Memory Athlete

Gwendolen Noronha, A World Class Coach

This article was originally printed in Issue 443 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Gwendolen Noronha is one of the world’s leading mental sports coaches and a board member of the Mental Sports Olympic Federation. From 2006 to 2008 she organized Cambridge’s MaRRS International Spelling Bee, the first spelling competition in Asia for school students. She is a founding member of the Indian Cube Association. Busy as she is, Gwendolen found time to share some of the insights that have led her students to break 21 world records.

 

Daniel Kilov: Gwendolen, you’ve been involved in one way or another with just about every mental sport, from spelling bees to speed cubing to memory and mental calculation. Can you tell us a little about how you developed an interest in these competitions?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: As a young school girl, I was very competitive. I loved the whole feeling that a competition would bring—the challenges, the rush within to do something extraordinary and the self-motivation. I used to participate in a lot of competitions in school and that interest carried on. When I began working and established an educational firm, I decided that apart from providing quality education to students globally, I also wanted to give them a platform to showcase their talent. I wanted them to experience the thrill and enthusiasm a competition brings while simultaneously being able to promote the awareness of brain health. There needs to be a purpose to everything we do and that was mine. While I was working in the United States of America, I discovered my interest for the field of mental calculations and memory and took it up as a challenge to offer the subject knowledge to more people and to provide opportunities to more mental sports athletes.

 

It is hard to keep the interest as strong over the years but if today I still feel the same enthusiasm it is simply because there are millions of students by now who believe in what I have to offer and the sport is gradually growing with so many people in the fraternity doing so much good that it keeps me still very interested. I also have a constant push from my partner, Manuel Schneider, who doesn’t let me slow down and wants me to keep aspiring and offering the platform to all mental sports athletes. One needs such a back-up to be able to fulfil the responsibilities with the same interest.

 

Daniel Kilov: Aside from your role as an organizer, you are also an extremely accomplished coach. Your mental calculation students have set something like 18 world records, right? Can you share any stories about what that was like?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: It’s 21 world records now! I am still overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself. I debuted as a coach in the year 2012 and in just the very first year we had a total of nine world records. Honestly, I didn’t expect it. I worked hard behind my team of students and the students had the willpower to do their best which was very helpful as a coach. I knew we would make a mark but didn’t expect it to be so good in the very first year.

 

One incident that comes to my mind was during the Memoriad Mind Sports Olympics in 2012 in Antalya, Turkey where we were participating for the first time and no one knew us. I knew most of them because either they were all former world record holders or champions. However, the results of my team winning 33 medals out of the total of 42 left everybody flabbergasted. Overnight everyone got to know us and were busy congratulating us but there was one former world record holder for square roots from Turkey—Hakan Gurbuslar—who approached me and very courteously said, ‘Your team won the gold medal for square roots and that is amazing, but the score wasn’t worthy of a gold medal status. You have the potential so come back again and show it to the world that your team can break world records too’.  These words changed everything for me and eight months later we participated at the Turkey Open Memoriad Championship and broke the six-digit imperfect square roots world record, not once but five times in the span of two days.

 

Daniel Kilov: For those unfamiliar with mental sports, can you briefly explain the basic techniques used (i.e. the use of an imaginary abacus, etc.)?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: For mental calculations, we use a combination of the Japanese soroban and the ancient Vedic mathematics techniques.

 

Veda is the Sanskrit word for ‘Knowledge’. Vedic mathematics is an ancient collection of methods used to solve mathematical problems in an easy and faster way. It uses a lesser number of steps to get to the answer of the problem in comparison to the regular methods that are usually taught in schools. It consists of about 16 main formulas and 13 sub-formulas which can be used for problems related to arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus and conics.

 

While this helps calculate larger mathematical problems, it still isn’t as fast to beat the speed of calculations, therefore I came up with some of my own algorithms that help students calculate faster using the same method.

 

The Japanese soroban uses a decimal system. The soroban helps in increasing the power of imagination wherein after a certain period, the person practising it doesn’t require the physical device anymore and can calculate by imagining the device in their minds. It sounds all so complex, but it is very easy. It just requires lots of dedication and continuity.

