Memory techniques

Alex Mullen, World Memory Champion

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.


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 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!


Dr Lynne Kelly on cracking The Memory Code

This article was originally printed in Issue 427 (January/February) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.


Dr Lynne Kelly walking through a memory palace – the Avebury Avenue

Dr Lynne Kelly is a science writer and Honorary Research Associate at LaTrobe University. Her work focuses on orality and the mnemonic systems used by ancient and modern oral cultures around the world. She is most famous for her theory that Stonehenge served the purpose of a memory palace for recording and transmitting knowledge by Neolithic Britons. This was the thesis of her book The Memory Code. It’s a bold idea and one I was keen to explore. Lynne was kind enough to indulge me.

Daniel Kilov: Your book begins with the observation that individuals in non-literate cultures frequently display an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the land and skyscapes that they inhabit. Indeed, it seems that your journey into memory was motivated by the question of how this is/was achieved. What is the most impressive memory feat that you came across in your research?

Lynne Kelly: Two feats stand out as unbelievable achievements just because they really captured my attention, one in terms of the complexity of the information and the other in terms of the longevity.

The Navajo were able to describe a field guide to over 700 insects to ethnozoologists a few decades ago. The information not only included identification but also habitat, behaviour and stories integrating that insect into the cultural whole through mythology. Of these insects, ten were known because they cause bother such as gnats, lice, fleas or insects which attack crops. One was eaten, the cicada. All the rest were known because, as the ethnographers said, the Navajo love to classify. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not a trait of only literate humans. Once you add in all the other invertebrates, birds, mammals, amphibians, fish…the memory feat becomes even more extraordinary. Then add in a thousand or so plants, navigation, genealogies, laws, management of crops and domestic animals, hunting…the memory feat simply becomes overwhelming.

This feat particularly astounded me because I have attempted to identify insects and got nowhere. They are so much harder than the birds and mammals and other genres of critter. How many people can even identify the few hundred birds in their environment?

In terms of longevity, there are a number of examples of our Australian Aboriginal cultures retaining accurate descriptions of the changes in landscape dating back thousands of years. For example, the Dyirbal people from north-east Queensland have a story about the past when it was possible to walk across to the islands now called Palm and Hinchinbrook Islands. Geographers have since concluded that the sea level was low enough for this to be the case at the end of the last ice age, at least 8,000 years ago. It is simply mind-boggling to think that descriptions of events from so long ago could be retained so accurately without writing. I’m not surprised that these events tend to be linked to landscape formations because it is the landscape which acts as the primary medium for sequencing memory locations.

My research is about the mechanisms through which these feats are achieved.

Daniel: Your visit to Stonehenge was an important catalyst for the development of your theories, correct? Could you tell us a bit about your first visit to Stonehenge and why you think it is best interpreted as a memory space?

Lynne: I expected my visit to Stonehenge in 2008 to be fairly mundane. I was just visiting as a tourist with my husband Damian who had recently graduated in archaeology. I was researching my PhD on indigenous knowledge of animals through which I had started to glimpse the way non-literate cultures use the method of loci to memorise vast amounts of information. By that stage I had realised that the information they stored was so much more complex than I had ever realised, and I was including many genres along with zoology. My thesis was being derailed by a bigger question: how on earth did they memorise so much stuff?

I realised that out Australian Aboriginal cultures were using sequences of locations in the landscape as a memory device, sung pathways better known as songlines. At each sacred location along the hundreds of kilometres of songlines, they would perform a ritual, that is a repeated song, dance or story. It was these rituals which stored the pragmatic information I was looking at, encoded through mythology and integrated with spiritual beliefs. I also knew that the same methods were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans using locations within their built environment.

But what happened in the transition? Standing on Salisbury Plain that day, my thesis topic on animal knowledge in indigenous cultures got totally derailed as I added archaeology into the ever-expanding research topic. My precious animal knowledge was being engulfed by bigger questions. I realised that in order to settle, cultures would need to replicate the songlines in the local landscape to ensure that the information associated with this vast expanse of sacred locations was not lost. I realised that the perfect way to record the annual cycle of knowledge associated with the annual cycle of movement, seasons and ceremonies would be a circle of stones. That is why there are so many across the British Isles and Western Europe. The changes in the Stonehenge complex of monuments reflects exactly what you would expect of a memory palace as it moves from the needs of  a fairly open mobile society to a larger settled society, but that takes a lot of explaining.

