An Anthropologist’s Peek into the World of Memory Athletes

Happy New Year, fellow mnemonists. I wish you all a memorable year.

I’m thrilled to be able to share this article with you. This is the first article of 2016 for AND my post by a guest author. This piece was written by my friend and research collaborator, Emily Colonna, on her experiences as an ethnographer at the 2015 Australian Memory Championships.


By Emily Colonna

“Neurons at the ready!”

The athletes seated around the lecture room flipped over their competition papers and stared intently at them. The jovial atmosphere in which they had interacted before the competition had dissipated. Each competitor sat, poised in concentrated tension. Some with their fingertips to their temples, others with arms folded on the desk in front of them. Only the quiet rustle of competition papers disrupted the silence, although, some competitors went further to ensure it by wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

I, too, had to work to preserve the silence. Otherwise, this would be the first and last time the Australian Memory Championships would allow an anthropologist to sit in on an event. It was important that I preserve observation rights. The Championships was the perfect place to begin my academic exploration of the world of competitive memory.

The competitors at the championships were not born with super-memories. They had all trained, using a set of mnemonic techniques, to improve their memory. These techniques, known as the ‘art of memory,’ were not invented by memory athletes. In fact, they have a history of over two thousand years. Since ancient Greece, people have made use of the ‘art of memory’ to improve their memories. In each historical period, different arenas applied the art, with different goals. Ancient Greeks made use of the art in oration, to assist in the memorisation of speeches. Centuries later, early Christian monks used the memory techniques as tools of meditation and reflection. During the Renaissance, the mnemonic techniques inspired art and architecture. In each period, the application of the art reflected the values of the time.

So in our modern world, why is the current usage of the ‘art of memory’ in competition? What does it say of our culture and values that the ‘art of memory’ finds expression in competition? To explore this question, I arrived in Melbourne on the 7th and 8th of November to conduct observation and interviews with the competitors of the Australian Memory Championships.

The Australian Championships have been running since 2001. The competitive memorisers – often referred to as ‘mental athletes’ in the sports-lingo of the competition – go head-to-head in a decathlon of memory. The Ten Memory Disciplines are:

  • Names and Faces
  • Binary Numbers
  • Random Numbers
  • Abstract Images
  • Speed Numbers
  • Historic/Future Dates
  • Random Cards
  • Random Words
  • Spoken Numbers
  • Speed Cards

In each event, athletes have a period to memorise as much as possible of the given category. There is a short break and then a period of recall.

“Stop Memorisation”

After five minutes, memorisation time ended for the first event: Names and Faces. The competitors turned their competition papers face down and the arbiters collected them. Most athletes kept their eyes trained down. Some covered their faces with their hands, as if to hold the names and faces in their heads by physical force.

“Begin recall”

Again there was a flurry of page-flipping as the competitors opened the recall papers. The room was much less still during recall. Competitors looked around the room, tapped their fingers on the desk, shook their heads, and pulled faces. The scratching sounds of pencils on paper reverberated around the room.

Looking down at my copy of the competition papers, I baulked at the names. In earlier years, national competitions only used national names. However, with increasing emphasis on equality and with an eye to training for the World Championships, competitors now had to memorise names from all around the world. I wondered, how does one go about remembering names like Oona Bosse, Eshita Vidosic and Rakanja Ghayaza?

“Pens down”

Recall time was over. The competition papers were swiftly couriered to the Arbiter’s Room for marking.  As soon as the papers left the room, each athlete relaxed and sound bubbled up to the surface again. Competitors turned to each other and shared their struggles and triumphs. Many looked to Tansel Ali, the reigning champion, to see how he felt he went.

It was amazing to witness the competitors shift so completely between relaxed comradery and silent, isolating focus. It was like they were flipping a switch. Over the two days of the competition I saw this happen 10 times, once for each event.

The Arbiter’s room seemed an alternate universe, the flip side of the coin to the competition room. During events the arbiters joked, relaxed, and chatted. Sometimes it was reminiscent of a TAB.  Arbiters discussed the favourites, past wins, rankings, and performances. Once the competition papers arrived the noise dropped. Arbiter’s took their seats and followed the detailed set of rules for marking. They awarded points for each first or last name spelled correctly, and penalties for the repetition of names, then; they tallied the scores and entered them into the database. Results were printed and blu-tacked to the wall of the competition room. Competitors gathered around to see where their efforts placed them in the race for the title of Australian Memory Champion.

By the end of the second day, the athletes were exhausted. One man joked that he thinks these competitions make him less smart! Tired as they were, a buzz of excitement went through the room as came time to announce the final results.

Competitors clapped enthusiastically for their fellow competitors and their achievements as the scores were announced in ascending order. As it got down to the top 3, the room was tense again- would the reigning champ take out the title again? Or would international competitor Luis Angel trump him?

In third place came Daniel Mayes- high school teacher and first time competitor with a score of 1917. Only 119 points ahead, in second place, was visiting memory expert Luis Angel, from the USA. In first place Tansel Ali successfully defended his title, achieved 2198 points.

Notable also, were the records broken. The junior athletes broke a record each. Aviv Dolan broke the national Names and Faces record at 14 points. Rory-Clay Edwards broke the Random Words national record at 25 words.

With all the official proceedings finished, competitors made the final switch into relaxed comradery. Over the weekend, I had witnessed an impressive display of determination, focus and skill; yet it was the community which the competition built which was most striking to me.

The Championships had brought together people from all across the country, most of who had never met before. Veterans of the memory world, published authors, teachers, high-school students, a bank teller, and a competitive Rubik’s cuber gathered for one weekend to test their mental metal. These athletes shared not only a hobby or a set of skills. They shared a commitment to training hard, a desire to set and achieve personal goals, and a passion for improving their memory. It was these goals that made the day a win not only for Tansel, but for each competitor.

Full Results Available

Smart drugs I The Feed Forum feat. Daniel Kilov

Should we take a drug that improves our memory, makes us more alert, or actually smarter? Australian researchers are trying to find out just how many students and workers are using prescription ADHD pills, sleep drugs and beta blockers for purposes other than prescribed.

Meet a young professional who faked ADHD symptoms to get a Ritalin prescription (and, she says, two promotions), a philosopher who once took narcolepsy drugs, a former Mr Universe who admits to steroid use, and a “mental athlete” who hated the ADD prescription he was forced to take as a teen but now sees enormous potential in the drugs.

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.

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.

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.