Memory techniques

Memory Athletics: Daniel Kilov at TEDxCanberra

Here it is; I’ve finally managed to get around to posting my talk from TEDxCanberra. This was one of the most exciting moments of my memory career. It was a phenomenal event and I think my talk came out very nicely too.

The talk itself was also illustrated by an audience member:

This image was created by Nick Ellis, an audience member at TEDxCanberra. He did illustrations of several other talks which can be found here:

This image was created by Nick Ellis, an audience member at TEDxCanberra. He did illustrations of several other talks which can be found here.

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

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.

Remember your words

This article was originally printed in Issue 400 (July/August 2012) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

A friend of mine made a trip to New Caledonia. He had been a student of French for some time and was eager to test his skills in a ‘live’ setting. He decided to ease into bi-lingualism with a trip to a nearby café – a scene rehearsed in nearly every beginner’s French textbook.  He ordered a drink and when it arrived he did his best to thank the waiter, offering up his best “merci beaucoup”, believing he was thanking the waiter for his service. Indeed, correctly pronounced, this is exactly what “merci beaucoup” means. The cafe fell silent. The waiter turned red.

“My friend,” whispered a local at the next table across. “You just thanked your waiter for his nice arse.”

Learning a foreign is as intimidating a challenge as it is exciting. Even the most cautious learner is only ever a few misplaced syllables away from embarrassment, or worse, offense. What’s more, the thought of having to spend years trying to commit vocabulary to memory prevents many people from ever attempting this bucket list item. What if one could learn a language in months instead of years? What if it were possible to learn a new word and keep it forever to be recalled at will?

Some people can. Bruce Balmer, a competitor from the first world memory championships taught himself 2000 foreign words in 18 hours. Dr Yip, a Malaysian mnemonist, memorized the entire Chinese to English dictionary and could recall any word and its definition when asked (He could even give the page number!). I watched my own teacher, Tansel Ali, committed his Chinese textbook to memory over a period of several weeks, covering as many months worth of material in that time. Although these feats of rapid learning were performed by experienced mnemonists, the techniques that they used can be very quickly learnt by anyone. The most powerful and elegant of these techniques, I describe below.

The link method

As with any effective memory technique, the key to the link method is to create creative mental images and organize them in a way that allows us to easily recall them later.

What this means is that we need to come up with an image that sounds like the word in question, and link it in an imaginative way to its meaning. For instance, the Spanish word ‘aburrido’, which means boring, sounds like the English noun ‘burrito’ (Okay, it’s not technically an English noun, but it’s one we are all familiar with!). In order to remember that ‘aburrido’ means boring, we might create a mental picture of a man in his kitchen searching for something to eat. He swings open the doors to his fridge and cupboards but finds only stacks and stacks of burritos. The man’s facial expression and body language all point to the fact that he finds the prospect of another burrito to be boring.

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. 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.

The Spanish word for cap, which is ‘gorra’, might be remembered by creating an image of an Angora goat gore-ing two holes in a baseball cap for its horns.

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 ‘abburido’ mean? What is the Spanish word for cap? What does ‘por’ mean? If you got them all correct, congratulate yourself. In only a couple of minutes and with only one 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.

The link method can be made even stronger by combining it with a variation of the method of loci known as the language village.

The language town

The language town combines the method of loci with the link method described above.

To use this technique, imagine a small town you know well, and use objects within that town as pegs on which to hang the foreign vocabulary.

For instance, you might walk into a café and see a man trying to spread a slice of bread with a pan (the Spanish word for bread is ‘pan’), or see leeches swimming around in a jug of milk (leche is Spanish for milk).

Verbs might be stored in a gym and adjectives in an art gallery. The benefit of this method is that it provides an excellent method for recalling definitions. Although we may be unable to immediately call to mind the appropriate image for the word for boring, knowing that it is stored in our kitchen means we can go back and find it.

Armed with a frequency dictionary and the mnemonic methods described above, learning the thousand most frequently used words in Spanish, which accounts for well over 90 precent of the spoken language, presents itself as a fun and do-able challenge. Indeed, more important than the increased speed with which mnemonic techniques allow us to acquire vocabulary is the way in which they allows us to reorient our attitudes towards learning. Rather than having to call upon the discipline and effort required for rote learning, mnemonics offer us an opportunity to exercise our creativity and approach challenges with a sense of play.

Mental Time Travel

This article was originally printed in Issue 399 (May/June 2012) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

– Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

Ask any physicist worth his salt and he will tell you that time travel, for the moment, is confined to the realms of science fiction. Ask a psychologist or a mnemonist, however, and you will get a very different answer. They won’t be able to tell you anything about time as the physicist understands it, but they will both be intimately familiar with the elastic nature of our perception of time, and its links to memory. The way we relate to our memories can expand or shrink the perceived lengths of our lives and let us engage in a form of mental time travel. When our memories fail us, they can leave us stranded at one moment in time.

