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From The Archives: Memory for Buisness Leaders

This article was originally published in issue 17 of Acuity magazine and can be found in its original form here. In this brief interview, I discuss the value of memory techniques in a buisness setting.


Remember to think

01 December 2015 – Aaron Watson

Daniel Kilov is a “memory athlete” who teaches mnemonics to help business leaders get the best out of their brains.

1. What is mnemonics and why did you learn it?

I became interested in memory techniques in 2011 as a way of improving my grades at university. To help me, I sought out Tansel Ali, the Australian Memory Champion. After six weeks of training, I entered the Australian Memory Championships and set a national record, securing second place overall. I was also the silver medallist in 2012 and broke my own record for the memorisation of abstract images.

The mnemonic techniques memory athletes use are more than 2,000 years old and are known collectively as the “Art of Memory”. These techniques originated in Ancient Greece and were used to memorise poems and speeches. Today, these same techniques are used by memory athletes in the World Memory Championships and associated national competitions to perform some astonishing feats of high speed learning. For instance, the world record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds.

2. A good party trick, but how will that help me in my career?

I believe we are all mental athletes. In a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused.

I’m particularly interested in the practical applications of these techniques – after all, I was looking for a way to improve my study techniques. I went from average to 1st class honours student and now I’m undertaking a PhD. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.

That said, some “party tricks” are also very useful in a career setting. It’s easy to be stand out (ie be memorable) when you can memorise the names of everyone in a meeting room in a minute or two and repeat their names back to them.

3. Can anybody, even those with poor memory, learn it?

Anybody can learn these techniques. I’ve had students from all educational levels, age groups etc. I’ve never met anybody who can’t significantly improve their memory after a very short time.

4. How long does it take to develop basic skills?

One of the great things about these skills is that they can be learned fairly quickly. As I mentioned, it was only six weeks after I first began learning these techniques that I entered the Australian Memory Championships. My private coaching course consists of only ten lessons of about an hour each. Many of my students have gone on from this course to compete successfully in the Australian Memory Championships.

5. Are there other techniques of “mental athletics” that you advise businesspeople to investigate?

Being a mental athlete is just like being a regular athlete. Top performance requires that, in addition to the specialised training of memory skills, we manage our sleep, eat the right foods and do enough cardiovascular exercise. People often neglect these things when thinking about brain health but these things really are very important.

Interested in improving your memory? danielkilov.com

Decoding Genius With Lily Serna

Is it provenance or practice that makes for prodigies?

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Lily Serna for her new podcast, Decoding Genius. In this episode, I discuss the role of deliberate practice in producing world class performance, and the role of memory techniques in bending the 10,000 hour rule.

More information on this episode and others can be found here.

2016 Australian Memory Championships

This weekend past I participated in my 3rd memory competition, the 2016 Australian Memory Championships.

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Competitors at the 2016 AMC

The field was incredibly strong this year. I had a disastrous first few events and by lunchtime of the first day I was barely holding on to 5th place. However, I managed to rally and eventually secured 2nd place in the competition.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t secure the win but am also thrilled at the high standard of the Australian competitive scene this year. My hope is that this event marks the beginning of a new era of memory sports in this country.

I’d like to congratulate Anastasia Woolmer on becoming the first ever female Australian memory champion. I’d also like to congratulate my training partner, Zeshaan Khokhar, for becoming the third ever Australian to memorize a deck in under 2 minutes, thereby completing the first of 3 requirements for the title of International Master of Memory.

For the uninitiated, this competition sees athletes come together from across the country to compete in the following 10 events:

  1. Names and Faces
  2. Binary Numbers
  3. Random Numbers
  4. Abstract Images
  5. Speed Numbers
  6. Historic / Future Dates
  7. Playing Cards
  8. Random Words
  9. Spoken Numbers
  10. Speed Cards

The standards are incredibly exacting and in many cases a single error can cost you an entire event. In order to be successful, athletes have to memorize quickly, but also with near perfect accuracy.

