From the Archives: Daniel Kilov on Channel TEN’s The Project

Attentive readers of this blog will probably be aware that the Australian Memory Championships took place in Melbourne a week-and-a-half ago and may be wondering whether I was going to post about it here. Fear not. You will soon be able to read a full write-up of the event. In the meanwhile, you might be interested to see just how far things have come for me in the past few years. Enjoy!

A giant of the competitive memory world

This article was originally printed in Issue 416 (March/April) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

OI4A3015Boris Nikolai Konrad is a giant of the competitive memory world. In 2009, he set two world records by memorizing 280 words and 195 names and faces (each in 15 minutes). In 2010, he beat his own record by memorizing 201 names and faces. Like all memory athletes, Boris utilizes a number of ancient mnemonic techniques known collectively as the Art of Memory. However, Boris is also an expert in the science of memory and is one of the few people in the world to have subjected these mnemonic techniques to serious empirical investigation. On top of all that, Boris is a member of the
Global Speakers Federation and travels the world as keynote speaker on memory and the brain. Somehow, he still managed to find time to answer some questions I had about his research as well as his personal journey with memory.

Daniel Kilov: You are, so far as I am aware, unique in the memory world, having reached the highest heights with the Art of Memory (currently ranked 9th in the world) but also having a deep passion for, and understanding of, the science of memory. Today, you work as Postdoc at Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen. How and when did you first develop your interest in memory?

Boris Konrad: It was in 2002 that I saw the multiple times German memory champion Gunther Karsten on German national TV. This was shortly before I finished high school. In the show Gunther trained a German actress in a mnemonic method that enabled her to triple her memory on a short word list learning task. I wondered, if these mnemonics could be worth a look, why no one had ever told me about them and if I should have a look into them before my final exam. I ordered a book and practised the mnemonics a bit and was highly fascinated by how well they worked. After high school and before university I trained those intensively to optimize their use at university, where they ended up helping me finish two degrees in the time of one with high distinction.

Already back then I had the question in mind, how it can be, that I can apply a somewhat artificial method to improve my memory. Shouldn’t memory work best by itself? I studies physics and computer sciences and when I was close to finishing my master’s degree, I had to decide how to proceed. A PhD student position was offered to me working at the LHC project of Cern, which most physics students would happily take, but I could not see myself spending my career in physics.
Coincidentally I was asked to be a participant in a study on superior memory at the Munich Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry that involved MRI investigations. I gladly joined but also addressed the studies` primary investigator, who also was a physicist by training, if he saw a chance for me to join these studies as PhD student. He did and that is how I ended up in the field, which I am most grateful for.

Even better, ongoing success also in the field of memory sports and professional speaking, allowed me to combine my scientific work with a secondary self-employed job as keynote-speaker, “tv personality”, memory trainer and author.

Daniel Kilov: Even the earliest manuals on the Art of Memory, such as the Rhetorica Ad Herenium (which dates back to at least 90 BC), stress the importance of creating vivid mental images when memorizing. However, your research has suggested that visualization abilities, as measured by the VVIQ, are largely irrelevant to one’s skill with mnemonics. This is a radical and surprising result – at least for the world of competitive memorizing! How did you react to this finding? By contrast, what traits or abilities do correlate with success with mnemonics?

Boris Konrad: It certainly did not meet my hypothesis. The VVIQ as you say is a widely applied tool to evaluate mental imagery abilities. I had many of the best memory athletes in the world fill it out and compared that to match (by age, gender, IQ) controls. My hypothesis was, that the
groups differ and that among the memory athletes, ability to visualize clearly correlates with memory sports success. But both were not the case. Additionally in a training study on mnemonics, the VVIQ score did not change much by training and also was non-predictive of success. A further look into that seems to indicate, that actually the activity of visualizing itself activates relevant areas of the brain that in sequence get involved in the memorization process. The perceived vividness of these images than is not important. Some memorizers actually have more narrative or even logical “images” rather than pretty visual ones. One downside remains: People with perceived low visualization ability are more hesitant to use mnemonics that is based on imagery – but my findings say they should not be, as they would profit highly anyway.

