Memory Athlete

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!

 

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!

Tansel Ali: Memory champion and human phone book

This article was originally printed in Issue 417 (May/June) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

tansel-photo Tansel Ali is Australia’s most successful memory athlete. He is three-time Australian memory champion and holds a handful of Australian records. He is also the author of The Yellow Elephant and is famous for having memorised 2 Yellow Pages phone books in only 24 days. His work has been featured on a variety of media including the award-winning ABC TV documentary ‘Redesign My Brain’ with Todd Sampson. Tansel is also a dear friend and coach – It was he who first taught me the techniques I used in the 2011 Australian Memory Championships. I caught up with him recently at the Creativity and Innovation Conference in Melbourne and scheduled an interview. Fortunately, we remembered.

Daniel Kilov: Aside from being the 3x Australian Memory Champion, you are probably best known for memorizing the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in only three weeks. How did this opportunity come about? How did you learn such a huge volume in such a short time?

Tansel Ali: A PR company contacted me wanting me to memorise the Yellow Pages as marketing for their display advertising. Initially I thought it was a crazy idea, however after some basic calculations I decided I could be up for the challenge. Once I accepted to do the memory feat I was informed that I only had 24 days to memorise everything. After 24 days I was flown to Sydney and tested at a large convention as well as several live TV and radio interviews. In order to learn such a huge volume in the time that I had, I had to develop a thorough plan and analysis of the feat. This included finding out how many ads to memorise, which techniques to use, duration of memorisation, the number of times for review, recall period, as well as the type of sacrifices I had to make like taking time off work, finding quiet memorisation spots, and so on. Once the plan was developed then I had to make sure I executed it accordingly.

Daniel Kilov: The title of your first book on memory, The Yellow Elephant is definitely evocative of the Yellow Pages. Is there a link there?

Tansel Ali: The yellow represents the yellow from the Yellow Pages and elephant symbolising memory. It is also the term I used to form my own memory concept, which is to take abstract data and encode it into meaningful information. By naming something that is visual, it helps the person remember the book title, rather than a bunch of words that may not make sense. It is very much like an icon. As they say, a picture is a thousand words.

Daniel Kilov: You’ve been involved in competitive memory sports for over ten years now. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sport?

Tansel Ali: There are many more people around the world that are involved in memory sports today, and it is much more competitive. When I first started, the world championships used to have 20 odd competitors. Last year saw 169 compete in China. Records have been consistently broken and it is a lot tougher to crack the top 20 than ever before. The interest has definitely grown over the years and it will only be a matter of time until we have full-time memory athletes vying for prestigious titles and huge prize money. Not only are we seeing a growth in memory competitors, but also memory coaches training the next lot of superstars. I still find it very interesting what the human mind can do and believe we still haven’t reached anywhere near our capability in memory competitions.

Daniel Kilov: What’s been the most memorable experience of either the Australian or World Memory Championships for you?

Tansel Ali: I’ve been fortunate to have competed in a number of Australian and World memory championships since 2002. The first ever memory championship will stand in my mind the most. My friend Metin and I were so excited about our new discovery and we would train until 4am at his place, often not really remembering much and mucking around most of the time. Come competition time, we ended up breaking a number of memory records together and coming second and third in Australia. My first world memory championships were in Malaysia in 2003. Training once again with Metin we both ventured into Kuala Lumpur for the first time and had an unbelievable experience. We met our memory heroes and hung out until very late with the world’s best memorisers. I went for the experience, however found myself in 13th position overall having broken 5 Australian memory records for a total of 6.

Daniel Kilov: You’ve recently begun exploring all kinds of new uses for memory techniques outside of the competition room. What are the most surprising and successful uses you’ve found for your memory techniques?

Tansel Ali: Memory techniques are extremely versatile. The more you delve into it, the more you learn from it, the more you can play with it to suit your lifestyle. Initially my interest was using memory for enhancing learning. Speed reading, which is also in the class of memory techniques, was a revelation for me as I was never a big reader and it gave me the confidence and ability to read like I’ve never been able to before. As I read more, I discovered that memorisation is a type of narrative visualisation. You make up stories with your imagination. The same can be used for meditation. Hence, memorisation can be used as a meditative tool. I’ve used it to manage extreme pain and things like stress. If you can visualise well and have a great imagination, then I believe you can untap amazing potential in yourself, and others as well. Getting your own visualisation out externally into the real world can also be called a ‘vision’. If you are good at memory, then you will have the ability to understand how to communicate better with others and relay your vision. Hence, memory is a great leadership skill to have.