From the outside, these competitions look a lot like a university exam, with the competitors staring in absolute silence at desks covered with intimidating sheets of paper. But the techniques themselves are fun and the competitors are all incredibly friendly. It’s a wonderful sport and a community I’m proud to be a part of. I’ll definitely be back next year.

Burkard Polster on cracking the Cube

This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Dr Burkard Polster, Associate Professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

Dr. Burkard Polster is an Associate Professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. His diverse research interests included finite and topological geometry, combinatorial designs, group theory and classical interpolation theory. He is also a passionate and talented communicator of mathematical ideas; His YouTube channel, Mathologer, has over one hundred thousand subscribers and he is the author of a number of popular books on the beauty of mathematics. I contacted Dr. Polster to see if he could shed light on how mathematical research helped speed-solvers crack the Rubik’s cube.

Daniel: Experienced speed-cubers are capable of ‘solving’ the Rubik’s cube in mere seconds. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this done by a world champion and it’s an incredible display of digital dexterity.
Nonetheless, I put solving in scare quotes because they are actually applying algorithms that they’ve learnt from books and the internet. As I understand it, these true solutions were developed by mathematicians and engineers, directing the tools of their trade to the problem of solving the cube.

Was it in-virtue-of the Rubik’s cube’s general popularity that it attracted the attention of mathematicians or is there something particularly interesting about this puzzle, as opposed to others?

Burkard: There are whole branches of mathematics that deal with structures that are very closely related to the Rubik’s cube (e.g. mathematical groups which are collections of symmetries that are treated like numbers). And so, in addition to the aspects to the puzzle that can be appreciated by just about anybody, a lot of mathematicians see a lot more in this puzzle.

Daniel: The standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube was originally marketed as having “over three billion combinations but only one solution”, but I understand that the actual number is much higher, at 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations. Can you please try to give me a glimpse, just the intuition, behind how these techniques handle this enormous complexity?

Burkard: The sheer number of combinations actually does not tell you anything about how difficult a puzzle is. In fact, as a puzzle the Rubik’s cube is much less difficult than is generally perceived, mainly because it is possible to find algorithms that just act on very few of the cubies without disturbing the rest of the cube. What this means is that there is a lot of “room” to move pieces around within the constraints of the puzzle. You can make puzzles with a very small number of combinations that are much harder than the Rubik’s cube, for example by bandaging the Rubik’s cube in various ways.

Daniel: I read that mathematicians have studied the maximum number of moves required to solve a Rubik’s cube, sometimes called ‘God’s number’ by the cubing community. Do mathematicians know the upper bound for the number of moves required to solve the cube? Do you know how it compares to what speed-solvers achieve in competition?

Burkard: You have to be careful when you say “maximum”. What all this is about is the following: Imagine all those gazillions of configurations of the Rubik’s cube. Any one of them has a minimum number of moves that it takes to solve it. Now take the maximum number of all those numbers, that is God’s number. Here it is also important to be precise about what you mean by a move (in the quarter turn metric God’s number is 26 http://www.cube20.org/qtm/ )   I’ve heard speed cubers mention that it takes them 60-70 moves on average to solve the Cube.

Daniel: The world of cubing, it seems, owes a lot to mathematics. Have the particular mathematical problems posed by the cube, or the resulting work informed or influenced other areas of mathematics?

Burkard: Not really. You can find quite a few technical papers that have been written about the Cube and other twisty puzzles, but all of the ones I am familiar with just apply known mathematical results to derive information about these puzzles. Having said that maybe check out the following article https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140812-the-musical-magical-number-theorist/

Daniel: Are there any remaining mathematical mysteries to the Rubik’s cube or it’s variants?

Burkard: Sure, e.g. God’s number of the 4x4x4 is not known.

Daniel: I saw your impressive collection of magic cubes in one of your YouTube videos. Are these puzzles a source of inspiration for your work as a geometer? What is your favourite mathematical feature of the magic cubes? Finally, are you able to solve all of your cubes? Would you be willing to share your best time for solving the original cube?