The only trait-like factor that was indeed correlated to the mnemonic success was processing speed. On the other hand, IQ was non-predictive of training success. While in general high IQ does correlate with memory and also memory champions (highest achieving participants of the memory competitions) on average were of high intelligence, regardless of IQ everyone who practised mnemonics benefited from them, even in comparable degree. In short that means, that highly intelligent people were also memorizing the most before and after training, but everyone

Daniel Kilov: Brain training is very popular nowadays with websites like Lumosity enjoying great commercial success. The evidence that these so-called brain-training games improve general cognitive abilities is almost non-existent, however. Although people get better at the specific games they play, the problem seems to be in achieving transfer effects to new tasks. One of the interesting findings of your research is that mnemonic training does seem to benefit other areas (e.g. processing speed). Could you elaborate on this?

Boris Konrad: My study was not designed to test this hypothesis, therefore my findings are only indicative and need further work. I only had one measure of processing speed tested, but on that one in the training study I indeed found significant improvements by mnemonic training compared to a control group. However, relevant criticism to brain-training games studies also apply to my training regime, as subjects obviously were not blind to it and Placebo effects probably played a role.

In my opinion however, regardless of a possible transfer to processing speed, since mnemonic training actually trains a relevant ability and not a specific game, I would still advocate for this form of training even if transfer to untrained domains does not persist. For some it might be disappointing to read that even general memory ability did not improve. Even the world’s best memory champions do not outperform regular controls on tasks of working memory capacity or actually any memory task not suited to their mnemonics when not being granted time to thing about to apply their methods, for example when presented nonsense syllables or sequences of letters. A former study (Maguire 2003) also found that in visual memory for snowflakes. While the memory athletes usually state they would do well in this task when having had the chance to prepare for an hour or two, if they cannot rely on mnemonics, their memory is totally average.

But on the positive side, staying on an anecdotal level, it is highly interesting to me, that well more of the memory athletes reported to benefit from their skills in their studies and work-life than often perceived. General media and even some scientific articles often stress the statements of a very small number of early day memory athletes who stated, they would not use the mnemonics outside of the sport and would not benefit from them. This does not hold in regards of the data I collected. This also includes the fact that, most of the memory athletes doing well in competition, are also doing very well in their job or studies.

This also matches my personal experiences: The mnemonics never became automatic. I do have to apply them. But I can do that rather instantly on a good number of tasks and problems and make use of them nearly every day.

Daniel Kilov: Your research supports a number of the theories of K. Anders Erricson (whose research was popularized in the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcom Gladwell as the ’10,000 hour rule’). What insights does your work on memory training tell us about skill and expertise more generally?

Boris Konrad: I found that memory champions indeed made use of their long-term memories even in very short term memory tasks, when applying their mnemonics. This fits well to Ericssons model of the Log-term working memory. By training the mnemonics, a reference model is built in long-term memory that can be used to store new memories rapidly. According to Ericssons theory, experts in different domains also build up these structures related to their field of expertise. As a chess expert can store new chess games and positions rapidly but nothing else, memory experts can store any material they can apply their mnemonics upon.

Daniel Kilov: How do you train for memory competitions? How has your research influenced your training methods?
Boris Konrad: I use a web platform called Memocamp for my training which mostly consists of doing the events and training to gain speed. Additionally I work on my mnemonic codes, so that I know my images for numbers or playing cards even faster. The same is true for the locations I have in mind that I use for the method of loci. Actually my research did not influence my training too much; I only reduced my training on improving the clarity of my visualization as I do not see this as beneficial anymore.

Daniel Kilov: Conversely, how have your experiences with the Art of Memory influenced how you study in an academic context?

Boris Konrad: Certainly it did. The work on superior memory in the past to my experience often missed some points on how memory athletes actually use their methods. Some papers in the field misunderstood this clearly. My own experience also allows me to design tasks matched to the skills a memory athlete has. Of course I have to keep in mind that I might be unconsciously biased and keep discussing my assumptions with memory researchers that know but do not apply mnemonics and constantly do so.

Making Communication Memorable

Mensa has started a new program which aims to organize leadership development in a transnational structure characterized by learning, sharing of experiences etc. Successful applicants will present at the American Mensa Annual Gathering and the Asian Mensas Annual Gathering. Part of the application process required the creation of a short YouTube video outlining our proposed projects. Here is mine:

It’s all in your mind…

This article was originally printed in Issue 396 (Nov/Dec 2011) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

I waited for the other athletes to take up their positions around the competition area. Months of preparation had led me to this moment.  I’d been told that training is nothing like the real thing, that you always do worse in competition and that you can only prepare so much. Already, I felt that maybe they had a point.