Daniel: I’ve heard people refer to your book as the ‘Stonehenge book’. I found your arguments for Stonehenge as a memory space compelling, but your theory is really much broader than that, and is intended to explain many different sites. Could you give us a quick sketch of your theory concerning the role of these architectural structures as landscapes-in-miniature?

Lynne: I felt pretentious enough thinking I had a new theory for the purposes of Stonehenge, so my self-doubt became almost crippling when I realised that if I’m saying this is the natural way for a culture to memorise information in the transition from hunter gathering to settle farming, then it wouldn’t only be the British Neolithic.

In the small-scale cultures I’ve been looking at, in particular Australian Aboriginal and Native American, power was in the hands of those who controlled information. Power was not maintained through individual wealth nor coercion through using violence as it has been in all larger communities since. I identified a set of indicators which would imply that a monument was primarily memory space. These indicators formed the basis of my academic monograph published by Cambridge University Press, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.

Archaeologically, there should be no individual burials with wealthy grave goods. There should be no indication of a hierarchy where some members of the community were clearly far better off than others materially. If the major monuments built by these cultures were memory spaces, then that had to be the source of power. All of the Neolithic and American Archaic monuments met this requirement. They were all built in that transition from hunter gathering to farming, which is not a rapid transition.

Essentially what is required is a set of locations in a clearly defined sequence of memory locations. I started looking for all the other indicators for enhancing memory that I was learning about from Australian, Native American and other non-literate cultures.

Knowledge is performed in non-literate cultures. That is it is danced and sung and stories enacted. Monumental spaces are also performance spaces. Some form of acoustic enhancement is often present but what is essential is that there are both public and restricted performance spaces. As a member of a society is initiated higher and higher into the knowledge system, information is kept secret. This is essential to protect against the so-called Chinese whispers. This is particularly important when survival is dependent on the accuracy of information, such as how to handle extreme resource stress, long-term agreements with other tribes, resource boundaries and rights as well as changes in the distant landscape.

Timekeeping is an essential part of any society to run a calendar for ceremonies, agriculture and seasonal resource gathering. A wide range of methods are used in mobile cultures, but with settlement, maintaining a calendar according to the solstice, equinox and lunar alignments is the preferred method. Astronomical alignments are an essential part of the knowledge system. The timekeepers were always very powerful people.

All non-literate cultures use some form of handheld memory device, often abstract signs inscribed on stone or wood such as the Australian tjuringa, the African lukasa or the Native American songboard or birchbark scroll. Details of these devices were often hard to find as no one has made an inventory of these objects before and there is no common name for them. Wherever I looked, I found portable memory devices. Most used wood or stone decorated objects, while many used sculptures, sets of figurines and paintings on bark. Some cultures used bundles of objects while others attached information to the various arrangements of seeds or shells. The Inca used the incredibly adaptable knotted cord device known as the khipu. These mnemonic technologies are not used in isolation. Indigenous cultures integrate a range of mnemonic devices into a system where one method reinforces another.

All the indicators of a memory space were in the Stonehenge archaeology, as long as you consider the entire Stonehenge complex of monuments which the archaeologists say are linked, and as long as you look at the way they changed over the 1,500 years or so of use. These same indicators were also present in monuments all over the world which were used in the transition from mobile to small-scale settled cultures. Each site has to be analysed independently, considering the degree of settlement, size of the society, materials available and subsistence methods. I was able to show that the huge glyphs on the Nasca Desert of Peru also fit the same pattern. So do mounds and pyramids right across the Americas in the early stages of settlement, including the mound-building hunter-gatherer site of Poverty Point in Louisiana and many others. Understanding non-literate memory systems also explains the purpose of the extraordinary ‘great houses’ of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and why the non-literate Inca managed to outshine the literate Aztecs and Maya and control a massive empire without writing. By adding in the way Pacific cultures use genealogies to structure information, the purpose of the moai of Easter Island becomes clear. Unravelling the purpose of these monuments is just a matter of acknowledging the critical role of memorising vast amounts of pragmatic information in the absence of writing.

