Memory Athlete

Review of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein

This review was originally printed in Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 6, Issue 1, www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/issues/volume6issue1/conwaykilov/ 

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In his captivating book Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer details his journey from journalist to memory master during his research for an article on the US memory championships. Moonwalking with Einstein explores the world of memory, setting out on a journey that takes the reader from the bizarre world of memory sports through the relevant cognitive science and all the way back to Ancient Greece to the birth of mnemonic techniques. This is a popular, rather than scholarly, book, and the historical and scientific details are gleaned from Foer’s journalistic investigations, rather than original research.

There was a time, Foer reflects, when it was more practical to remember information than it was to record it. In ancient times, recording information was a lengthy and expensive process. Consequently, students in the ancient world were taught, ‘not just what to remember, but how to remember it’ (p. 96) using mnemonic techniques referred to collectively as the Art of Memory. The techniques of the Art of Memory all revolve around the composition of elaborate and colourful mental images. In one instance, for example, Foer memorises a shopping list by conjuring mental images of Claudia Schiffer swimming in cottage cheese and anthropomorphic bottles of wine getting into a punch-up.

During the Middle Ages, books were not considered substitutes for memorisation but rather as aides-memoire. Books of this period were written without punctuation or spacing, in an unending stream known as scripto continua (p. 139). Without punctuation or paragraphs, page numbers or an index, referring to a work written in scripto continua required an intimate knowledge of the text. As Foer puts it, these works existed ‘not to hold its contents externally, but rather to help its reader navigate its contents internally’ (p. 141). By the time of the Enlightenment, improvements in technologies designed to externalise memory resulted in a decline in the popularity and practice of mnemonic techniques.

Even during the Enlightenment the idea of using memory techniques to preserve information was beginning to appear outdated; how much more so now in the age of smartphones and smarter search engines? Foer explores the idea that we might be ‘moving toward a future, it seems, in which we will have all-encompassing external memories’ (p. 155) by introducing us to an engineer named Gordon Bell, who has taken to recording everything he does via a miniature camera he designed to act as a surrogate memory. Bell can search through his recorded ‘memories’ using customised software to ‘recall’ particular details which are all downloaded and stored on his computer.

Bell’s internal and external memories do not yet interface seamlessly; his external memory does not allow for the same speed and ease of recall as his biological memory, yet his project raises crucial questions about the role and nature of our memories. It is these questions that motivate Moonwalking with Einstein.

Given that it is so easy to relegate so many of our memory tasks to external devices, what is the point of remembering anything? For a person who has invested hundreds of hours in developing his memory (by the end of his journey, Foer is capable of memorising a deck of shuffled playing cards in one minute and forty seconds) Foer’s answer is a surprising one.

Foer’s answer as to why we ought to train our biological memories rather than rely on external systems is not, as one might expect, inspired by any of the prodigious memorisers he introduces us to in the course of his book. Instead, His most compelling argument is one he ‘received unwittingly from EP’, an amnesiac who is entirely unable to form new memories and ‘whose memory had been so completely lost that he could not place himself in time or space, or relative to other people’ (p. 268). Without his memory, Foer writes, ‘EP has fallen out of time. He has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate’ (p. 74).

For Foer, to be human is to remember. Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly coloured by the things we think, believe and know, all of which resides in our memories. There is no clear line between remembering and creating. Cultivating a better memory is not (or not merely) about storage or efficiency: in these respects, external recording technologies are either already superior to our biological memories or might be so one day soon. Our ability to notice connections between previously unconnected ideas, to find humour in the world and to share in a common culture are all essentially human acts that depend on memory (p. 269).

Foer deals a blow to the fantasy of cultivating a faultless memory (a fantasy which motivated his entry into the world of memory sports) but does so with such sensitivity and enthusiasm for his topic that one comes away feeling inspired rather than disillusioned. His argument that memory is the seat of identity is compelling, but does not, on its own, clearly justify the training of memory. Foer’s experiences, however, provide another argument for practising the ancient techniques of the Art of Memory: memory training is fun. The mental images that Foer and his fellow mnemonists create are playful and the process of remembering is as much an exercise in creativity as it is in fidelity. The final lesson of Moonwalking is that we ought to approach our memories with a sense of playfulness, because that is how they work best.

