Memory techniques

Gwendolen Noronha, A World Class Coach

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Daniel Kilov: What led you to develop your method?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Master Your Memory in 30 Days || Max’s Monthly Challenge

I taught my friend Max how to memorise names and faces and random numbers for his YouTube channel. He used the techniques I taught him to go from mnemonic neophyte to memory master in 30 days.

He goes through each of the techniques I taught him and the methods he used to practice them. There is heaps of practical stuff here so I encourage you to check it out.

Uncommon Podcast ft. Daniel Kilov

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More attentive readers may have noticed that I’ve fallen behind on my goal of providing new content every week. I’ve been pretty busy with some cool projects (including this interview) and can finally take some time to update you all. So you can expect a bunch of new posts over the next couple of weeks as I make up lost ground.

I was recently interviewed for the Uncommon Podcast. We covered heaps of stuff and it was really fun. Their summary of the episode, and the full interview, are below:

Daniel Kilov is an Australian Memory Athlete, Speaker, Writer and a Philosophy PhD student at The Australian National University (ANU).

Daniel is capable of memorising a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, over 100 random digits in five minutes and placed second at the Australian Memory Championships in 2011.

When I learnt about Daniel and his mentor Tansel Ali – through the best-selling book Deep Work by Cal Newport – I knew I had to get him on the podcast. The use of memory is probably one of the fundamental tools we have as humans, aside from communication through language. Yet we are in an age where we’re handballing a lot of former memory tasks to our smart devices – foregoing the classic techniques of mnemonics is becoming all too common. As Cal Newport says in his book, the “Art of Memory” is incredibly important to becoming a “Deep Worker” who can not only increase performance but also your attention through the process.

For those of you who would prefer it, you can find the audio version here:https://www.neuralle.com/podcast

Enjoy!

The Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast

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I was recently interviewed for the Zoë Routh Leadership podcast. Her summary, and the full interview, are below:

Edge of Leadership UnConference speaker Daniel Kilov reveals some amazing tips and tricks to enhance memory for reading books, recalling information, committing information to knowledge, and remembering names at networking functions.

Daniel shares critical mnemonics (memory) techniques, explains how these techniques are the single best predictor of top performance in any field and how we can create generations of geniuses.

For those who would prefer it, there is also a video version (unedited, so far as I can tell) available here:

World Memory Championships

An Inside Look

 

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This film takes us inside the strange and fascinating world of competitive memory contests – culminating in the 2007 World Memory Championships in Bahrain.

The documentary speaks for itself but it’s worth pointing out that the sport has grown considerably since this was filmed. World championship events now have hundreds of competitors and the scores achieved here would be considered fairly standard for competent athletes. New techniques continue to be developed and new strategies employed.

From The Archives: The Art of Memory @ AMSA 2018

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The Q&A following my talk at AMSA 2018

Late last year I had the privilege of delivering a plenary talk to the 1000 or so attendees of the AMSA National Convention.

From the techniques of modern memory athletes, to the painted mnemonic walls of Campanella’s fictional ‘Città del Sole’, to the encyclopedic memories and mnemonic systems of indigenous cultures around the world, we managed to cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes. I even had time to teach them some mnemonics to remember some bits of the brain! There was also a Q&A at the end.

There is lots of content that I haven’t covered here on the blog before so I thought I’d share. The full talk can be viewed below.

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!