Daniel: Inspired by many of the indigenous memory systems that you’ve observed, you’ve conducted a number of your own memory experiments. Could you tell us about some of these?

Lynne: I have taken examples of each of the mnemonic technologies I researched and copied them in order to understand how the technology worked, not just how the indigenous cultures used it. For example, I have encoded a field guide to the 408 birds of Victoria to a memory board made of wood, shells and beads, based on the African lukasa. The birds are encoded in taxonomic order and I am constantly adding more information to it. I don’t need the board in the field to use it—I know it so well. I would never have considered attempting this before I understood the effectiveness of abstract designs on hand held objects as a mnemonic device.

I have set up landscape sequences based on the Australian Aboriginal songlines. To one songline I have encoded the 250 countries and independent protectorates of the world in population order. That is a set of discrete locations. In another kilometre or so of the local neighbourhood, I walk through continuous time from 4,500 million years ago to the present, watching all sorts of events play out and nodding to a vast array of historic figures.

I have created a knotted cord device based on the Inca khipu/quipu, sets of objects to manipulate, a totem pole, a series of stones and many more. To each I am encoding practical information for contemporary life as that is what I felt I had to do to see what was happening in my brain as I implemented these mnemonic technologies. I am astounded how effective they are and how differently my brain works when I use them. I am also astounded that we don’t use these methods in education. I am seeing patterns and asking questions that would never have occurred to me without the information stored in memory first.

Daniel: Your beautiful description of the songlines of Australian Aboriginals, with their use of the landscape as a way of ordering and retrieving memory images, is strikingly similar to the techniques used by contemporary memory athletes. These techniques, of course, are thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. When did you draw the connection between the song-lines and the Art of Memory?

Lynne: I was originally doing a PhD as a creative science writer in the English program at LaTrobe University. I was looking at the way the stories encoded accurate details of animal behaviour, identification and ecology. Then I realised how many animals there were once you add in the hundreds of invertebrates. Then all the plants and so on. Given that I am blessed with an appallingly bad memory, I started asking how on earth they could remember so much stuff. That changed my research question and I stumbled on the role of songlines.

At the same time I was looking at Walter Ong and his book Orality and Literacy which led me to Frances Yates and The Art of Memory. It just seemed obvious that the two techniques were exactly the same: take a set of locations in a fixed order and encode information to each location. Make the stories vivid, the characters grotesque, vulgar, extreme, very active—anything which makes them memorable. That is a perfect description of mythology, which Walter Ong identified as a mnemonic technology. It went from there.

Daniel: One thing which sets the techniques of the Art of Memory apart from most contemporary mnemonics (ROYGBIV, for example, as an acronym for the sequence of hues in the rainbow) is its general purpose nature. The principles and techniques can be applied to practically any learning task. To what extent do you think the memory techniques of oral cultures share this feature?

Lynne: They share this feature completely. The stories tell of all the practical knowledge, but enmesh that information with the laws, ethical stories, spiritual domain and all use the same set of mnemonic technologies. One device can encode a huge range of knowledge domains. The African lukasa, for example, has the history of the Luba Kingdom at one level, battle strategies and animal behaviour, ceremonial and initiation cycles and then, higher and higher levels of training add more and more information. But the higher levels were so restricted to protect the accuracy of the information, that with all the lukasa experts gone, there is no way to know what they stored. They would not have told uninitiated ethnographers.

The difference between linking information to physical locations, be they in the landscape of on physical devices, is that you can add layer upon layer of information in an infinitely expandable way. You don’t need to learn them in order. If you take something like ROYGBIV, or Thirty-days-hath-September …, then you can’t add any more complexity to the database. Songlines, memory boards, Stonehenge…they are all essentially database structures with the data held in memorable oral forms: songs and stories, dance and mythology. That data is in variable length data cells, each one infinitely expandable. But, if human memory is lost, then only the database structure remains. The monument, cave art or enigmatic decorated object remains but the knowledge encoded to it died with the last elder.