 

Daniel Kilov: Can you give an example of an algorithm that your athletes use and how they would use it?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: Once a student has learnt the basics and the advance level of a subject, let’s say, square roots, they will be capable to solve the given task mentally without the use of a calculator or notes. With regular practise this will help them to go faster and achieve greater accuracy with greater speed. However, when we talk about world records, one needs to be calculating at an astonishing speed to be able to solve an imperfect six-digit square root by presenting an answer of three digits and five decimal places in maximum two to three seconds per task. This speed can be achieved by certain algorithms and techniques of number identification and pattern recognition. At the initial stage, it may seem tough but once the student gets used to it, they do it almost subconsciously. Each number when appeared with a combination of another number, results in an answer that will have a range of numbers and as we keep calculating, the range reduces, getting us closer to the answer.

 

Daniel Kilov: Moving beyond the basics, what is it about your training methods that allows you to routinely produce competitors of such a high level? What do you do differently to everyone else?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: I feel I am more invested in what I do. Most people try to learn and practise the same methods, but they expect instant results which doesn’t help them. Training for mental calculations requires patience. There are many online platforms and brands that offer mental calculations training but the one thing they all lack is the algorithms. They all manage to understand the use of a soroban or abacus or even learn the methods of Vedic mathematics but that enables them to get only to a certain point and not beyond. I have tried offering my algorithms and training methods to others as well but somehow people don’t always understand everything. Over the years, I have just accepted it that this is one of those few things in the world that cannot be duplicated and needs to come directly from the source and not by passing on to others in the hierarchy. Hence, I am now launching our own online portal titled ‘Mepronto’ wherein I will reach out directly to everyone who wishes to learn.

 

I am here to spread the knowledge and awareness and not to keep it restricted to myself. I love what I do and have a purpose that doesn’t let me stop or take a break and I think that is why I manage producing champions. I do not do it for myself nor do I do it to make only money out of it. I do it because I feel the need to keep my brain active and to motivate others to focus on brain health. This ulterior motive makes me routinely give results.

 

Daniel Kilov: What led you to develop your method?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: While I was coaching my very first group of students, I realized that we could solve faster and there was a very good accuracy maintained. However the speed wasn’t fast enough to be able to not only break world records but also set new ones that would be difficult for anyone else to break. It was this need that helped me look deeper into the methods we mixed.

 

Daniel Kilov: What’s the most interesting or entertaining story you have from your time as a coach?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: Being interviewed by a German journalist at the Mental Calculations World Cup 2014 in Dresden and in the presence of my students I happened to say that I have always disliked mathematics. It was funny because we had just finished the award ceremony where I won the title of the ‘World’s Best Mind Sports Coach for Mental Calculations’.

 

It was awkward and chuckle-some at the same time during all my coaching classes that followed, because my students kept asking me how that was even possible.

 

All my years as a mental calculations coach, no one knew that I secretly hated number crunching. I kind of still do, because as a child I did suffer from math anxiety. However, once I learnt that about myself, and discovered that over 95% of students feel the same, I realized that I needed to make mathematics fun so that I can contribute to reducing the stress students face due to math anxiety.

 

Daniel Kilov: What do you think is the biggest gap in the mental sports world now? What should the community be talking about more?

 

Gwendolen Noronha: There are many of us who have almost the same objective but are working individually to reach the goal. I think unity provides strength and it is important for us across the world to unite under one common roof so that we can spread the awareness of brain health. We are gifted the power of showcasing the extraordinary performances of the human brain and it is necessary to use that to help everyone.

 

The community should be talking about increasing the number of events, not just championships but other events where we can interact with the public, the media and can educate the masses.

Ben Pridmore, 3x World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 440 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Daniel Kilov interviews Ben Pridmore. Pridmore, from Derby in the UK, is a three-time World Memory Champion winning the title 2004, 2008 and 2009.Pridmore achieved this by winning a 10-discipline competition, the World Memory Championship, which has taken place every year since 1991. He holds the prestigious title of Grand Master of Memory.

 

Daniel Kilov: Am I correct in saying that your first foray into the world of competitive memorizing was something of an accident? I’ve heard that you didn’t know about memory techniques and even trained yourself to memorize a deck of cards without any system. What led you to enter the memory championships, when you did discover the techniques, and what about them caught your imagination?