Burkard: Yes, at least for me puzzles have always been part of what I do in life and mathematics. In many ways they reflect the way I do mathematics—I solve puzzles. Yes, I solve all my cubes, I don’t look up other peoples’ algorithms. I am not into speed solving at all. I can solve a normal 3x3x3 in about a minute using a handful of algorithms whereas Feliks & friends memorise hundreds very specialised algorithms to get to under 10 seconds.

Talking To Oliver Frost

This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Oliver Frost, Champion speed-cuber. Photo by Bernard Solomon.

Oliver Frost has set seven world records for solving the Rubik’s cube. Unsatisfied with the standard challenges presented by the puzzle, Oliver’s records all involve memorizing the cube and solving it blindfolded. His interest in speed-solving and memory influenced his decision to study cognitive science, wherein he conducted research on the cognitive profiles of elite cubers. Today, he works as a data-scientist, but still finds time to break world records. In September of 2015, he beat his own blindfold record for the 4x4x4 cube with a time of 2 minutes 02.75 seconds. I asked Ollie what forces drive him and what techniques and strategies ensure his dominance in competition.

Daniel: The World Cubing Association Website lists you as having broken seven world records for solving the 4×4 and 5×5 cubes while blindfolded. What brought you to speed cubing and what attracted you to those events in particular?

Ollie: I was given the original Rubik’s Cube puzzle as a Christmas present by my brother, who challenged me to learn how to do it in under a minute. Of course, sibling rivalry kicked in and I practiced until I was eventually solving in under a minute every time. But I truely got into speedcubing when I discovered YouTube videos and written tutorials of speed solves and speedsolving methods. One particular video of the blindfolded world record (done by Alejandro Orozco in 30.90s) was the most mind-blowing thing I’d seen at the time – my skeptical and analytical side needed to know how it was done.

The blindfolded events were the most appealing to me from then on because you don’t have to turn insanely fast in order to get great times. There are other more sophisticated methods like improving your memorisation method and lowering your move count. But a good turn speed helps too!

Daniel: What motivates you to break world records? How do you maintain that motivation and discipline through hundreds of hours of training?

Ollie: I didn’t think I would ever break a world record when I first started.

I originally challenged myself to go to competitions and win, and when I started to get faster and find more efficient ways of solving I started to challenge the UK national records held by my friend Daniel Sheppard. However, I had a lot of support from the UK community and the wider speedcubing community on speedsolving.com, so I did decide to pursue it properly and I soon realised my potential. I had a fair amount of spare time in my first year of University and for my age and cognitive abilities I was in my peak, so it made sense to at least try and get a world record.

I went for it and continued to practice right into my second year of University until I eventually got it.

Daniel: What does your training look like when you are gearing up for a record attempt? Does it differ from your regular routine?

Ollie: When I train for a competition, I usually practice accuracy and execution speed alone. This is because a world record can potentially happen at any competition, so long as it is official, but you will only receive three attempts for solving larger cubes blindfolded. Ensuring you get a successful time can set you up nicely for your remaining two attempts, as it can take the pressure off. It also ensures you can go home with a prize!

But training at home is a bit more of a stressful situation. I often push my memory system to breaking point, constructing images and rehearsing them at greater speeds that I am used to, with the aim of putting my ‘brain’ into a situation where it needs to adapt to continue. This method allowed me to push my memorisation time for 4x4x4 blindfolded from 5+ minutes to 50 seconds when I was at my peak.

Daniel: Do you think there is anything about the way you train that gives you an advantage over your competitors?

Ollie: I think my knowledge of Neuroscience and models of human memory have served me well in my training. My understanding how the brain processes visual information, audio information, how the brain stores units of information and how it transfers it into long-term memory, is probably better than most peoples. I probably gained an advantage by combining this knowledge into a single system that complements the way I memorize and learn. But anyone is capable of what I can do! You just need to practice.