Daniel: It seems to me that the Ars Memorativa presents some interesting challenges to your theories. If I’ve understood correctly, your theory predicts that once a group of people fully transition from a nomadic lifestyle to permanent settlements, they lose interest in memory systems. Even more so for those settled cultures that develop written language. Yet the Ancient Greeks are often considered to have developed the first ‘true’ alphabet (i.e. one involving the consistent use of letters for both vowels and consonants) as well as the most advanced expression of mnemotechnics.

To push this even further, it could be argued that the Art of Memory, which played an important role in European thought until the 17th Century, even experienced something of a renaissance after the invention of the printing press.  I’m talking here about the work of Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno and others in the hermetic tradition, but also Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. What are your thoughts on this?

Lynne: I sincerely hope I have never given the impression that once the transition to permanent settlement is complete that any culture loses interest in memory systems. In fact, I draw heavily on Native American cultures, especially the Pueblo who have long ago left their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Before I continue, I also need to get picky about the term ‘nomadic’. A nomadic lifestyle is when a group of people wander through the landscape with the clear impression that they do not follow fixed paths. Australian Aboriginal cultures have not been nomadic for thousands of years. They are ‘mobile’. That is they move between a number of semi-permanent campsites over the annual cycle to optimise use of resources. Some of our 300 different Aboriginal cultures may live almost permanently in one location, while others are much more mobile. It depends very much on the habitat and availability of resources in one location. For me to talk about the method of loci, they must be constantly revisiting the same locations. A songline is essentially a set of locations that are known well enough to be able to sing in sequence and are revisited regularly.

I think the point you are picking up on is that I say that the monuments, such as Stonehenge and other stone circles, were abandoned once the society had grown larger and settled permanently to agriculture. The reason I give for abandoning the monuments is that much of the knowledge system is then maintained by specialists—the farmers, bakers, warriors and tradesmen. The society by this stage had become much more hierarchical and those in power maintain control through wealth and force. All the cultures I am talking about maintain power through control of information and therefore those in power could muster the resources to create the ancient memory palaces. Everyone in the society would have seen their value because of the dependence on those knowledgeable elites.  So what happens when the knowledgeable elite is no longer in power? They are still required to maintain a great deal of the information of the culture, especially the legal system, the history, much of the knowledge of plants and animals that still exist in the wild, astronomy, trade agreements and so on. In the British example, a thousand years after Stonehenge you have the Druids performing this role. But they are no longer the top of the heap. They serve the chiefs but are still powerful. They still use memory palaces, but these are embedded within the built environment, such as the Iron Age hillforts. You can see exactly this hierarchy in Pacific cultures and Native American and of course eventually in ancient Greece and Rome.

The development of writing and the impact on the memory spaces is one of the areas I’m looking into at the moment, but I will offer some opinions anyway in the understanding that I am more than willing to be corrected. Writing served to store tallies for trade and names long before it was used to record the narrative which told the stories of the culture in the performance mode that had always been used because performance is so much more memorable than a list of facts. So as you move from Homer to Cicero, Augustine and those you mention right up into the Renaissance, the nature of the memory techniques stays similar because that is how the human brain works.

However, you lose the complexity of the indigenous elders and their interwoven set of mnemonic technologies. And apparently that’s because of the genres of information which are still being stored orally. Slowly (very slowly) the performances move from being the encyclopaedic knowledge of the culture in purely oral cultures, to being a major repository for some aspects such as history and technology in Homer’s day to becoming primarily the medium for rhetoric, ethics and laws and eventually recalling screeds of religious beliefs. In order to retain power as the knowledge of critical pragmatic information is taken over by other members of society, the knowledge elites slowly adapt the mythological characters into gods and claim an exclusive link to them, thus retaining power in the role of priests.