 

Ben Pridmore: Yes, it was a complete accident. I got into memory sports thanks to an event called the Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO), which started in 1997—a big gathering of all the ‘mind sports’ you can think of, including board and card games as well as more abstract things like the World Memory Championship (WMC). I went there for the ‘World Intelligence Championship’, which I’d read about in the Mensa magazine (this was during a brief period when I was a member of Mensa, just so that I could boast about it—I was very young at the time). The World Intelligence Championship, that first year, was five full days of doing IQ tests (literally six or seven hours each day), and there was also a one-day intelligence competition on the Saturday, so that took up most of my time (I think the first MSO was nine days in total). But I did notice some of the other competitions going on at the time, and took part in a couple of them, too. It was fun enough to make me resolve to go back the next year and take part in as many different events as I could—the whole thing was very friendly, with a real sense of community; that was what appealed to me more than anything else.

 

I don’t remember paying any attention to the World Memory Championship that first year, but when I came back to the MSO in 1998, two things caught my eye—first, an interview with MSO star Demis Hassabis in which he mentioned that he was planning to learn memory techniques of associating numbers and cards with mental images and visualising them on a journey (as far as I know he never actually followed up on that plan, and I dismissed the whole idea as something someone had made up to sell books, but it’s still significant as the first time I ever heard about memory systems!) which inspired me to buy a pack of cards and see how quickly I could memorise it. I did it by the simple technique of reading and repeating back to myself until I knew it by heart, and it took me 48 minutes. I was still quite impressed with myself—memorising a whole pack of cards is quite an achievement! Then at the MSO it was announced that Andi Bell had broken the world record and memorised a pack of cards in just over 34 seconds!

 

With the knowledge that that was possible, I spent the next couple of years practising memorising cards, still without using any system—I didn’t think the top competitors would be doing it in any kind of different way—and got my time down to 15 minutes. In 1999 at the MSO I entered the ‘Decamentathlon’ (classic Tony Buzan name for a competition involving written puzzles in ten mind sports) and memorised a pack of cards and a number in competition for the first time. I don’t remember how many I got, but it probably wasn’t more than ten. I did meet Tom Groves, a memory competitor, there, and he mentioned memory techniques, but I still didn’t really register it as anything that really existed…

 

In 2000, planning out my MSO schedule to fit as many different events in as possible, I opted for the World Memory Championship, which was a two-day thing back then. It turned out to be the last time the WMC was part of the MSO, so it’s lucky I didn’t leave it until the next year! It was while talking to the other competitors (particularly Graham Old, Rob Carder and Tom Groves) that I finally got the message that memory techniques really did work, and decided to try them for myself. I bought one of Tony Buzan’s books, read the chapters on numbers and cards, and that night made myself a list of 52 images for cards and 100 for numbers, using the Major system. I found that I could immediately memorise a pack of cards in seven minutes, which was a real revelation!

 

That’s what really hooked me from the start—knowing that as I kept on practising, my times for memorising a pack of cards would keep coming down. There’s always another target to aim for, after all—five minutes, two minutes, one minute…I don’t think I really had the notion at that point that I could come anywhere near the world record, but I was interested to see how fast I could get. Cards were definitely the discipline I cared about the most—numbers were a sort of sideline and the others I wasn’t really interested in at all.

 

Daniel Kilov:  You may know more about the history of memory competitions than anyone else still active in the sport today. In an interview with Nelson Dellis, you referred to memory competitions in the 2000s as ‘The golden age of memory’. Why?

 

Ben Pridmore: Well, I called it ‘the golden age’ because I was in it—I wasn’t being entirely serious. But it’s true that the 2000s was the era when international memory competitions really took off— in the 1990s they called it the ‘World Memory Championships’, but it was really just contested by a handful of British people, with a German or two to make up the numbers. But in the ‘noughties’, knowledge of the existence of memory championships gradually spread around the world (thanks to that wonderful thing we call the internet!) and there was a lot of growth in places like Germany, Malaysia, India, China and many more. If the nineties were the starting point, the noughties were when it became a real world championship.

 

Daniel Kilov: What were the most memorable moments of that era? How have things changed?

 

Ben Pridmore: How have things changed? The obvious answer is that the scores have got so much higher! If you look at the results in 2000 and compare them to 2009, everything’s improved by such leaps and bounds, it’s amazing. And the process is still going on, of course—look at the scores I got to win the world championship in 2008 and 2009, and you can see they wouldn’t scrape into the top twenty at a world championship nowadays…

 

The other major change, as I said above, is how much the sport expanded and grew. Before 2000, there were maybe three or four memory competitions a year in the whole world. No local smaller championships, the only one that really counted was the WMC. Over the decade, they introduced a more formal structure, bringing in the ‘millennium standard’ system and setting out the format of ‘world’, ‘international’ and ‘national’ standard competitions. There was also a real world ranking list for the first time, which helped fire up everybody’s interest!