Daniel: I understand that you studied cognitive neuroscience as an undergraduate student and did thesis investigating the cognitive profiles of speedcubers. Can you tell me about the kinds of tests you did and what you were looking for?

Ollie: Here are some of the tests I provided to speedcubers and a control group to examine their overall frontal lobe functions:

  • Trial A and B – this is a test of a participant’s ability to locate written numbers in a pool of randomly arranged numbers from 1-25, join them up consecutively and do so as fast as possible. I tested them on their ability to join the numbers 1-25 consecutively and also their ability to switch between letters and numbers (so A -> 1 -> B -> 2 for example). This is to test their cognitive flexibility and their ability to maintain two thought streams simultaneously, as well as their ability to locate items quickly and react to them.
  • Spatial Span Test – this is a fairly straightforward test of short-term memory and participants’ ability to chunk visual information.
  • Verbal Fluency – I wanted to test speedcubers’ abilities to mentally shift between schemas and use search strategies to recall semantic and phonemic information under a time constraint. I presented them with tasks such as:
    • Name as many words beginning with ‘F’ in one minute.
    • Name as many alternate uses for a key, a shoelace and a button as you can in three minutes.
    • Name as many animals you can in one minute.

Daniel: Were these individuals successful because of their superior abilities or did they develop their abilities as a result of their training?

Ollie: That is the question I wanted to find out! The results suggest that it could be the latter, that it was down to their training. The number of years as an active speedcuber was a predictor of scores on certain tests and suggested that the more someone practiced speedcubing, the higher they were likely to score. We also found that practicing certain events was a predictor of scores on the Trial A and B and Spatial Span Tests.

Daniel: Do you have any recommendations for readers interested in pursuing a speed-cubing regime as a method of improving executive function?

Ollie: The study could benefit from a much larger sample size and from a more representative sample of speedcubers (the majority of speedcubers are male, white and aged between 15-30, for example). However, for anyone who is thinking of building a regime of their own from these findings, I would suggest the following:

  • Practice for at least 30 minutes a day for four days a week.
  • Practice a range of events. The ones I focused on were 2x2x2, 3x3x3, 4x4x4, 3x3x3 blindfolded and 3x3x3 one-handed.
  • Experiment with new strategies (in other words, do not just learn a single set of instructions). Try planning ahead the next few moves of your solve while you are executing the current set of moves. Search for pieces as you solve others, or look-ahead to the next part of the solve. Experiment with different solving methods like CFOP or Roux, which take different approaches to solving the cube with different levels of intuition.

Daniel: Is there anything else you think people should know about the Rubik’s cube?

Ollie:  That the Rubik’s Cube one day could be seen as something other than just a toy from the 80’s. Yes, it is an iconic symbol of the time, it is a toy, and it is unlikely to be featured in the Olympics any time soon (thankfully!) However, if it is true that practicing a hobby such as speedcubing can improve someone’s cognitive abilities, then there are huge implications for its role in research on treating brain damage and disorders such as ADHD. Just keep an open mind!

Memory and the limits of technology

The advent of the internet and the maturation of social media mean that we are more connected than ever before. The writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote about six degrees of separation in 1929, but new research by Facebook suggests that number is closer to 3.57. That means everyone or at least everyone on social media, is connected to everyone else by an average of three and a half people.

The greater number of ‘voices’ in the crowd means we must find new ways to stand out; we must become better at communicating in creative and memorable ways. And navigating an ever-expanding number of relationships requires us to learn and remember ever more information.

The technology ‘lock-in’

New technologies often require new decisions—ones that can force us down paths that become impossible to escape. A powerful example: the dimensions of railroad tracks. The London rail system was initially designed to have narrow tracks and matching tunnels. Nowadays these tunnels cannot accommodate air-conditioning since there is no room to ventilate hot air from the trains. Consequently, residents of one of the world’s wealthiest cities have to endure stifling trains because of a design decision made over a century ago.

The digital technology situation is often worse; interdependencies and interconnections grow at exponential rates, resulting in technological ‘lock in’. The technologies which created these challenges cannot, in principle, provide adequate solutions. Solutions to these new relationship challenges must thus come from different quarters.