The memory arts were never lost, they merely changed in their role within the power structure, the genres of information stored and their pervasiveness within the culture. We have gone too far. They need to come back and be embedded within our education system without losing any of the benefits that literacy has bought.

Talking to Nelson Dellis

This article was originally printed in Issue 425 (September/October) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.


Nelson Dellis


Nelson Dellis is a four-time USA memory champion and has twice placed in the top ten at the World Memory Championships. He can memorize 339 digits in five minutes and the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 40.65 seconds. He is also an accomplished mountaineer, having scaled Denali (the highest peak in North America) and Mt Kilimanjaro. He has also come within 200 metres of the summit of Everest. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Nelson about his relentless pursuit of peak performance of body and mind.

Daniel: You developed your interest in memory training in 2009, after your grandmother passed away as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s easy to appreciate why you’d develop an interest in mental training, but why memory specifically, rather than, say, competitive crossword solving or mental calculation? When did you first learn about the art of memory?

Nelson: Good question! Actually my interest in mental training started with mental math. I had always been fascinated with that, although not very good. When I was getting deeper and deeper into that world, I noticed a lot of mental calculators use memory techniques. So from there I jumped to memory. Once I first tried the techniques and saw how immediately I was able to do some seriously impressive mental feats, that’s what hooked me to memory.

Daniel: As a four-time USA memory champion you helped set a new competitive standard on the US memory scene. How do you structure your training? How many hours do you train in an average week? Do you think you have any methods or practices that set you apart from your competition?

Nelson: Yeah, that’s true. When I got into the game, Ron White had just won and set some serious records (in the US). I think that’s what really started the competitiveness in me and from then on I just made memory training my life. I was obsessed with it and couldn’t go a day without doing some form of memory training. Back in my peak days, I was training about five hours a day. I think the practices I had that set me apart were that I trained so hard. I would always tell myself that I was not going to be out-worked and out-trained. If there was going to be one thing I did better or more than any other competitor, it was going to be how much I trained.

Daniel: You’ve made three attempts to climb Mount Everest over the last few years for your charity ‘Climb for Memory’. Each time you’ve come nail-bitingly close. What is the relationship between your memory training and mountaineering?

Nelson: At first the relationship isn’t really that obvious. But if you look a little closer, you can see a connection. Most people don’t realize that mountaineering is hugely a mental sport. Sure it’s heavily physical too (after all, you’re climbing the mountain with your body), but the mind is what’s pushing your body through the immense pain and discomfort. When it comes down to it, any training, any challenge, is a mental game. You need to push yourself mentally to overcome the obstacles associated with the challenge. So for me, whether I’m doing memory training or climbing mountains, my mind is doing the same thing.

Daniel: Your recent projects have included a children’s book, the establishment of the Extreme Memory Tournament, a Kickstarter for a new memory training software package and you’ve also been vocal in your support of the new International Association of Memory. Which of these are you most excited about at the moment?

Nelson: The Extreme Memory Tournament! For sure! We first held the competition three years ago and it was a huge success. But I never thought it would be still ongoing in its success three years later. I think the most exciting thing about it are the big future plans that we have for it. These are plans we’ve had for a long time, but we finally find ourselves in a position to act on them. Memory sports is in the throes of a big change-up and I like to think XMT has a hand in that. Can’t wait to see where things go from here!

Daniel: One thread which seems to unite these disparate projects is a desire to raise awareness of the benefits of memory training. Does this mark a shift in your focus from competition to contribution? What’s next for you?

Nelson: I was hoping no one would ask me this but I guess it was inevitable, eh? I’m competitive at heart. It’s incredibly difficult for me not to compete. But there is also the fear of turning into a has-been. Nobody wants to be a has-been. I want to stay competition-relevant forever, but that just isn’t realistic. I’m going to lose, people are going to be better than me, and that’s that. And it’s not just a simple case of ‘well, just train harder, don’t lose’. You’re bound to get burned out. I trained every day for five years straight. When I won in 2014, the next day I decided to take a one-month break (it ended up being a six-month break). I needed it, I was so exhausted. It’s just hard to maintain the motivation to train with the same intensity when you first started and when you didn’t have any championship wins under your belt. Anyways, the answer to the question is I don’t know. I love contributing and teaching and will always do that, but I still love to compete. So I still plan on competing here and there. For how long? No idea!