 

There were a lot of highlights in the decade. We started out with things very much continuing the way they were before, with Dominic O’Brien by far and away the best in the world, but with the widespread belief that Andi Bell had the potential to do much better if he could just get it all together—he had a habit of getting huge scores in some disciplines, then trying for too much and getting near zero in others. Incidentally, I’m always going to admire Andi more than any of the other top competitors over the years just because of the way he introduced himself to me when we first met in 2000—’Hi, I’m Andi, I’m one of the other competitors.’ To really appreciate that, you have to understand my philosophy of life, which basically boils down to thinking that the worst thing anyone can possibly do is act like they think they’re better than other people. (That’s even worse, in my mind, than acting like you think I’M better than YOU, which I also find infuriating.) But there’s a lot of thinking-they’re-better in mind sports in general, and the upper echelons of memory sports certainly aren’t immune to it, so Andi’s modesty made a very favourable impression on me.

 

2002 gave us our first big memorable moment, when Andi did get it together and blew everyone away, Dominic included, with the kind of scores that were unthinkable at the time. It was at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand that year, a traditional home for memory in the olden days, but it was very much the start of a new age. It was also the last competition I went to before I grew a beard—I just thought I’d mention that, so everybody knows how far ahead of the trend I was with facial hair.

 

2003 was the world championship I always described as my favourite. Held outside London for the first time, we went to Kuala Lumpur, and I had a whale of a time! I just re-discovered an article I wrote about it in 2013: http://mt.artofmemory.com/article/the-world-memory-championship-2003-3885.html.

 

Daniel Kilov: In 2003, you developed the Ben system, which still stands as one of the most significant technical developments in memory sports. What led you to develop your system? How have your systems changed, if at all, since those days?

 

Ben Pridmore: The Ben system (I originally didn’t like that name, but I’ve got used to it by now and think it’s quite cool after all) came about just because I was thinking ‘I need something better…’.

 

I was using a basic system with two-digit or one-card images, and memorising ten packs in an hour meant seeing each of my images ten times. It really didn’t work at all, so I needed a way to have more images. The only way I could think of to do that was to have two cards making a single image.

 

The first innovation I tried was expanding from a two-digit-image system to three-digit-images—my two-digit system was just the standard Major system, but I didn’t want to use that for three digits, because it would lead to a lot of clunky multiple-syllable words, and I wanted a simple, short word for each image. So I used vowel sounds for the second digit, giving me a one-syllable sound (consonant-vowel-consonant) for each three-digit number.

 

With a three-digit system, you have 1,000 images, 10x10x10. The ‘eureka’ moment was realising that two cards could be represented as 16x13x13 (2,704 images) if the first ‘digit’ was the combination of suits, the second was the number of the first card, and the third was the number of the second. After that, it was simple. And a nice side-effect was that I could then use the same images for a binary system, giving me an image for each 10-digit binary number (splitting it into 4-3-3 digit chunks, 16x8x8, 1,024 images). It all worked very nicely. I think I was the first person to design a memory system for the specific purpose of memory competitions, which is probably why it stood out at the time as being extra special. By now, obviously, there have been many improvements to systems created by other people, but I still use the same system that I came up with in 2003. It works for me!

 

Daniel Kilov: You won the world memory championships in 2004, 2008 and 2009. What did your training look like in those days? Did you have specific drills or did you just practise the events?

 

Ben Pridmore: No, I ‘just’ practised the events. I’ve always felt that that was the best and cleverest way to go about training for a memory competition—re-create as exactly as possible the tasks you’re going to have to do in the championship itself. Back then, very few people ever practised the hour-long disciplines; they knew they’d have to do them in competition, but their training was focused entirely on the shorter, quick memory. I was the opposite way around; the hour-long marathons were always my main focus. I think that once you’ve done that, your scores in the five-minute disciplines will improve as well, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You need to get your mind accustomed to concentrating on one thing for three hours at a time. And I think the only way to do that is practise!

