Memory Athlete

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.

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.