Daniel: I’ve got one last question: I note that on your Wikipedia page, it says that ‘In Chicago, he worked at a local yarn shop, experimenting with large-scale knitting projects.’ Is this true or is somebody ‘spinning a yarn’?

Nelson: Haha, nope. True story. My mom is an exceptional cross-stitcher and knitter, so I was taught all that stuff at a young age. I only really got into it around 2005 when I was ‘forced’to go to a knitting class with my at-the-time girlfriend. She ended up hating it while I was there obsessed. I have been pretty much into knitting ever since. It sounds kind of funny but it’s a really cool pastime for a few reasons: 1. It’s knots, I love knots; 2. It’s mathematical and there’s a lot of counting and numbers involved; 3. You end up making actual pieces of clothes from string; 4. It has helped me woo many a lady (you knit a girl a hat, she will love you forever).


An educational revolution

This article was originally posted at the HAPPY + WELL blog here.

imagesIn the first part of this three part series, I introduced the Art of Memory, a two and a half thousand year old method for memory training, and discussed its greatest living exponents, the competitors of the World Memory Championships. In addition, I highlighted the three key principles that animate all of the techniques used by memory athletes. In this post, I’ll argue that the right place for these techniques is not in history books, or in competitions, but in our classrooms.

For almost two thousand years, the Art of Memory was a cornerstone of western education. Taught during the renaissance alongside rhetoric, grammar and logic, these mnemonic techniques and training methods were employed and advocated for by many of the greatest minds of the western intellectual tradition including Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Francis Bacon, Leibniz and Descartes. It was only during the Protestant reformation that the Art of Memory was driven underground.

In modern times, support for the importance of memory in education has come from the cognitive sciences. Research from across a range of fields of scientific inquiry has converged on the conclusion that memory is the king of cognition. Research has shown, for example, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players.

In 1946, Adriaan De Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high-level chess players. What he found was that it was remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent that give birth to elite chess performance. Chess is often thought to be a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy. But in reality, the most important difference between players is how many chess facts they have stored away in memory. Similar discoveries have been found across a range of fields.

To see just how powerful these techniques can be in an educational context, let’s run through a quick example.

As I explained in my first post, the key to these memory techniques is to create colourful mental images and organise them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later. For instance, perhaps we want to remember the word ‘por’, which in Spanish means ‘through’. To do so, we might imagine someone pouring something through a window. ‘Por’ sounds like the English word ‘pour’ and so we link an image containing the phonetics of the Spanish word to its meaning. To make it more memorable, we might imagine a great ocean pouring out of a tiny cup, and perhaps landing on some unfortunate passer-by.

Suppose we wanted to remember the Spanish word for monkey, which is ‘mono’. To do this we might imagine a monkey wearing a monocle.

Finally, to remember that the Spanish word for milk is ‘leche’, imagine a family of big, black leeches swimming around in a pitcher of milk.

As you go about your day, test yourself on these examples. To recall them, simply bring the relevant images to mind. What does the Spanish word ‘por’ mean? What is the Spanish word for milk? What does ‘mono’ mean? If you got these all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only a single viewing of each word you have taken your first steps towards learning another language. As well as being faster, mnemonics are much more enjoyable method of learning vocabulary.

Teaching students memory techniques would open up new vistas of learning to them – imagine being able to learn a new language in weeks instead of years as one competitor from the 14th World Memory Championships has done – and transform their relationship to learning. Given how little it would cost to do so, the case is strong for bringing these techniques back into the classroom. The techniques of the Art of memory represent a potential revolution in education, both in the obvious sense of the word, and because, as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.

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.