Stuck in time

E.P., as he is known in the scientific literature, is a man stuck in time. Like Groundhog Day in reverse, time shuffles on around E.P. while he repeats the same moment day after day, unable to form any new memories.

In November 1992, E.P. was struck down by a virus. At first, his symptoms suggested a mild flu, but after a few days he began to have seizures, and his wife quickly summoned an ambulance. The virus, a strain of Herpes Simplex, tore through his hippocampus and surrounding tissue, the part of brain associated with memory. By the time the virus had run its course, E.P. was a man transformed.

E.P. found himself unable to form new memories (a condition known as anterograde amnesia), and, to the horror of his family, had also lost some of his old memories (retrograde amnesia). Joshua Foer, a science journalist and one time US Memory champion who met with E.P., recounts that “when informed of the birth of his grandchildren, EP’s eyes welled up each time – and then he promptly forgot that they existed.” In fact, E.P. doesn’t have any memories after the 1950’s. His memories of his life up till then, his personal narrative, is remarkably intact but in his world the USSR is still a global superpower and internet hasn’t been invented.

Without memories, we would not experience the passage of time. Our memory-less selves would be unable to compare how we feel now to how we were feeling moments before and would be unable to judge the quality or direction of our lives.

Stretching time out

A patient visits his doctor’s office after undergoing a complete physical exam. He enters the consultation room to be greeted by the graven face of his physician.

“I’ve some bad news.” the doctor tells him. “You only have six months left to live.”

“Oh doctor!” the patient replies through trembling teeth. “What am I to do?”

“Stay away from alcohol, gambling and beautiful women.” the doctor tells him.

“Will that help me live longer?” asks the patient.

“No,” says the doctor, “but it will SEEM longer.”

This joke captures an intuition that we all have, that when we are doing something boring, time seems to slow to a crawl and that it flies when we are having fun. Surely, there is some truth to this but if we are to learn anything from the story of E.P., it is that our lives are structured by our memories of significant events.

When asked “when did you get your gallbladder removed?” we can easily imagine someone responding “Well now, let’s see…it was right after my sons first birthday. He is 24 years old now, so it must have been…23 years ago!” We structure our chronological memories in relation to landmark events.

These landmark events are characterized by their affect and their novelty. If we spend our lives doing the same thing day in and day out, one day is bound to blend into the next. We ought to also be guarded against excessive automaticity; we have all had the experience of walking or driving somewhere familiar and of just zoning out; you arrive at your destination but have no memory of how you got there. You were, for that moment, an attention-less zombie, making your way through the world without any conscious inner life. Since this is, as far as we know, the only life we get, learning to be present for it is, in a sense, a matter of life and death. If we want to stretch out time to lengthen our perceived lives, then, we ought to do violence to our daily routines, seek out adventure and try new things and cultivate our capacities for attention.

The masters of transforming the mundane into the memorable are the competitors of the World memory championships. These mental athletes transmute endless pages of binary numbers, among other things, into vivid mental stories. In 1991, Tony Buzan hosted the first ever World Memory Championships. The event attracted the top memorizers of the day, including Creighton Carvello, the man who held the world record for the memorization of Pi, Harry Lorayne, a stage magician who used memory techniques in his acts and Kenneth Wilshire, who used his memory skills to count cards in blackjack. Needless to say, with such a colorful cast of characters, it was a most memorable event.

Traveling back in time

The most familiar way in which our memories allow us to warp our experience of time is, in some ways, also the most dramatic. Recalling memories of the long-since-past allows us to temporarily relive those experiences in a way that is fairly described as a form of mental time travel. In fact, it may be our capacity to do that makes us who we are.

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember so clearly that you can see, hear and maybe even smell it, as if you were really there. After all, you were there, right?

Here is the kicker: You weren’t. In almost every sense, you are different to the person in your memory. You are most likely a different size and shape, cell turnover is rapid (cells in the gut, for example, are completely replaced in 48 hours) and even the atoms that make you up now are completely different to the ones that made you up then. If we are going to go looking for ourselves in our bodies, we are going to be in trouble.

This is known in philosophy as the problem of the ship of Theseus. If you replace the individual components of a boat, one at a time, until it is completely replaced, is it still the same ship? If not, when did it become a different one? Regardless of the answer to this particular version of the puzzle, most philosophers who work in the area of personal identity over time appeal to the causal connectedness of our memories as key our personal identities.

