Atomic Memory Techniques on The Medical Mnemonist

Greetings, fellow mnemonists!

I was recently a guest on The Medical Mnemonist Podcast. The host, Chase DiMarco, is himself a skilled mnemonist so we were able to really dig into some detailed examples and discussions. It was a lot of fun. If you’d like to listen, you can find the podcast below or by following this link: https://medicalmnemonist.podbean.com/e/atomic-memory-techniques-from-memory-athlete-daniel-kilov/

Tansel Ali, Doyen of the Australian Memory Scene

This article was originally printed in Issue 442 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

Tansel Ali is a four-time Australian Memory Champion, Managing Director of the Tansel Institute and organiser/licensee of TEDxDocklands


Daniel Kilov: This isn’t our first interview. Memorious readers may recall our 2015 interview wherein we covered how you memorised the Sydney Yellow Pages in only 24 days, your attempts to bring memory techniques into the classroom and the School Mind Games event, and your use of memory techniques as meditation. However, I didn’t ask you about how you initially discovered memory techniques, or why you wanted to compete. So, what’s the story there?


Tansel Ali: I discovered memory techniques through curiosity really. A friend of mine back at uni had told me he could memorise a list of forty random items and I didn’t believe him. I naturally had to test him and surely enough he memorised every word I gave him in random order perfectly. I thought he was playing a trick on me, however he advised me he used memory techniques and to read up on it.

So, I went and did my reading and discovered a whole new world of self-development that actually worked. I always thought I had a pretty bad memory until I learned these memory skills myself. I wanted to learn more as I was excited about the benefits of having a better memory gave me, like learning and reading faster, and I stumbled across the Australian Memory Championships one day Googling memory training. I asked my friend to join me to enter the competition since we knew a few techniques. To our surprise we both did really well, broke Australian memory records and ended up on national television showcasing our memory skills. The rest as they say is history.


Daniel Kilov: It feels to me that the whole memory scene has changed since we last spoke, with the advent of new organizations and events and even new techniques like Lance Tschirhart’s ‘shadow system’. Would you agree? If so, what do you see as the most exciting recent developments in the memory world?


Tansel Ali: The memory scene has definitely grown, especially in the past few years. This is particularly exciting for me personally as I am not only a memory athlete but someone who is an advocate of the skills, as it has not only helped me but changed my life for the better. If more people can get a hold of and exposure to these memory techniques then they can only benefit from them.

The most exciting development I believe is the creation of Memory League. It makes a seemingly boring non-spectator sport now exciting to watch. Not only that, but much simpler for new individuals to quickly learn memory techniques and get into the sport without having to sit through an hour of memorising numbers and cards. I also have my coaching clients train on Memory League as the short one-minute memorisation bursts don’t overwhelm and provide great feedback for improvement.


Daniel Kilov: Of course, not all change equals progress. Do you think there is anything competitors have lost sight of? Anything we should rethink or revisit?


Tansel Ali: To be honest, I don’t necessarily think competitors have to have a vision. It’s more the organisers and leaders that will have to think how the sport moves forward and what the vision is. I think we will eventually get there, and do believe we can make memory competitions a spectator sport and gain huge exposure to further increase growth.


Daniel Kilov: People are sometimes suspicious of the idea that memory techniques have a real place in education. They doubt they can be used to memorise complex information. I think this stems from the fact that most of the examples used in books are simple lists, mostly. Can you give a detailed example of how you’ve used memory techniques to memorise more complex information?


Tansel Ali: I can understand how people can think that. From my experience even those that have a basic understanding of memory techniques doubt their use in education. I think it’s more than just knowing the techniques. Anyone can learn memory techniques. However, the real skill lies in the strategy. Knowing how to use memory techniques is much more difficult and requires a greater depth of knowledge than just remembering a list. This is where my work as a coach is centred around for people to utilise these skills so they can learn how to learn and implement systems that will help them achieve the things they want with the use of memory strategies.

A great example to give is studying. I’ve worked with many students over the years and it’s not as easy as showing them a memory palace or how to Mind Map. Students need to know how to best use the memory techniques so they actually learn and become efficient at it.

If you advised a student to just use a memory palace and link information then they would essentially be drowned in the amount of connections they would have to make and potentially double up on their study and learning time. This is counter-productive. A memory strategy in this case will allow the student to understand which technique to use and even not use, so that their time is maximised and their efforts are concentrated on the learning of information.


Daniel Kilov: Do you still do much formal memory training? If so, what does that look like? Do you do anything special that you feel has given you an edge over competitors in the past?