The Scientist, The Mnemonist and The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

This article was originally printed in Issue 413 (September/October 2014) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Our relationship with memory is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is utterly familiar – indeed, we would be lost without it. On the other hand, many details of its function remain rather elusive. Truly understanding the nature of human memory requires a multidisciplinary approach. In my capacity as a memory athlete I’ve had a chance to meet memory experts from a range of different backgrounds. Here I interview Ed Cooke, an expert in the Art of Memory, Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology from Washington University and Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, whose remarkable story is recorded in her book “The Woman Who Changed Her brain”.

Ed Cooke is a Grand Master of Memory; he is capable of memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, more than a thousand random digits in an hour and at least ten decks of cards in an hour. Additionally, he is the founder of Memrise, a free online educational platform that uses memory techniques to optimise learning. Ed has also spent time in Australia studying the philosophy of cricket at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Henry L. Roediger, III is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Roediger’s research has centred on human learning and memory and he has published on many different topics within this area. He has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of memory. He is also one of the world’s leading authorities on the scientific study of memory athletes and recently published a book called “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” which details practical applications of his research.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen weak areas of cognitive function that underlie a number of learning disabilities. Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s work, has been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime. The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities. This is documented in her internationally bestselling book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.


*          *          *


Kilov: How did you develop your interest in memory? Why is memory important?

Roediger: My interest in memory began early, when I was 5 years old. My mother died, which was devastating, but I discovered I could mentally keep our experiences of being together alive by thinking about them again and again. So over the years, I naturally wondered how memory worked. Somewhat later in life, as a student, I discovered that many psychologists study memory using objective techniques. Cognitive psychology — the study of how the mind works — eventually became my field of study.

Cooke: I’ve always been fascinated by the mind- I love experiencing thoughts and colours- but my practical interest in memory grew from a chance spell in hospital. I got ill and wound up by misfortune as an 18 yr old in a ward of wittering octogenarians for three months. I’d always been quite fascinated with psychology and philosophy, and really out of boredom and a desire to impress the nurses I decided to train my memory. So I got some books, and set about learning all about these ancient arts. It quickly became a favourite pasttime.

I’m not so sure what it means for memory to be important. Or rather- as a general phenomenon it’s obviously at the heart of all human mental life. I guess the reason why its worthwhile training memory is to become better aware of it, and because it leads to learning more and enjoying the mind better.


Arrowsmith-Young: For me my interest was very personal beginning at an early age.  Having severe learning problems growing up that did not allow me to understand concepts, I relied on my memory to compensate for my lack of comprehension. I believe I took what was already a strong memory capacity – both auditory and visual – and supercharged it through a series of practices I developed starting in grade 1 to work around my other learning challenges. I built myself a visual photographic memory for text and a verbatim auditory memory for what I heard which allowed me to get through school.

As an adult, I have devoted my life to working with individuals from age 5 to those in their 80’s to improve cognitive functioning – various aspects of memory being some of those functions.  I see how devastating memory problems can be in people’s lives – academically, vocationally and socially.

Two quotes come to mind that illustrate the importance of memory to our lives:

“Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves. If on no other ground, most Americans are joined in our shared desire to improve the curious, elusive faculty we call ‘memory’.”

— Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology, Barnard College,

in her review in The New York Times of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Dr. Eric Kandel, the author of In Search of Memory, underlines the critical role of remembering. “Memory,” he says “is the glue that binds our mental life together. It allows you to have continuity in your life.”

So I think memory is critical to our well-being.


Kilov: What do you consider to be the biggest myth or misconception about memory?


Roediger: One myth is that memory is passive: Experiences happen to us, they lay down memory traces, and then in remembering we just read off the contents of these traces in a more or less passive way. This view is not totally wrong — experiences do leave their mark in the brain/mind — but there is so much more to it than this simple account.


Remembering is an active process — we selectively encode some information (and not other information) from rich experiences. After encoding, our memories can be changed by later information that can serve to distort (or to affirm) our memories. The act of retrieval is also an active, constructive process. We usually remember events more or less like they happened — we could not exist if we did not usually get things right — but memories are malleable, too, and we can be highly confident in a memory only to have it turn out to be false. That is one of the topics I study, illusions of memory.