From our own perspectives at least, who we are is defined by the sum total of our life experience, recorded, albeit with modifications, by our stream of memories, the unique fingerprint of our conscious experience. Time, as recorded by our memories, is mysterious and inconstant rather than the precise ticking of an atomic clock. Such is its mystery and appeal.

The rise and fall of remembering

This article was originally printed in Issue 398 (March/April 2012) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Can you list all the Australian prime-ministers in order?  Chances are, neither could your history professor at university.  British mnemonist, Ed Cooke points out in his book Remember remember that “Oxford history undergraduates can freely name an average of only 9 of the 52 British prime ministers”.  They haven’t even heard of more than half of them, and their professors “are not much better”.

Memorization doesn’t feature much in modern classrooms. Schools today deemphasize the learning of facts, most of which are forgotten by students almost as soon as they have been successfully tested on them, in favour of developing the capacity for critical analysis and the capacity to mine external records of information such as books and the internet.  Despite Cooke’s stunning stats, one has to ask, is this any kind of problem? Rote memorization drills, once thought to build discipline and improve the memories of young minds, were shown by psychologists Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth to be ineffectual.  Skill at the memory drills was not transferable to new tasks, and the proposed auxiliary benefits of mental discipline were found to be “mythological”.  So undermined, traditional methods of rote memorization soon gave way to the methods espoused by a group of progressive educators led by John Dewey, an American philosopher who championed experiential learning.  Dewey, and those like him, traded in biology textbooks for student-run gardens and geology books for excursions to cliffs. In their war on remembering, Dewey and his contemporaries were guilty of creating a false dichotomy; reflection on the history of memory and education reveals that rote memorization is a fairly recent (and unfortunate) chapter in the story of memory. For most of history, facts were regarded as important signposts that guide students towards cultural literacy and the act of remembering them was one of creativity and imagination.

The last century of educational reform has been especially unkind to memory.  Memory however, has not always had such a bad rap.  In fact, from the Ancient Greeks right up until The Renaissance, the art of memory, a collection of mnemonic techniques unrecognizable to those of us familiar only with rote methods of memorizing, formed the cornerstone of education; for hundreds of years, students were taught how to furnish their minds with memories.

The earliest record we have of the techniques that make up the art of memory come from an ancient Roman treatise known as Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was written sometime between 86 and 82B.C.  The Rhetorica ad Herennium attributes the origins of memory techniques to the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, who lived during the fifth century B.C.

Legend has it that Simonides was invited to perform at the banquet of a nobleman of Thessaly. During his performance, the poet sang praise to the twin gods, Castor and Pollux.  This was apparently a faux pas in Ancient Greece and when the performance was complete, the nobleman told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed fee, and that he would have to extract the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned.

Simonedes was then summoned outside by a mysterious messenger.  As he exited the banquet hall it collapsed, crushing everyone inside. The great tragedy for the Greeks did not lie in the death toll, but in the fact that the bodies had been so severely disfigured that they could not be identified for burial rituals fitting of their stations.  At this point, Simonides realized that by closing his eyes and visualizing himself travelling around the hall, he could recall the exact location where every guest had been seated.  From this experience, Simonides extracted the principles of visualization and association which became the basis of all memory techniques.  These techniques were almost universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who believed that mnemonic training was essential to the cultivation of one’s memory, focus and creativity.  Creativity was an act of synthesis that could only occur within the mental playground of a trained mnemonist.  Appropriately, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the muses.

Memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks, who used the techniques of the art of memory as tools for composition and meditation.  The art of memory became the principle method by which Monks would read and meditate upon the bible after committing it to memory.  Safe within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries, the art of memory made it through to the later Middle Ages and The Renaissance.

By The Renaissance, mnemonic training was taught to almost all students, alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic.  Even the invention of the Guttenberg printing press and the relative availability of books had little effect on the status of a trained memory; books were considered aids to recall rather than a replacement for a well-stocked mind.  The Renaissance did however give rise to a technological trend that would eventually contribute to the decline of the art of memory, specifically, the idea that could relegate the process of our mind and memory to external sources.

Many of us view the advent of smart phones as the latest in a recent trend of technologies designed to replace our cognitive faculties.  In much the same way that the calculator waged a war on mental arithmetic, smart phones and the like are replacing our biological memories with built in recording devices to capture (and remember) everything from important dates to shopping lists and phone numbers.  The desire to relegate cognitive tasks to external tools is not a new one however.  As far back as 1550, Italian thinker Giulio Camillo Delmino published an eighty-seven page book outlining plans for construction of what he called a memory theatre.