I took up a spot beside one of the other competitors. He was sharply dressed and had flown in from Hong Kong to compete – a real professional. My stomach flipped and I turned my focus to my breathing in order to calm the butterflies in my belly. The chief arbiter ran through the rules but I barely heard her, focusing my mind on the task ahead.

‘Ok Dan.’ I urged myself, ‘This is what we’ve been training for. Its GO time.’

“Neurons at the ready…” the arbiter called out. “Go!”

I heard the clicking of stopwatches and for a moment, I froze.

‘Oh no.’ I screamed at myself. ‘Go go go!’

That helped.

I dashed past my mailbox and through my front door, dropping to a roll to avoid a sumo wrestler’s swan dive into a giant dish of noodles. I continued down the hall and grabbed hold of the bannister, using it to slingshot my run up the stairs. I dodged the Pineapple juggling panda-bear on the landing and paused for a moment at the top of the stairs to let a steam engine make its way down my hall and curve on its tracks into my bedroom. Turning the corner I headed down the hall, taking note of the gecko swimming in a tub of custard in my bathroom

Anybody watching me however, would only have seen me sitting quietly at a desk, shuffling through a deck of cards. This was the Australian Memory Championships, where Australia’s best memorizers meet to compete in a battle of the mind. Events involve memorizing, among other things, strings of random digits, decks of shuffled cards, names and faces and lists of random words.

In my mind I was running through a madhouse which represents one of the great secrets of memory athletes and allowed me to memorize the order of my deck of cards in just under five minutes. I was employing a technique known to mnemonists as ‘the method of loci’.

This technique originated in the fifth century B.C. and was invented by a famous Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos. The poet was invited to recite a poem in honor of his host, a nobleman of Thessaly. During the recital, Simonides sang praise to twin gods Castor and Pollux, which displeased his patron. 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 get the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned.

A short time later, Simonides was told that two horsemen were waiting for him outside. Simonides hurried out, as horsemen are the symbol of Castor and Pollux and the poet knew an omen when he saw one.

Just as he got outside, the banquet hall collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were severely disfigured and very few could be identified for proper burial, until Simonides realized that by closing his eyes and visualizing himself traveling around the hall, he could recall the exact location where every guest had been seated.

From this experience, Simonides realized that if he wanted to remember something, he simply had to visualize himself walking through a well-known location and form creative associations between the item in question and a memorable feature of that locus. Recalling the items is achieved by simply walking back through the locus at a later date and noting what was there.

This technique is remarkably effective and can only really be appreciated through experience. Simply visualize a journey through your house, and as you come to each room, place one of the following items there in your mind:

  1. Shoe
  2. Cat
  3. Skull
  4. Tree
  5. Moon
  6. Beehive
  7. Guitar
  8. Hourglass
  9. Kettle

Once you are satisfied that your visual images are strong enough (Hint: use crazy and colorful images), cover the list and see if you can recall the items – backwards! If you can memorize 9 items in this manner, you can memorize nine hundred, provided you take a long enough mental journey.

Memorizing a deck of cards with this method involves assigning an image to each card and then placing those images along one’s mental journey.

Today, this technique is used by memory athletes all over the world to memorize information at exceptionally high speeds. I myself used this technique to memorize two hundred digits in fifteen minutes at the Australian memory championships where I managed to secure second place behind my coach and reigning Australian champion, Tansel Ali. I also broke the Australian record for the abstract images event and am the official holder of that record, after memorizing the order of 99 abstract shapes.

When I first learned about memory sports I had no intention of becoming an athlete. I was, however, interested in improving my memory for study and sought out Tansel, who once memorized the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days. He agreed to help me train my memory, but suggested that my goal of improving my memory would be well served if I agreed to train towards competing in the Australian memory championships later in the year. Competition after all, offers great incentive to improve. Who is likely to be better in his chosen domain? A man who enjoys going for a jog ‘round the park each morning, or an Olympic athlete, training to be the best in the world? I believe Tansel was right, but I now also believe that we are all mental athletes; in a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, learn faster and be more creative and focused. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes are of great use to us all.