Memory tips on Channel TEN’s The Project with Daniel Kilov

This clip contains memory improvement tips from one of Australia’s fastest learners and memory athletes, a neuro-scientist and an experienced bridge player. For more information on the Art of Memory and memory improvement visit: https://mentalathlete.wordpress.com/

Be sure to follow me on twitter: @DanielKilov

Just train your brain – and remember to memorise

An edited version of this interview was recently published in The Daily Telegraph and online (here). I liked the original so much that I decided to post it here in full:

Memory champion and Brain Awareness Week Ambassador Daniel Kilov / Pic: Jeremy Piper

Memory champion and Brain Awareness Week Ambassador Daniel Kilov / Pic: Jeremy Piper

SARRAH LE MARQUAND

IT’S not often you meet a champion who insists they are nothing special, but Daniel Kilov – who came second in last year’s Australian Memory Championships – is at pains to prove just that.

Despite being capable of memorising a shuffled deck of cards in less than five minutes, and holding the Australian record for correctly recalling 115 abstract images in record speed, the 24-year- old insists his skills are unremarkable.

“It’s really crucial that people don’t think I have any special ability or talent in regards to memory,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone who can’t do what I do with just a small amount of training.”

After struggling throughout school due to his self-confessed terrible memory, Kilov stumbled upon a range of techniques known as the Art of Memory which rely on the use of colourful mental imagery to facilitate an eerily accurate ability to hastily memorise information.

“When you tell people how you do it the reaction you often get is ‘Oh, is that it?’ and that is it,” Kilov said. “But although it’s simple it’s incredibly powerful”.

With today marking the beginning of Brain Awareness Week the Macquarie University graduate is encouraging Australians to become more conscious of maintaining the health of that most important of organs: the brain.

He also believes the incorporation of memory techniques into the school curriculum could solve the criticisms most commonly levelled towards the education system, namely that teachers are overworked, schools stifle creatively and children learn by rote.

“Our schools cater and teach in a very limited methodology towards a specific school set so any students who don’t have those specific skill sets are going to struggle and memory is one of those pre-requisites that schools expect students to have,” said Kilov.

“We all have long memories the thing is that a lot of people – and certainly I would have originally included myself among that group – just don’t know how to use them.

“The techniques represent a potential revolution in education. And they don’t require fancy equipment. They were being done by the Ancient Greeks so they don’t require the latest computers or projectors.”

Despite his capacity to almost instantly recall large volumes of data, Kilov admits he prefers to delegate some of the more mundane memory tasks – such as collating shopping lists and storing phone numbers – to a more traditional method.

“Not all things are worth committing to memory. To my mind leave the trivial stuff to the iPhone and use the memory techniques to enliven and enrich your life and your perception of the world by learning all the stuff you ever wanted.

“Who wouldn’t want to learn a language if they knew they could pick it up in months instead of years?”

Daniel’s top five tips on how to improve your memory:

1. Practice mindfulness – remember to remember. Most failures of memory are actually just failures of attention.

2. Think visually. Construct visual mental movies of things you want to remember.

3. Be creative. Bring colour to your mental stories to transform the mundane into the memorable!

4. Organise your memories. How we organise information (or fail to do so) dictates how easily we can recall it later. Use mnemonics and acronyms.

5. Look after your body. Regular exercise and sleep are vital for cognitive function, as is proper nutrition. As a vegetarian, I take Swisse Plant Omega 3 with life’s DHA to give me an edge in competition.

ABC Radio Interview

ABC Radio Interview

Follow the link above to hear my interview with the ABC.

From the ABC website:

Daniel Kilov had a hopeless memory as a school kid. Nowadays, he’s a mental athlete and can lay claim to having the second-best memory in Australia (behind his own mentor, Tansel Ali). Daniel shared a handful of simple techniques with Louise Maher on 666 Drive, which can mould any scatter-brain into a memory and learning machine.

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2012/08/30/3579374.htm

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.