Daniel Kilov: In line with your call for memory techniques to be put to practical uses you’ve recently masterminded and run the first School Mind Games event. Could you tell us a little about what this event involved? What are your plans for this event?

Tansel Ali: Usually when seminars and training are run in schools, it’s great on the day. However as time passes, usually the next day, students and teachers have forgotten the skills and generally go back to their usual ways of learning. I wanted to create something that engaged the students’ new skills throughout the year. I wanted students to not just learn memory skills, but apply them regularly so that it became strong studying habits. Along with the help of a young leader Raquel Woods, we spent almost a year planning and preparing our event. We trained three schools in memory, speed reading and Mind Mapping skills. By the end of the year, these students came together in the school mind games event and competed in the three skills they were taught. The first was to speed read a 200-page book, which they all did collectively in 15 minutes. They then created a large Mind Map on a wall of the whole book and presented that back with great detail. And finally, memorise your 11 minute TEDxManly talk almost word-for-word. It was an incredible display by everyday students. The event proved that grades do not matter and that anyone can utilise the skills and perform exceptionally. There are plans to make it even bigger this year with more schools competing. I’m looking forward to it.

A giant of the competitive memory world

This article was originally printed in Issue 416 (March/April) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

OI4A3015Boris Nikolai Konrad is a giant of the competitive memory world. In 2009, he set two world records by memorizing 280 words and 195 names and faces (each in 15 minutes). In 2010, he beat his own record by memorizing 201 names and faces. Like all memory athletes, Boris utilizes a number of ancient mnemonic techniques known collectively as the Art of Memory. However, Boris is also an expert in the science of memory and is one of the few people in the world to have subjected these mnemonic techniques to serious empirical investigation. On top of all that, Boris is a member of the
Global Speakers Federation and travels the world as keynote speaker on memory and the brain. Somehow, he still managed to find time to answer some questions I had about his research as well as his personal journey with memory.

Daniel Kilov: You are, so far as I am aware, unique in the memory world, having reached the highest heights with the Art of Memory (currently ranked 9th in the world) but also having a deep passion for, and understanding of, the science of memory. Today, you work as Postdoc at Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen. How and when did you first develop your interest in memory?

Boris Konrad: It was in 2002 that I saw the multiple times German memory champion Gunther Karsten on German national TV. This was shortly before I finished high school. In the show Gunther trained a German actress in a mnemonic method that enabled her to triple her memory on a short word list learning task. I wondered, if these mnemonics could be worth a look, why no one had ever told me about them and if I should have a look into them before my final exam. I ordered a book and practised the mnemonics a bit and was highly fascinated by how well they worked. After high school and before university I trained those intensively to optimize their use at university, where they ended up helping me finish two degrees in the time of one with high distinction.

Already back then I had the question in mind, how it can be, that I can apply a somewhat artificial method to improve my memory. Shouldn’t memory work best by itself? I studies physics and computer sciences and when I was close to finishing my master’s degree, I had to decide how to proceed. A PhD student position was offered to me working at the LHC project of Cern, which most physics students would happily take, but I could not see myself spending my career in physics.
Coincidentally I was asked to be a participant in a study on superior memory at the Munich Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry that involved MRI investigations. I gladly joined but also addressed the studies` primary investigator, who also was a physicist by training, if he saw a chance for me to join these studies as PhD student. He did and that is how I ended up in the field, which I am most grateful for.

Even better, ongoing success also in the field of memory sports and professional speaking, allowed me to combine my scientific work with a secondary self-employed job as keynote-speaker, “tv personality”, memory trainer and author.

Daniel Kilov: Even the earliest manuals on the Art of Memory, such as the Rhetorica Ad Herenium (which dates back to at least 90 BC), stress the importance of creating vivid mental images when memorizing. However, your research has suggested that visualization abilities, as measured by the VVIQ, are largely irrelevant to one’s skill with mnemonics. This is a radical and surprising result – at least for the world of competitive memorizing! How did you react to this finding? By contrast, what traits or abilities do correlate with success with mnemonics?

