He did illustrations of several other talks which can be found here.
This clip contains memory improvement tips from one of Australia’s fastest learners and memory athletes, a neuro-scientist and an experienced bridge player. For more information on the Art of Memory and memory improvement visit: https://danielkilov.com/
This article was originally printed in Issue 400 (July/August 2012) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
A friend of mine made a trip to New Caledonia. He had been a student of French for some time and was eager to test his skills in a ‘live’ setting. He decided to ease into bi-lingualism with a trip to a nearby café – a scene rehearsed in nearly every beginner’s French textbook. He ordered a drink and when it arrived he did his best to thank the waiter, offering up his best “merci beaucoup”, believing he was thanking the waiter for his service. Indeed, correctly pronounced, this is exactly what “merci beaucoup” means. The cafe fell silent. The waiter turned red.
“My friend,” whispered a local at the next table across. “You just thanked your waiter for his nice arse.”
Learning a foreign is as intimidating a challenge as it is exciting. Even the most cautious learner is only ever a few misplaced syllables away from embarrassment, or worse, offense. What’s more, the thought of having to spend years trying to commit vocabulary to memory prevents many people from ever attempting this bucket list item. What if one could learn a language in months instead of years? What if it were possible to learn a new word and keep it forever to be recalled at will?
Some people can. Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships taught himself 2000 foreign words in 18 hours. Dr Yip, a Malaysian mnemonist, memorized the entire Chinese to English dictionary and could recall any word and its definition when asked (He could even give the page number!). I watched my own teacher, Tansel Ali, committed his Chinese textbook to memory over a period of several weeks, covering as many months worth of material in that time. Although these feats of rapid learning were performed by experienced mnemonists, the techniques that they used can be very quickly learnt by anyone. The most powerful and elegant of these techniques, I describe below.
The link method
As with any effective memory technique, the key to the link method is to create creative mental images and organize them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later.
What this means is that we need to come up with an image that sounds like the word in question, and link it in an imaginative way to its meaning. For instance, the Spanish word ‘aburrido’, which means boring, sounds like the English noun ‘burrito’ (Okay, it’s not technically an English noun, but it’s one we are all familiar with!). In order to remember that ‘aburrido’ means boring, we might create a mental picture of a man in his kitchen searching for something to eat. He swings open the doors to his fridge and cupboards but finds only stacks and stacks of burritos. The man’s facial expression and body language all point to the fact that he finds the prospect of another burrito to be boring.
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. 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.
The Spanish word for cap, which is ‘gorra’, might be remembered by creating an image of an Angora goat gore-ing two holes in a baseball cap for its horns.
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 ‘abburido’ mean? What is the Spanish word for cap? What does ‘por’ mean? If you got them all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only one 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.
The link method can be made even stronger by combining it with a variation of the method of loci known as the language village.
The language town
The language town combines the method of loci with the link method described above.
To use this technique, imagine a small town you know well, and use objects within that town as pegs on which to hang the foreign vocabulary.
For instance, you might walk into a café and see a man trying to spread a slice of bread with a pan (the Spanish word for bread is ‘pan’), or see leeches swimming around in a jug of milk (leche is Spanish for milk).
Verbs might be stored in a gym and adjectives in an art gallery. The benefit of this method is that it provides an excellent method for recalling definitions. Although we may be unable to immediately call to mind the appropriate image for the word for boring, knowing that it is stored in our kitchen means we can go back and find it.
Armed with a frequency dictionary and the mnemonic methods described above, learning the thousand most frequently used words in Spanish, which accounts for well over 90 precent of the spoken language, presents itself as a fun and do-able challenge. Indeed, more important than the increased speed with which mnemonic techniques allow us to acquire vocabulary is the way in which they allows us to reorient our attitudes towards learning. Rather than having to call upon the discipline and effort required for rote learning, mnemonics offer us an opportunity to exercise our creativity and approach challenges with a sense of play.
This article was originally printed in Issue 396 (Nov/Dec 2011) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
I waited for the other athletes to take up their positions around the competition area. Months of preparation had led me to this moment. I’d been told that training is nothing like the real thing, that you always do worse in competition and that you can only prepare so much. Already, I felt that maybe they had a point.