Tansel Ali: Yes, I use Memory League as well as my own resources to train regularly. Training clients assists me as well. I usually train different systems, new techniques I’ve developed as well as old systems I’ve revived. My training usually consists of making lots of recall mistakes by memorising faster than usual. This is so I can go back and analyse what I’ve done wrong, how I can improve and get better. I also train with speed-reading books as the visualisation from that helps greatly as well. I enjoy working out at the gym and swimming regularly. I think if you’re going to train your mind you should do the same with the body as well. I also do intermittent fasting and cold showers which generally keeps me alert. Aside from that, I don’t think I do anything special to give me an edge over other competitors. My only competitor is me.


Daniel Kilov: Mindfulness and meditation are all the rage right now, but, of course, medieval mnemonists would use memory techniques to meditate in various ways. Can you say more about how you use your memory techniques as a form of meditation?


Tansel Ali: Since visualisation is a big part of memory, every time I train, I make an effort to relax and use that as a form of meditation. Going through my memory palace and also being in the moment I think adds to that. Otherwise I don’t practise meditation as much anymore as I’ve embedded it mostly in my daily life instead of having a meditation session.

WCA world cubing championships

I have successfully qualified for the WCA world cubing championships to be held in Melbourne this July!

I competed at my first speed cubing competition on the 13th of April. I was pretty nervous. But there was a real sense of comradery and even the really young competitors (who were all waaaay faster than I was) would introduce themselves and chat away while we were waiting for our turn to solve. So I relaxed pretty quickly. I also met some local competitors and will be catching up with them for cubing and coffee.

Rubik’s cube is among the most popular and enduring toys of all time. What accounts for it’s popularity? Here is an answer from Rubik himself (From Ian Scheffler’s excellent book ‘Cracking the Cube’):

The Cube relates to human universals in a very simple and immediate manner. It crosses all cultural or age barriers and disregards socio-economic differences. It is languageless: it never needed a users’ manual, anyone who touches it understands the challenge instantly. The Cube also embodies the tension of our most basic contradictions: simplicity and complexity, dynamism and stability, pleasure and frustration and so forth.

Well said, professor Rubik.
57343562_10161597257980156_1351634450093441024_o (1)

From The Archives: 3 Techniques to Train Your Brain Like A Mental Athlete

From The List TV: Sure, when we think of athletes training there’s usually a typical physical look that comes to mind. There’s actually an entirely different athlete out there working just as hard, but using their brain instead of their body. They are called mental athletes and they put their brain power to the test to see who can remember the most. What can we learn from them? Jared Cotter is talking with professional Memory Athlete Daniel Kilov to get three practical techniques to train your brain.


Memory and Ageing

This article was originally published in StartsAt60 magazine here. I wrote this back in 2015 but for some reason never got around to sharing it here. Well, for those of you who missed it the first time around, here it is!


Memory can become an increasingly important issue as ageing occurs. Not only is there a wide prevalence of memory disorders such as dementia, but even those with regular aging brains encounter issues with memory. Losing keys, misplacing things, and forgetting a name become more frequent occurrences. However, memory is something that can be exercised and strengthened.

My name is Daniel Kilov and I am a Memory Athlete who has actively improved my memory. I went from having a poor memory which impacted on studies and day-to day life to now being capable of memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, and over 100 random digits in five minutes.

This is not a product of some innate ability. It is the result of learning a few techniques which greatly improve encoding and recall.

One of the most vital components of successful remembering is that you put energy into the thing you are 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 memorising? 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 organisation.

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 a friend’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 theatre. We make no special attempt to memorise 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 memorising is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form. An easy way to do this is to visualise a story involving the things you want to remember – and remember, the more energetic (and so more creative) the story is, the easier it will be to recall later.

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.

In summary, here are my top five tips on how to improve your memory:

  1. Practice mindfulness – remember to remember. Most failures of memory are actually just failures of attention.
  2. Think visually. Construct visual mental movies of things you want to remember.
  3. Be creative. Bring colour to your mental stories to transform the mundane into the memorable!
  4. Organise your memories. How we organise information (or fail to do so) dictates how easily we can recall it later. Use mnemonics and acronyms.
  5. Look after your body. Regular exercise and sleep are vital for cognitive function, as is proper nutrition.

Three Great Talks on Memory Techniques


I’ve shared many of my own talks on this blog. But there are many other memory athletes with interesting things to say about the magnificent and messy mental faculty of memory. Here I’ve collected some of my recent favourites.