Boris Konrad: It certainly did not meet my hypothesis. The VVIQ as you say is a widely applied tool to evaluate mental imagery abilities. I had many of the best memory athletes in the world fill it out and compared that to match (by age, gender, IQ) controls. My hypothesis was, that the
groups differ and that among the memory athletes, ability to visualize clearly correlates with memory sports success. But both were not the case. Additionally in a training study on mnemonics, the VVIQ score did not change much by training and also was non-predictive of success. A further look into that seems to indicate, that actually the activity of visualizing itself activates relevant areas of the brain that in sequence get involved in the memorization process. The perceived vividness of these images than is not important. Some memorizers actually have more narrative or even logical “images” rather than pretty visual ones. One downside remains: People with perceived low visualization ability are more hesitant to use mnemonics that is based on imagery – but my findings say they should not be, as they would profit highly anyway.

The only trait-like factor that was indeed correlated to the mnemonic success was processing speed. On the other hand, IQ was non-predictive of training success. While in general high IQ does correlate with memory and also memory champions (highest achieving participants of the memory competitions) on average were of high intelligence, regardless of IQ everyone who practised mnemonics benefited from them, even in comparable degree. In short that means, that highly intelligent people were also memorizing the most before and after training, but everyone
benefitted.

Daniel Kilov: Brain training is very popular nowadays with websites like Lumosity enjoying great commercial success. The evidence that these so-called brain-training games improve general cognitive abilities is almost non-existent, however. Although people get better at the specific games they play, the problem seems to be in achieving transfer effects to new tasks. One of the interesting findings of your research is that mnemonic training does seem to benefit other areas (e.g. processing speed). Could you elaborate on this?

Boris Konrad: My study was not designed to test this hypothesis, therefore my findings are only indicative and need further work. I only had one measure of processing speed tested, but on that one in the training study I indeed found significant improvements by mnemonic training compared to a control group. However, relevant criticism to brain-training games studies also apply to my training regime, as subjects obviously were not blind to it and Placebo effects probably played a role.

In my opinion however, regardless of a possible transfer to processing speed, since mnemonic training actually trains a relevant ability and not a specific game, I would still advocate for this form of training even if transfer to untrained domains does not persist. For some it might be disappointing to read that even general memory ability did not improve. Even the world’s best memory champions do not outperform regular controls on tasks of working memory capacity or actually any memory task not suited to their mnemonics when not being granted time to thing about to apply their methods, for example when presented nonsense syllables or sequences of letters. A former study (Maguire 2003) also found that in visual memory for snowflakes. While the memory athletes usually state they would do well in this task when having had the chance to prepare for an hour or two, if they cannot rely on mnemonics, their memory is totally average.

But on the positive side, staying on an anecdotal level, it is highly interesting to me, that well more of the memory athletes reported to benefit from their skills in their studies and work-life than often perceived. General media and even some scientific articles often stress the statements of a very small number of early day memory athletes who stated, they would not use the mnemonics outside of the sport and would not benefit from them. This does not hold in regards of the data I collected. This also includes the fact that, most of the memory athletes doing well in competition, are also doing very well in their job or studies.

This also matches my personal experiences: The mnemonics never became automatic. I do have to apply them. But I can do that rather instantly on a good number of tasks and problems and make use of them nearly every day.

Daniel Kilov: Your research supports a number of the theories of K. Anders Erricson (whose research was popularized in the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcom Gladwell as the ’10,000 hour rule’). What insights does your work on memory training tell us about skill and expertise more generally?

Boris Konrad: I found that memory champions indeed made use of their long-term memories even in very short term memory tasks, when applying their mnemonics. This fits well to Ericssons model of the Log-term working memory. By training the mnemonics, a reference model is built in long-term memory that can be used to store new memories rapidly. According to Ericssons theory, experts in different domains also build up these structures related to their field of expertise. As a chess expert can store new chess games and positions rapidly but nothing else, memory experts can store any material they can apply their mnemonics upon.

Daniel Kilov: How do you train for memory competitions? How has your research influenced your training methods?
Boris Konrad: I use a web platform called Memocamp for my training which mostly consists of doing the events and training to gain speed. Additionally I work on my mnemonic codes, so that I know my images for numbers or playing cards even faster. The same is true for the locations I have in mind that I use for the method of loci. Actually my research did not influence my training too much; I only reduced my training on improving the clarity of my visualization as I do not see this as beneficial anymore.

Daniel Kilov: Conversely, how have your experiences with the Art of Memory influenced how you study in an academic context?

Boris Konrad: Certainly it did. The work on superior memory in the past to my experience often missed some points on how memory athletes actually use their methods. Some papers in the field misunderstood this clearly. My own experience also allows me to design tasks matched to the skills a memory athlete has. Of course I have to keep in mind that I might be unconsciously biased and keep discussing my assumptions with memory researchers that know but do not apply mnemonics and constantly do so.

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.

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.