Memory Athlete

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, 


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:

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


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.