 

My most intense training era was 2003 – 2004, after I won the world championship the first time. I never quite regained the enthusiasm and commitment to it that I had back then. I did get back a certain amount of motivation in 2007 – 2008, and did manage to win the title again, improving my scores from the level they’d been at in 2004, but ever since then I haven’t really had the will to keep going full-steam. Back in the early days, what I considered an ‘ideal’ training schedule was to spend about an hour every weekday evening after work doing speed cards and speed numbers, and then at the weekend do hour cards, hour numbers and 30-minute binary.

 

Daniel Kilov: How many hours were you training per week? Did you have specific tricks for maintaining that intensity of focus?

 

Ben Pridmore: I think I’ve answered this one as part your earlier question about whether I had any specific drills—the only ‘trick’ I used to keep focus, was to keep doing it, over and over again. The more you do it, the longer you can keep it up without your mind starting to wander.

 

Daniel Kilov: Do you use your techniques outside of the competitive arena? How do you go about translating your competitive expertise into more practical learning challenges?

 

Ben Pridmore: I don’t. I always get in trouble for saying this, but my techniques are designed for one specific purpose—winning the World Memory Championship. I just don’t have any interest in using them for any other reason. In everyday life, there’s no real need for memory techniques—you’re allowed to write things down! Or, as modern people would put it, you’re allowed to store things on your phone.

 

I don’t have any need for practical learning challenges. I’m not at school any more. I’ve long, long ago passed all the exams I’ll ever need to pass. I don’t need to improve myself (that sounds big-headed, I know!), because I’ve already got a job that pays me enough money to live on.

 

Daniel Kilov: How else, if at all, have your experiences in memory sports changed your daily life?

 

Ben Pridmore: Memory sports has completely and totally changed my life, just because it’s made me into some kind of semi-celebrity! And even apart from the added bonus of appearing on TV from time to time, memory competitions have given me an opportunity to travel all around the world (often for FREE!), meet a lot of amazing, wonderful people, and have a huge amount of fun! I will always feel vastly, enormously indebted to Tony Buzan for deciding that it would be a good idea to have competitions in memorising long numbers. If not for that, I dread to think what I would be. Well, I know what I would be—still an accountant, but without a weird and fascinating hobby. I’d be very boring and I wouldn’t be doing this interview…

 

Daniel Kilov: What do you think the future holds for memory sports? Do you have any theories about where the next technical innovations will come from and what they might look like? And what’s on the horizon for you, in terms of memory?

 

Ben Pridmore: The future will be… fast-paced. The big innovation of recent years is Memory League—head-to-head, quickfire, computer-based matches. So far removed from the original concept of the world memory championship that it doesn’t really count as the same thing, but it’s clearly got the mass appeal that the old-fashioned type of competition can never muster. I think it will almost certainly grow beyond its current small-scale set-up; my hope is just that it doesn’t totally eclipse those hour-long marathons. I’ve always tried to resist the gradual shortening of disciplines that has happened during my years as a memory competitor—you can admire somebody who can memorise a deck of cards very quickly, but to my mind it’s much more admirable to memorise thirty decks of cards in a one-hour period!

 

Interestingly, there hasn’t yet been any ‘specialisation’ of competitors—the best in the world at Memory League are also the best in the world at the traditional World Memory Championship disciplines. I would have expected it to be different, and just maybe, in the future, people will come along who only want to do one or the other. Then we might see some kind of interesting ‘schism’ which might sound the death-knell for Hour Numbers and the like. I very much hope not!

 

As for memory systems, I wonder how much ‘bigger’ they can get? One or two people are now using four-digit-image systems, with 10,000 possible combinations. A three-card-image system seems impossible, but I find it hard to believe we’ve reached a plateau. Scores will, of course, keep on getting higher—an interesting thing about memory competitions is that as soon as somebody’s set a score, other people can do it much more easily themselves. Then they set to work breaking the current record, and it just keeps progressing.

 

As for me, I don’t know. It’s been very nearly ten years now since I was at all fired-up about trying to be the best in the world. I’d like to recapture that enthusiasm, but I don’t really know how. I think what’s on the horizon for me, in the short term at least, is continuing to go to competitions because my friends are there. I’ll keep organising my own competitions (I’ve been doing that since 2006) and spreading the word about how much fun they are, so I’m not going to disappear. But I can’t see me winning anything again. Maybe I’m wrong…

 

Daniel Kilov: Is there anything you wish more people knew about memory, or the mind more generally?

