Link method

It’s all in your mind…

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!’

That helped.

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:

  1. Shoe
  2. Cat
  3. Skull
  4. Tree
  5. Moon
  6. Beehive
  7. Guitar
  8. Hourglass
  9. Kettle

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.

Energising your Memory

This article was originally printed in Issue 395 (Sept/Oct 2011) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Energy = CreativityAccording 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.