The art of memory

Every year, men and women from around the world assemble to compete at the World Memory Championships. These ‘mental athletes’ compete to see who can memorize the largest volume of information in the shortest time. The best among them perform astonishing feats of high-speed learning. One world record involved memorizing a list of 125 random words, in order, in five minutes. Another athlete memorized the order of 1800 digits in 30 minutes. These athletes were not born with their abilities. Rather, they employ a small set of mnemonic techniques that can be easily learned and applied to any subject.

The techniques used by these remarkable individuals originated over 2,500 years ago. They are known as the ‘Art of Memory’ and leverage the fact that we learn some things more easily than others. For instance, you are probably able to visualize a route through your own home. You may even be able to mentally revisit a place you grew up in but haven’t been back to in ten years—and all this in spite of the fact that you never made a deliberate effort to learn these locations.

Encoding information visually and spatially is a useful skill. For instance, to remember that the French word for horse is cheval, you might visualize a horse digging a hole with a shovel and mentally place this image outside your front door. Other images could be put in other rooms and subsequently recalled by mentally wandering back through your home. This technique, known as the ‘Memory Palace’, was used by the Malaysian memory champion, Dr Yip Swee Chooi to memorize a 1774 page Chinese-English dictionary.

Standing out from the crowd

The same principles which can support our own learning can be put to work in making our own messages maximally memorable—to make them stand out. Do you remember the French word for horse? Do you think you’d be able to recall it so easily if you’d simply been told what it was? In doing so, they are capitalizing on a principle known in psychology as the Van Restorff Effect, which predicts that items which “stand out from the crowd” are more likely to be remembered. Being an effective memorizer then, requires the ability to generate new and interesting ideas.

The benefits of memory training go beyond the improvements in recall. There are many metaphors for how memory might work. People often think of it as a filing cabinet, or a library or computer database. Memory, however, involves a lot more than storage and retrieval; it’s a cutting-edge laboratory.

It’s where we make new discoveries and where the alchemy of coming up with new ideas takes place. This process is rarely methodical. It isn’t simply looking up bits of data. It’s about spotting associations between seemingly disparate ideas to generate novel insights. And like any laboratory, your memory needs materials to work with. Enriching your memories with the aid of memory techniques means that you’ll have the resources to generate new ideas and stay ahead of the competition. For these purposes, our digital memory/recording devices are still woefully inadequate.

Memory and relationships

These techniques can also help us keep track of our personal and professional relationships. Many of us struggle, unaided, to remember people’s names. Memory athletes, however, can learn hundreds of new names and faces in minutes. Here again, the secret is to create visual associations. To remember that somebody’s name is James, try picturing yourself wrapping chains around their head. ‘Chains’ sounds enough like James to work as a mnemonic, but the key is to make it visual, to make it memorable.

The world is changing at an ever accelerating pace. We need to keep up with all the new information and with all the new people. The solution will not come from current technologies. It will come instead from a shift in thinking, from learning to think like a memory athlete—by using the art of memory.

This article was originally published here under the title ‘The Art of Memory’

Finding Focus

“…whether the attention come by grace of genius or dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has. And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” (William James : Writings 1878-1899)

Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows that I wasn’t born with my memory. I built it. I’ve written a lot about the techniques that have allowed me to do this, and the fascinating history of the art of memory. There is, however, another part of this story, ever-present but not made explicit in my writing. Until today.

The catalyst for this post was my inclusion as a case study in Cal Newport’s new book, Deep WorkCal Newport is an MIT graduate and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic work, Newport studies and deconstructs the habits and processes of high performers. His latest book argues that focus is the secret to success in the knowledge age. As he writes,

‘Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time… In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy’.

The capacity to regulate one’s attention is a theme present in all of my writing and talks. Usually I talk in terms of mindfulness; that is, learning to be aware of what it feels like to be paying attention so that you can become better at recognizing when you aren’t. This, in turn, allows you direct your focus back to the desired object.