 

Ben Pridmore: I wish more people knew there was such a thing as memory competitions. I wish more people knew how much fun they are. I wish more people knew how surprisingly easy it is to memorise a pack of cards or a 100-digit number. I wish the people who do know about memory competitions would separate them in their minds from the self-improvement concept that they’ve always been marketed as, and see them as a sport, specific and complete in itself. You wouldn’t ask Lionel Messi how people can use football-playing skills to help them pass exams or be a more effective businessman. Why do I always get asked how people can use my card-memorisation skills for that kind of thing?

 

Mensan Daniel Kilov is a Memory Athlete. He believes that 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.

For more, visit DanielKilov.com and follow Daniel on Twitter at @DanielKilov.

 

Anastasia Woolmer at TEDxDocklands

It’s always great to see exciting new ways of thinking about memory techniques. It’s even better when that material comes from a fellow Australian. Here is a recent TEDx talk by Anastasia Woolmer. She’s an incredible mnemonist but also an accomplished and skilled dancer. Here she shows off both sets of skills at once. Keep an eye out – we will be seeing more of Anastasia on this blog in the coming months.

If you can’t wait that long, you can check out her website here.

Alex Mullen, World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Alex Mullen is the first American to win the World Memory Championships and the highest point-scorer in the 24-year history of the competition. Holder of seven memory world records, he is the top-ranked memory athlete in the world. He is also the 2016 USA memory champion and holds a Guinness World Record for most digits memorized in one hour (3,029). He is also a third-year medical student at the University Of Mississippi School Of Medicine. A truly dominant force in the world of memory, I wanted to know how Alex used his memory systems to enhance his real-life learning.

Daniel Kilov: Your ascendancy to world memory champion has been nothing short of meteoric. Can you give me a sense of what your training looked like before you won the WMC? Are there any drills, methods of training techniques that you think might have given you an edge over the competition?

 

Alex Mullen: Well, I certainly don’t think I have any secret formulas! My training methods and systems aren’t too different from any other competitor. Most of my practice is just based on whatever motivation I’m feeling in the moment, which tends to skew toward chasing personal bests in the sprint disciplines, like speed cards. Those types of events are generally more fun for me, so I’m usually focusing on going fast, rather than training for endurance or accuracy or something like that.

 

Daniel: I understand that your entry into the world of memory was motivated by a desire to learn more effectively. You’ve obviously found a great deal of value in memory techniques since then but I’m curious as to whether or not the techniques met your original expectations as a tool for practical learning.

Alex: At first, they didn’t, funnily enough. I first tried to use them for a biomedical engineering lab course I took in college. While the techniques worked to some extent, I found them pretty inefficient, slow to use. And they didn’t seem to give me the giant leg-up on everyone else I’d been hoping for. After getting frustrated and setting them aside for a while, I finally picked them back up again before starting medical school. Luckily, as a memory competitor, I had some extra motivation to do so. The techniques themselves are quite powerful, but I’ve learned it’s not so obvious how to apply them to learning complicated subjects in an efficient way. It’s just about finding the right set of tweaks to eliminate the roadblocks keeping the techniques from being useful. Elucidating those approaches and giving real-world examples of how the techniques can work well is what my wife and I have been working on with our http://www.mullenmemory.com project over the last few years.

 

Daniel: As I’m sure you are aware, there are innumerable books on memory techniques out there. Unfortunately, almost all of them teach the same, very basic techniques with fairly artificial examples. Can you give me a real example of how you use these techniques in your medical studies?

 

Alex: This was a big frustration for me when I was first learning to apply the techniques. A book or video might explain, say, how to memorize a 10-item list using a memory palace, and from there you’re basically on your own. But there must be more tips for structuring palaces, reviewing, and making good images, right? That’s essentially what we’re trying to explore with Mullen Memory, to give some answers to those questions.

Personally, I’m using a memory palace just about any time I’m trying to learn something for the long term, especially if the topic is information-heavy. For example, take the class IA antiarrhythmic drugs. I might start in the garage of a house along one of my usual driving routes. There I place the drug names: a golf cart—for quinidine, hard to explain that one—with a pro golfer’s club—for procainamide—in the back. On the far side are two stacked pyramids—for disopyramide. In the driveway, I imagine a kid falling off a skateboard to the right, which mimics the change in shape of the action potential. Then I imagine the basketball goal’s hoop is spinning, to signal that these drugs are often used for re-entrant or ectopic arrhythmias.