Cooke: Besides the existence of photographic memory, I think the most damaging misconception about memory is that it is inert, like a store-house. To state the same idea positively, the most interestingly fruitful way for most people to reconceive of their memory is as a power of action. Memory doesn’t just sit waiting to be accessed by some other part of the brain. It’s present in perception, in language and in thought. Memories change the shape of your experience from the inside.


To ask why memory is important to the mind is like asking why walls are important to a house, or streets important to a city- it’s basically their shape.


Arrowsmith-Young: As I wrote in my book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, “There is no one type of memory. There is a memory for faces, one for objects, one for written motor plans, one for steps in a process, one for phonemic pronunciation, one for spatial maps and patterns, one for body movements, and there is semantic memory for concepts, to name a few. Each type depends on the functioning of different cortical areas within its neural networks.  Anthony J. Greene, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he operates a learning and memory lab, contributed to a special report on memory in the July/August 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Memory is dispersed,” he wrote, “forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions.” “



Kilov: What advice would you offer to those interested in memory improvement?


Roediger: Many techniques exist for memory improvement. Some are formal mnemonic techniques that have been known since the time of the ancient Greeks. Others have been uncovered in more recent research. For example, one great strategy to learn a set of material (say from chapters in a textbook) is to test oneself on the material, to show that it can be actively brought to mind when needed. This is called retrieval practice, and a person should also provide feedback when he or she fails to retrieve correctly. Self-testing via retrieval practice is a much more effective study technique than repeatedly reading text material (e.g., highlighting and rereading), which is what students generally do.

I recently published a book with Peter Brown and Mark McDaniel called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning that discusses many methods for improving learning and memory. We wrote it not just for educators, but for people in many walks of life — trainers in industry and sports, those in the military and in for others in many occupations. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to improve their learning no matter what their age. Teachers have found it especially rewarding, because some of the advice from the research literature is counterintuitive to the way people usually think about learning.

Cooke: Most of memory skill is learning to perceive and trust and exploit the peculiarities of your mind. A lot of the time, we sort of deny the associations we make, aim to bring them under control and normalise them. But really getting the most from your memory means learning to trust and delight in the random associations and meanderings of your attention. If you’re mental pathways are senseless or appalling from an outside perspective then that has no bearing on their utility internally. Great memory is always a very intimate and open internal dialogue, so to speak. One where you’re not just unembarrassed by the peculiarities of your mind, but you’ve no interest whatsoever in what it seems like from the outside.

Arrowsmith-Young: I would encourage people to work on improving memory through practice – it is possible – and current research is pointing to the importance of keeping our brains stimulated and active over our lifespan in order to reduce that cognitive decline that impacts memory as we age. We do not have to associate getting older with a poor memory. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as a result of cognitive stimulation occurs across our lifespan – so memory exercises can keep our brain healthy.


Kilov: Is there anything else people really ought to know about memory?

Roediger: Yes! The topic is huge and fascinating. Consider topics like: Flashbulb memories — memories that are often emotional and seem (but are not) permanently etched into memory; or deja vu — when we seem to be re-experiencing or reliving a prior event, but we know we are not; or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when we can almost (but not quite) retrieve a bit of information from memory. Why? What stops us? Relatedly, there is a phenomenon called the feeling-of-knowing experience. You are asked a question (What is the capital of Croatia?). If you fail to answer it, I ask you to give a rating on a scale about the likelihood that you would get the answer right on a multiple choice test. People are generally quite good at doing this, at predicting how well they can answer the question. So even though they do not know the answer, their feeling-of-knowing judgments are generally highly correlated with their performance on the later multiple choice test. The puzzle is: How does one not know an answer, but then can still show how much he/she knows about the topic and be accurate?


Psychologists study these phenomena above and many more. You could read books (or at least chapters and papers) on all these topics. The field is rich and fascinating.


Cooke: Well, regarding memory training, people should know that here’s no magic bullet that will suddenly change your mind, but rather that there is a collection of reliable ways of attuning and focusing your attention and guiding your mind that together can make learning things robustly achievable – and pretty fun. ■

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.