I took up a spot beside one of the other competitors. He was sharply dressed and had flown in from Hong Kong to compete – a real professional. My stomach flipped and I turned my focus to my breathing in order to calm the butterflies in my belly. The chief arbiter ran through the rules but I barely heard her, focusing my mind on the task ahead.
‘Ok Dan.’ I urged myself, ‘This is what we’ve been training for. Its GO time.’
“Neurons at the ready…” the arbiter called out. “Go!”
I heard the clicking of stopwatches and for a moment, I froze.
‘Oh no.’ I screamed at myself. ‘Go go go!’
I dashed past my mailbox and through my front door, dropping to a roll to avoid a sumo wrestler’s swan dive into a giant dish of noodles. I continued down the hall and grabbed hold of the bannister, using it to slingshot my run up the stairs. I dodged the Pineapple juggling panda-bear on the landing and paused for a moment at the top of the stairs to let a steam engine make its way down my hall and curve on its tracks into my bedroom. Turning the corner I headed down the hall, taking note of the gecko swimming in a tub of custard in my bathroom
Anybody watching me however, would only have seen me sitting quietly at a desk, shuffling through a deck of cards. This was the Australian Memory Championships, where Australia’s best memorizers meet to compete in a battle of the mind. Events involve memorizing, among other things, strings of random digits, decks of shuffled cards, names and faces and lists of random words.
In my mind I was running through a madhouse which represents one of the great secrets of memory athletes and allowed me to memorize the order of my deck of cards in just under five minutes. I was employing a technique known to mnemonists as ‘the method of loci’.
This technique originated in the fifth century B.C. and was invented by a famous Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos. The poet was invited to recite a poem in honor of his host, a nobleman of Thessaly. During the recital, Simonides sang praise to twin gods Castor and Pollux, which displeased his patron. When the performance was complete, the nobleman told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed fee, and that he would have to get the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned.
A short time later, Simonides was told that two horsemen were waiting for him outside. Simonides hurried out, as horsemen are the symbol of Castor and Pollux and the poet knew an omen when he saw one.
Just as he got outside, the banquet hall collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were severely disfigured and very few could be identified for proper burial, until Simonides realized that by closing his eyes and visualizing himself traveling around the hall, he could recall the exact location where every guest had been seated.
From this experience, Simonides realized that if he wanted to remember something, he simply had to visualize himself walking through a well-known location and form creative associations between the item in question and a memorable feature of that locus. Recalling the items is achieved by simply walking back through the locus at a later date and noting what was there.
This technique is remarkably effective and can only really be appreciated through experience. Simply visualize a journey through your house, and as you come to each room, place one of the following items there in your mind:
Once you are satisfied that your visual images are strong enough (Hint: use crazy and colorful images), cover the list and see if you can recall the items – backwards! If you can memorize 9 items in this manner, you can memorize nine hundred, provided you take a long enough mental journey.
Memorizing a deck of cards with this method involves assigning an image to each card and then placing those images along one’s mental journey.
Today, this technique is used by memory athletes all over the world to memorize information at exceptionally high speeds. I myself used this technique to memorize two hundred digits in fifteen minutes at the Australian memory championships where I managed to secure second place behind my coach and reigning Australian champion, Tansel Ali. I also broke the Australian record for the abstract images event and am the official holder of that record, after memorizing the order of 99 abstract shapes.
When I first learned about memory sports I had no intention of becoming an athlete. I was, however, interested in improving my memory for study and sought out Tansel, who once memorized the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days. He agreed to help me train my memory, but suggested that my goal of improving my memory would be well served if I agreed to train towards competing in the Australian memory championships later in the year. Competition after all, offers great incentive to improve. Who is likely to be better in his chosen domain? A man who enjoys going for a jog ‘round the park each morning, or an Olympic athlete, training to be the best in the world? I believe Tansel was right, but I now also believe that we are all mental athletes; in a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, learn faster and be more creative and focused. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes are of great use to us all.