At every stage of this process, I’m doing my best to think about how the drugs actually work and justify their features logically. The images I just gave you are mainly just things I found unintuitive and difficult to remember.

 

Daniel: What does your current training schedule look like? What are your current competition and training goals?

 

Alex: Since this summer’s Extreme Memory Tournament and US Open, my training schedule has been pretty low-key. I generally try to keep it to less than 30 minutes per day. With the Memoriad coming up, I’m starting to pick things up again and do some longer events. Right now I’m focusing on getting ready for Memoriad. I’ve never been and would love to do well there. Beyond that I don’t have any definite plans. Day to day I’m usually working on breaking whichever personal best just happens to be most exciting in the moment.

 

Daniel: What habits, techniques or routines do you use to maintain your motivation and stay disciplined? Do you know where and when you developed these techniques? Was it only after you became a memory athlete or have you always been driven?

 

Alex: Much of my motivation to train memory competitively stems from the challenge of it. It’s fun to see your times drop and to push yourself to do things you previously thought weren’t possible. It’s almost like an addictive video game. You just want to keep driving up your high score. I also like that it serves as a kind of cross-training for using the techniques for learning.

But I think I have always been a pretty disciplined person, for some things more so than others. Like I said, I try to maintain a relatively low daily load to minimize burnout and maintain consistency. I try to spread different events throughout the week so there’s always some variety.

 

Daniel: Do you have any particularly memorable stories from your time as a memory athlete?

 

Alex: My first competition, the 2014 USA Memory Championship, really sticks in my mind. I remember just being thrilled during the recall of the first event, names, that I was actually remembering anything. I recalled the very first name and felt a sigh of relief that the techniques were still working and I hadn’t had some kind of mental meltdown. And meeting all the well-known competitors of the time, people I had read about all the past year, was a pretty surreal feeling. The 2015 World Championship was also really memorable. I got to meet so many people from all over the world, which was very cool. I even got to carry the US flag during the opening ceremony, although mainly because most of my teammates had ducked out to go see the pandas, which are seriously cute, in fairness.

 

Daniel: Is there anything you wish more people knew about the art of memory? Or perhaps wish the competitive community talked about more?

 

Alex: I’d be happy if more people knew what the art of memory was, period. Despite a fair amount of publicity, it’s still unknown to the average person. In the terms of the competitive community, I’d like to see more of a push in the direction of shorter, more audience-friendly events. The Extreme Memory Tournament has started a great precedent for that, but it’s still just one competition each year, so it’d be great to have more. Online challenges and events seem to be just starting to pick up steam, which I like. I’d like to see more interesting team events too. Right now, the only team thing is that the top three individual scores from each country are added together to get a team score. I think some actual team events—we even saw one at the XMT this year—could be really fun. Anything to make the sport more exciting!

 

Talking to Nelson Dellis

This article was originally printed in Issue 425 (September/October) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Nelson.jpg

Nelson Dellis

 

Nelson Dellis is a four-time USA memory champion and has twice placed in the top ten at the World Memory Championships. He can memorize 339 digits in five minutes and the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 40.65 seconds. He is also an accomplished mountaineer, having scaled Denali (the highest peak in North America) and Mt Kilimanjaro. He has also come within 200 metres of the summit of Everest. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Nelson about his relentless pursuit of peak performance of body and mind.

Daniel: You developed your interest in memory training in 2009, after your grandmother passed away as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s easy to appreciate why you’d develop an interest in mental training, but why memory specifically, rather than, say, competitive crossword solving or mental calculation? When did you first learn about the art of memory?

Nelson: Good question! Actually my interest in mental training started with mental math. I had always been fascinated with that, although not very good. When I was getting deeper and deeper into that world, I noticed a lot of mental calculators use memory techniques. So from there I jumped to memory. Once I first tried the techniques and saw how immediately I was able to do some seriously impressive mental feats, that’s what hooked me to memory.

Daniel: As a four-time USA memory champion you helped set a new competitive standard on the US memory scene. How do you structure your training? How many hours do you train in an average week? Do you think you have any methods or practices that set you apart from your competition?