Energising your Memory

This article was originally printed in Issue 395 (Sept/Oct 2011) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Energy = CreativityAccording to Greek Mythology, Zeus, the god of energy and king of Mount Olympus, was also the ultimate paramour. He could get any girl, and often did, siring many of the most important gods, demi-gods, nymphs and mortals of Greek myth. The goddess with whom he was most passionate, however, was Mnemosyne, the Goddess of me
mory. Legend has it that their union lasted nine days and nights and resulted in the birth of nine children. These children were the nine muses; the goddesses of creativity. This story, I believe, contains a moral the ancient Greeks certainly knew well – that creativity and memory are intimately related. If you put energy into your memory, it will bear creativity.

The individuals who best embody this principle today are the competitors of memory sports. Competitors of this somewhat obscure sport memorize vast quantities of mostly meaningless information at high speeds – pages of random digits, decks of cards, abstract shapes. The world record for a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds. The techniques these mental athletes use are like nothing one might expect.  Memorizing, for the most part, conjures up images of painful repetition and rote learning of the sort we did at school. The methods used in competition, by contrast, involve the formation of energetic and creative journeys across mental landscapes.

I first heard about these mnemonic wizards during a session on Wikipedia, prompted by a meeting with someone who claimed to have a photographic memory. What I discovered was that there exists no scientific evidence (at least, that I could find) of people with eidetic or photographic memory. In addition, there are good non-scientific reasons to be suspicious of such claims; far from being a super-bowl of savants, no participant of the World Memory Championships has ever claimed to have a photographic memory.

To my mind, this is much more exciting; It is one thing to think that there are real life super heroes walking amongst us, but another thing  altogether to think that anyone can develop such phenomenal powers of memory with the right techniques and practice. I tracked down the Australian Memory Champion, Tansel Ali, a man who once memorized the Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days, and asked him how I might go about improving my memory. To my surprise, and joy, he invited me to meet him and offered to coach me in preparation for the Australian memory championships (and perhaps the World championship) later this year.

Despite everything I had read about these mnemonic ‘tricks’, I was still skeptical. I had never had a good memory.  In fact, my school, trying to help me with my disorganization (a symptom of my terrible memory), put together lessons to teach me organizational strategies aimed at helping  me deal with the fact that I was constantly forgetting to bring things like books, permission slips and stationery. I could never remember to go to a single lesson. Despite my initial reservations, I went to meet with Tansel. At the start of our first meeting, I could remember nine of a list of 15 words, which is average. By the end of it, I could memorize 30. After a few days practice I could memorize 40 words with ease. Now, I can memorize a list of 40 words in just over two minutes and then repeat it backwards.

I am able to do what I do because I understand that successful remembering requires that I put energy into the thing I am trying to remember. Just as the best jokes are those with the most surprising punch lines, the most memorable associations are those that do violence to our expectations. For example, you are trying to remember a shopping list: which is the more memorable mental image, a regular packet of sausages, OR a string of sausages, which, when accosted by a hungry dog, rears up like a cobra and tries to take a bite out of the surprised pup? The point here is that by making the image energetic and surprising, I am exercising my creative muscles and transforming the mundane into the memorable.

So how, then, should one bring one’s mental energy to the task of memorizing? There are three key steps to making things memorable. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is visual encoding; and the third is organization.

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.

The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organization, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of their mate’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to rote learn the layout. 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. Another example we can all relate to: a well-constructed film with an engaging narrative will resonate with us long after we leave the movie theater. We make no special attempt to memorize the movie, but we may recall the film or a particularly engaging or graphic scene with great clarity even years after only a single viewing. Thus, the key to memorizing is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form.  An easy way to do this is to visualize a story involving the things you want to remember – and remember, the more energetic (and so more creative) the story is, the easier it will be to recall later.

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 memorized 12 week’s worth of notes the night before my last exam and felt like I was sitting it as an open book); or just to remember a shopping list.

Investing more mental energy into your memory will boost your creativity, and hopefully, help you remember the name of that movie you wanted to see, or where you left your keys. Memorizing a deck of cards in 21.9 seconds is a little more complicated, but not a lot.