When I was younger, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Regardless of whether or not that diagnosis was appropriate, I’ve spent most of my life on the wrong end of the bell-curve of attentional control. Since 2011, I’ve worked deliberately and systematically to improve my focus. Here, I’ll share the three exercises I found most effective in moving me from a struggling student to a worthy example of a deep worker. These are samatha meditation, dual N-back and training for memory competition.

Samatha meditation

I was first exposed to meditation at the end of 2011, when I undertook an international academic exchange program at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India. I was studying Buddhist philosophy and from this I gained a deep appreciation for the rigorous, analytic foundations of Buddhist psychology. In addition to our regular classes we were offered the chance to participate in meditation classes. I didn’t go to many of them (they were very early in the morning) but it sparked an interested that continued to grow after I came back and observed the flowering of empirical research the benefits of meditation.

Meditation encapsulates an extremely broad range of activities, as diverse as those captured under the term ‘exercise’. Consequently, meditative practices can be as different to one another in their nature and aims as ping-pong is to wrestling. The particular practice I became interested in is called ‘samatha’. The principle goal of samatha is to cultivate a single-pointedness of focus. Although it is practiced predominantly by Buddhists, samatha actually predates Buddhism and is an entirely secular practice. It’s been the subject of one of the largest studies of the effects of meditation to date and has been found to significantly increase duration and intensity of focus.

When I first started, I would struggle to meditate for more than five minutes at a time. Today, I sit for at least twenty minutes every day. Anyone looking to learn this technique themselves should check out Dr Alan Wallace’s book, The Attention Revolution.

Dual N-back

The second technique in my armamentarium against distractibility is dual N-back. I first heard about it in a WIRED magazine article, which suggested it could increase IQ and working memory (WM), which is a cognitive capacity crucial to executive function and attentional control. Subsequent research hasn’t always been able to replicate the IQ results but we can now be fairly confident that WM can be trained (See here and here, for example).

Dual N-back is fairly simple but quickly becomes incredibly difficult. The task involves remembering a sequence of spoken letters and positions of a square on a grid and identifying when a letter or position matches the one that appeared n trials earlier. I’ve never been able to make a regular habit of N-back training, it’s just too hard. I have, however, done three weeks of daily sessions (as per the original study) several times since 2011. Anyone looking to try this can download a free version of the dual-N-back task, here.

The Art of Memory

The final activity that I believe has contributed to my capacity for the kind of sustained, intense focus required for deep work is training in the Art of Memory. Indeed, this is Cal’s preferred hypothesis. As he writes in Deep Work:

“One explanation for this transformation comes from research led by Henry Roediger, who runs the Memory Lab at the University of Washington in Saint Louis. In 2014, Roediger and his collaborators sent a team, equipped with a battery of cognitive tests, to the Extreme Memory Tournament held in San Diego. They wanted to understand what differentiated these elite memorizers from the population at large. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,” explained Roediger in a New York Times blog post (emphasis mine). The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.

The capacity for sustained and intense focus is an essential part of memory training. Here is a simple example: Consider the most common coin in your country. It’s likely that there is a person’s face on one side of this coin. Which way is this person facing, to the left or to the right? Offering an answer is easy, but are you sure? I’ve asked many audiences this question and I generally get a 50/50 split which, of course, indicates that almost everyone is guessing. Even though you’ve seen that coin hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the course of your life, you likely do not remember which way the bust faces. This is because it does not matter how many times we see something, if we aren’t paying attention, we simply will not remember it. In the inimitable words of Sherlock Holmes, those of us unable to rally our attentional resources at will “see but do not observe” and that makes all the difference.

I’m a big fan of Cal’s work. I’ve read all his books and regularly recommend two of them[1] to my friends and students. Being included in his latest book is an honour. It represents a personal victory for me. I believe that my successes can replicated by anyone else willing to sit down, stick with it and focus on their focus.

[1] Specifically, How to be a High School Super Star and So Good They Can’t Ignore You