The theatre was designed to act as a physical repository of memories and consisted of a small pulpit which opened onto an auditorium divided into seven sections.  In each section, various images and messages would be inscribed, which Camillo claimed would allow the occupant of the pulpit to “be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero”.

Although hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Camillo and his work fell into obscurity after his death and his memory theatre was never constructed.  It wasn’t until historian Frances Yates published The Art of Memory” in 1966 that Camillo’s work once again caught the public imagination.  Yates identified Camillo’s ideas as being continuous with a much older tradition known as the method of loci.  The method of loci is a mnemonic device, the earliest textual mention of which occurs in the Rhetorica ad Herennium and involves travelling through a mental location in order to place and later recall information one wished to memorize.  This mental technique is often considered the crowning jewel of the art of memory, and Camillo viewed his memory theatre as the next great innovation in memory techniques.  In his view, the creation of a physical memory locus meant would allow a person with no prior education in a subject to instantly gain literacy by glancing around the memory theatre.  This idea has striking parallels to the today common practice of pulling out one’s phone to look things up on Wikipedia.

The idea that we might relegate our cognitive workload to technological devices is far from new and far from being an apocalyptic horseman, smart phones represent the latest in a fascinating historical tradition that, at its core, seeks to expand rather than eliminate the human mind.

Only a few years after the Camillo published his plans for a memory theatre, the art of memory became the target of religious prosecution that signalled its decline and eventual removal from education systems.  In 1584 in England, the Puritans launched a fervent campaign against the art of memory because of its frequent use of sexual, violent and absurd thoughts which proved to be a wounding, but not fatal skirmish to the tradition of mnemonic training.  The art of memory again became a target of religious attack during the Protestant reformation, which sought to eliminate the lush visual imagery of The Renaissance, including the elaborate mental images used in mnemonic training.  Memory in education eventually turned a full 180 degrees.  Mnemonic practice, which depended on the creative and mindful painting of mental pictures, was replaced with rote repetition.  Memorization went from being an intrinsically rewarding activity to being a task that elicited boredom at best, and reluctance at worst.

Certainly, the removal of rote memory drills from our schools is a wonderful development.  Aside from being time consuming and ineffective, rote learning does nothing to instil students with a sense of wonder of the world and a hunger for knowledge.  There is however, a sense in which the suspicion of memorizing facts in education, originally motivated by a desire to improve students’  understanding of the things they studied, has taken on a life of its own and gone too far. When I explain what I do as a competitive mnemonist and memory coach, I often use the terms “memorize” and “learn” interchangeably, and never gave it much thought until one day, a friend of mine, an excellent primary school teacher, made the point that remembering, does not equate to understanding.  This is sometimes true.  Students often rote learn complex mathematical equations without really comprehending how they work. Similarly, one can memorize by rote a song or a prayer in a foreign language without having any idea what it means, or even being able to parse it into distinct words or sentences.  Indeed, this is exactly what I did when I read from the Torah at my Bar-mitzvah.

This criticism, an almost reflexive response of many teachers to the idea of bringing memory back into the classroom, does not hold for the mnemonic skills that make up the art of memory.  To begin with, there are some cases in which mere remembering does constitute understanding.  If I remember that the French word for ‘butterfly’ is ‘papillon’, I understand butterfly in French.  This may seem like a fairly basic kind of understanding, but it can get us a surprisingly long way – the vocabulary for languages, an understanding of the chemical composition of water (I remember that water is H2O) and similar facts are all things which are understood when they are remembered.

But there are deeper ways in which the art of memory aids in the understanding of material.  A key principle of all memory techniques is association.  Skilled mnemonists are masters at recognising and creating connections between things.  This allows them to see how new pieces of information fit into the bigger picture, like a piece of a puzzle.  Just like a puzzle, the more pieces you have already the easier it is to add new ones. This is why it’s easier for us to learn new facts in fields we are already experts in.  Memory techniques, in allowing mnemonists to take conscious control of the associations our brains naturally make when we learn allow them to skip the learning curve and make things stick.

Education is not merely about memorizing.  It’s about having the ability to retrieve information and play with it, analyse it and synthesize it, but you can’t engage in analysis or creative thinking without having information at your fingertips, and you can’t do that without having it in your memory.  The Ancient Greeks valued the art of memory for its ability to improve focus and creativity, for the way in which it enabled students to transform any subject so as to make it relevant and interesting and for the way that it internalized information and left an imprint on the soul.  Given the objections often leveled against our schools today (that they fail to engage with individuals, that they kill creativity and that they don’t produce students ready for the ‘real’ world) perhaps it’s time for the art of memory to make a return to classrooms.