1. How to use memory techniques to improve education:

This first talk is by Boris Konrad. Boris is a brilliant mnemonist and a talented neuroscientist. Here, he talks about how to use memory techniques to memorise complex information and shares some cool stories from the history of the science of memory. If you want to learn more about Boris or his work, check out the interview I did with him here.


2. Memory as a special form of perception:

Next up is a talk by Ed Cooke. Ed is a grand-master of memory, the founder of the language learning app, Memrise, and a central character in Joshua Foer’s ‘Moon-walking with Einstein’.

Ed is also a philosopher and thinks about memory in really interesting and illuminating ways. Consider this quote from his talk:

“…we should focus on the rather exotic and unpredictable ways in which memory enters into thought and language and the ways in which it’s more difficult to understand the sentence the man played his violin while whipping the dog than it is ‘the man played the violin while humming a tune because of the contours of our imagined imaginations and the contours of our memory'”
If you want to hear more form Ed you can read an interview I did with him here.


3. Mastering Mongolian as a modern nomad:

This talk is by Yanjaa Wintersoul, one of the best athletes currently competing. This talk is not about memory as such, although she shares many memories of her own fascinating life. One of the things I most enjoyed was how clearly she communicates her affection for languages. Check it out.


Memory and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

This article was originally published the ‘Back to School Guide 2019’ published by MumsDelivery, here.


Teaching students to think critically is a primary goal of schooling. By critical thinking, I mean the ability to reasoning dispassionately, solve novel problems, generate new ideas, reason dispassionately and so on. But decades of educational and cognitive science have shown that critical thinking skills can only be learnt when students are equipped with a rich store of facts to draw from. As the cognitive scientist, Daniel T Willingham puts it, “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)”.  

The accumulation of facts requires memorization. You cannot know some fact that you do not remember. Unfortunately, your children are likely to consider this bad news. Internalising quotes, dates, the elements of the periodic table and anything else by rote repetition is painful even for the most dedicated of students. There is, however, a more effective and enjoyable way.

Enter the world of competitive learning and the World Memory Championships. Founded in 1991, the World Memory Championships gathers the world’s fastest learners to compete across 10 disciplines for brainy dominance. Katie Kermode, a high-level competitor, can memorize 97 names and faces in just five minutes. Another, Johannes Mallow, can memorize 132 historic dates just as quickly. To give that some context, they could probably memorize all 29 Australian Prime Ministers in the order in which they were elected in about the time it takes me to tie my shoes. But these athletes aren’t superheroes or savants.  Rather, they use a small set of mnemonic techniques that anyone can learn and apply. In fact, these techniques, which originated in ancient Greece, where central to education until as late as the 17th Century. I’m a memory athlete myself – I’m a three times silver medallist and national record holder – but my main interest is in the application of these techniques in the modern classroom.

Learning even a few simple memory techniques can transform learning into an activity that is imaginative, fun and effective. All the techniques used by memory athletes involve generating creative and unusual associations between visual images. Below are two examples of memory techniques and how they might be used to memorize material encountered in school. I encourage you to read these examples to your kids. Have them close their eyes. Invite them to create colourful ‘mental movies’. Afterwards, see how much they can recall.


Example 1: First 5 elements of the periodic table

To remember the first element, hydrogen, visualize a fire hydrant. ‘Hydrant’ sounds like hydrogen, so is our first mnemonic. Now picture that hydrant being carried into the air by a helium balloon – helium is the second element. Unfortunately, the balloon is popped by a spark from a lithium battery, as lithium is our third element.

Beryllium is the fourth element, so we will imagine our lithium battery bursting into a shower of berries, which are really yum! Here, we are taking advantage of the fact that ‘Beryllium’ sounds like ‘berries really yum’. We are going to use the same strategy to remember that the fifth element is boron. To do so, imagine the berries being turned into a jam which we pour on someone named Ron. Poor Ron! Both ‘pour on’ and ‘poor Ron’ rhyme with ‘boron’ and so allow us to easily recall the name of the element.


Example 2: Foreign language vocabulary

To remember that the Spanish word for rice is ‘arroz’, imagine arrows landing in a bowl of rice.

To remember that the Spanish word for donkey is ‘burro’, imagine a donkey writing at a bureau desk

To remember that the Spanish word for shrimp is ‘gumba’, imagine a giant shrimp dancing around in 10 pairs of shiny black gumboots.
Memory athletes have techniques that allow them to memorize almost anything, but they all come down to creating associations and visual mental images. During one talk, I had the entire audience learn the order of the planets in the solar system using these principles. Mastering memory techniques allows students to take control of their own learning, to conquer difficult material and to develop the skills of critical thinking, all while having fun. Not a bad deal.