Nelson: Yeah, that’s true. When I got into the game, Ron White had just won and set some serious records (in the US). I think that’s what really started the competitiveness in me and from then on I just made memory training my life. I was obsessed with it and couldn’t go a day without doing some form of memory training. Back in my peak days, I was training about five hours a day. I think the practices I had that set me apart were that I trained so hard. I would always tell myself that I was not going to be out-worked and out-trained. If there was going to be one thing I did better or more than any other competitor, it was going to be how much I trained.

Daniel: You’ve made three attempts to climb Mount Everest over the last few years for your charity ‘Climb for Memory’. Each time you’ve come nail-bitingly close. What is the relationship between your memory training and mountaineering?

Nelson: At first the relationship isn’t really that obvious. But if you look a little closer, you can see a connection. Most people don’t realize that mountaineering is hugely a mental sport. Sure it’s heavily physical too (after all, you’re climbing the mountain with your body), but the mind is what’s pushing your body through the immense pain and discomfort. When it comes down to it, any training, any challenge, is a mental game. You need to push yourself mentally to overcome the obstacles associated with the challenge. So for me, whether I’m doing memory training or climbing mountains, my mind is doing the same thing.

Daniel: Your recent projects have included a children’s book, the establishment of the Extreme Memory Tournament, a Kickstarter for a new memory training software package and you’ve also been vocal in your support of the new International Association of Memory. Which of these are you most excited about at the moment?

Nelson: The Extreme Memory Tournament! For sure! We first held the competition three years ago and it was a huge success. But I never thought it would be still ongoing in its success three years later. I think the most exciting thing about it are the big future plans that we have for it. These are plans we’ve had for a long time, but we finally find ourselves in a position to act on them. Memory sports is in the throes of a big change-up and I like to think XMT has a hand in that. Can’t wait to see where things go from here!

Daniel: One thread which seems to unite these disparate projects is a desire to raise awareness of the benefits of memory training. Does this mark a shift in your focus from competition to contribution? What’s next for you?

Nelson: I was hoping no one would ask me this but I guess it was inevitable, eh? I’m competitive at heart. It’s incredibly difficult for me not to compete. But there is also the fear of turning into a has-been. Nobody wants to be a has-been. I want to stay competition-relevant forever, but that just isn’t realistic. I’m going to lose, people are going to be better than me, and that’s that. And it’s not just a simple case of ‘well, just train harder, don’t lose’. You’re bound to get burned out. I trained every day for five years straight. When I won in 2014, the next day I decided to take a one-month break (it ended up being a six-month break). I needed it, I was so exhausted. It’s just hard to maintain the motivation to train with the same intensity when you first started and when you didn’t have any championship wins under your belt. Anyways, the answer to the question is I don’t know. I love contributing and teaching and will always do that, but I still love to compete. So I still plan on competing here and there. For how long? No idea!

Daniel: I’ve got one last question: I note that on your Wikipedia page, it says that ‘In Chicago, he worked at a local yarn shop, experimenting with large-scale knitting projects.’ Is this true or is somebody ‘spinning a yarn’?

Nelson: Haha, nope. True story. My mom is an exceptional cross-stitcher and knitter, so I was taught all that stuff at a young age. I only really got into it around 2005 when I was ‘forced’to go to a knitting class with my at-the-time girlfriend. She ended up hating it while I was there obsessed. I have been pretty much into knitting ever since. It sounds kind of funny but it’s a really cool pastime for a few reasons: 1. It’s knots, I love knots; 2. It’s mathematical and there’s a lot of counting and numbers involved; 3. You end up making actual pieces of clothes from string; 4. It has helped me woo many a lady (you knit a girl a hat, she will love you forever).

 

From the Archives: Daniel Kilov on Channel TEN’s The Project

Attentive readers of this blog will probably be aware that the Australian Memory Championships took place in Melbourne a week-and-a-half ago and may be wondering whether I was going to post about it here. Fear not. You will soon be able to read a full write-up of the event. In the meanwhile, you might be interested to see just how far things have come for me in the past few years. Enjoy!

From the Archives: Daniel Kilov and Tansel Ali on ABC’s HUNGRY BEAST

Many of you enjoyed my interview with Tansel Ali, the 3x Australian Memory Champion and human phone book. Did you know that Tansel and I have been good friends for many years? In fact, it was Tansel who first taught me memory techniques. Below is a clip from back when I’d only just started training with Tansel. Enjoy!