This article was originally printed in Issue 395 (Sept/Oct 2011) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
According to Greek Mythology, Zeus, the god of energy and king of Mount Olympus, was also the ultimate paramour. He could get any girl, and often did, siring many of the most important gods, demi-gods, nymphs and mortals of Greek myth. The goddess with whom he was most passionate, however, was Mnemosyne, the Goddess of me mory. Legend has it that their union lasted nine days and nights and resulted in the birth of nine children. These children were the nine muses; the goddesses of creativity. This story, I believe, contains a moral the ancient Greeks certainly knew well – that creativity and memory are intimately related. If you put energy into your memory, it will bear creativity.
The individuals who best embody this principle today are the competitors of memory sports. Competitors of this somewhat obscure sport memorize vast quantities of mostly meaningless information at high speeds – pages of random digits, decks of cards, abstract shapes. The world record for a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds. The techniques these mental athletes use are like nothing one might expect. Memorizing, for the most part, conjures up images of painful repetition and rote learning of the sort we did at school. The methods used in competition, by contrast, involve the formation of energetic and creative journeys across mental landscapes.
I first heard about these mnemonic wizards during a session on Wikipedia, prompted by a meeting with someone who claimed to have a photographic memory. What I discovered was that there exists no scientific evidence (at least, that I could find) of people with eidetic or photographic memory. In addition, there are good non-scientific reasons to be suspicious of such claims; far from being a super-bowl of savants, no participant of the World Memory Championships has ever claimed to have a photographic memory.
To my mind, this is much more exciting; It is one thing to think that there are real life super heroes walking amongst us, but another thing altogether to think that anyone can develop such phenomenal powers of memory with the right techniques and practice. I tracked down the Australian Memory Champion, Tansel Ali, a man who once memorized the Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days, and asked him how I might go about improving my memory. To my surprise, and joy, he invited me to meet him and offered to coach me in preparation for the Australian memory championships (and perhaps the World championship) later this year.
Despite everything I had read about these mnemonic ‘tricks’, I was still skeptical. I had never had a good memory. In fact, my school, trying to help me with my disorganization (a symptom of my terrible memory), put together lessons to teach me organizational strategies aimed at helping me deal with the fact that I was constantly forgetting to bring things like books, permission slips and stationery. I could never remember to go to a single lesson. Despite my initial reservations, I went to meet with Tansel. At the start of our first meeting, I could remember nine of a list of 15 words, which is average. By the end of it, I could memorize 30. After a few days practice I could memorize 40 words with ease. Now, I can memorize a list of 40 words in just over two minutes and then repeat it backwards.
I am able to do what I do because I understand that successful remembering requires that I put energy into the thing I am trying to remember. Just as the best jokes are those with the most surprising punch lines, the most memorable associations are those that do violence to our expectations. For example, you are trying to remember a shopping list: which is the more memorable mental image, a regular packet of sausages, OR a string of sausages, which, when accosted by a hungry dog, rears up like a cobra and tries to take a bite out of the surprised pup? The point here is that by making the image energetic and surprising, I am exercising my creative muscles and transforming the mundane into the memorable.
So how, then, should one bring one’s mental energy to the task of memorizing? There are three key steps to making things memorable. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is visual encoding; and the third is organization.
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.
The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organization, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of their mate’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to rote learn the layout. 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. Another example we can all relate to: a well-constructed film with an engaging narrative will resonate with us long after we leave the movie theater. We make no special attempt to memorize the movie, but we may recall the film or a particularly engaging or graphic scene with great clarity even years after only a single viewing. Thus, the key to memorizing is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form. An easy way to do this is to visualize a story involving the things you want to remember – and remember, the more energetic (and so more creative) the story is, the easier it will be to recall later.
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 memorized 12 week’s worth of notes the night before my last exam and felt like I was sitting it as an open book); or just to remember a shopping list.
Investing more mental energy into your memory will boost your creativity, and hopefully, help you remember the name of that movie you wanted to see, or where you left your keys. Memorizing a deck of cards in 21.9 seconds is a little more complicated, but not a lot.