Late last year I had the privilege of delivering a plenary talk to the 1000 or so attendees of the AMSA National Convention.
From the techniques of modern memory athletes, to the painted mnemonic walls of Campanella’s fictional ‘Città del Sole’, to the encyclopedic memories and mnemonic systems of indigenous cultures around the world, we managed to cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes. I even had time to teach them some mnemonics to remember some bits of the brain! There was also a Q&A at the end.
There is lots of content that I haven’t covered here on the blog before so I thought I’d share. The full talk can be viewed below.
Feliks Zemdegs is a big deal in the world of competitive speed-solving. He can unscramble any one of the Rubik’s Cube’s 43 quintillion permutations in less than half the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 metres (his fastest current official time is 4.73 seconds). With almost a hundred world records under his belt, he is an unofficial ambassador for his sport. What is most striking about this 21 year old, however, is his humility and easy-going nature. I asked Feliks to share a little about his experiences as one of the world’s greatest mental athletes.
How did you first get interested in speed solving? What is it about the Rubik’s Cube that so captured your interest?
I first got interested in speed-cubing when I came across a bunch of speed-cubing videos and tutorials whilst browsing YouTube one day. I’d previously played with a Rubik’s Cube (but didn’t really get anywhere with it), and I was amazed that people could not only solve the cube, but also solve it at incredible speeds. Being generally interested in puzzles and games, I decided to buy a Cube and learn how to solve it with an online tutorial.
What do you find most interesting about the Rubik’s Cube today?
I find it very interesting that the Rubik’s Cube continues to grow and grow in popularity—and that despite being a pop culture icon for so many years, still has a huge place in the world today. The growth of speed-cubing has certainly played a role in its rejuvenation, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. It’s hard to say whether speed-cubing will ever become mainstream, probably not, but I think it will continue to grow for a while to come.
Can you describe the methods you use in competition?
For the standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, I use the CFOP method. CFOP stands for Cross, F2L, OLL, and PLL, which are the four main stages of this solving method. Essentially, this method solves the cube in layers—the cross and F2L stages solve the first two layers of the cube, and I do this intuitively. The last layer of the cube is solved using algorithms, and generally in two stages—orienting and then permuting the last layer pieces. I don’t always follow this exact process, and I know a bunch of supplementary algorithm sets and intuitive solving techniques that I use in addition to the basic CFOP method.
Can you describe what’s going on inside your head during a solve? What are you focusing on or thinking about (if anything at all)?
When I’m solving the cube, it’s pretty much completely subconscious—I’m just executing a process that I’ve practised time and time again. Of course, no two solves are the same, each solve is completely different, but I use the same fundamental process each time, which is why I don’t need to think about it. With enough practice, speed-cubers can rely on their recognition skills and muscle memory to do a solve, whilst doing very little active thinking or problem solving.
In the same vein, is there a difference as to what’s going on inside your head during a competition performance versus a practice session?
Definitely—I generally get pretty nervous at competitions, even after all these years. I try to make my solving as automatic and subconscious as possible, because as soon as you actually start thinking or analysing too much during a solve, mistakes will happen. I have a couple of things I try and do to counter nerves and shaky hands, such as taking a deep breath before the solve, and making sure my grip on the cube is solid and doesn’t slip.
In an interview, you gave about your performance at the 2015 World Rubik’s Cube Championships, you said that you recognized after the fact that you’d made a mistake. Did you mean that you realized only after you finished the solve or after you’d moved the piece?
Ah yes, on the third solve in the finals (actually my fastest solve), I could have saved about 10 moves on the solve if I recognised a certain last layer case and executed it in one algorithm. Instead I performed two algorithms (although they were two very easy and fast cases).
New records seem to get set every competition—you’ve broken over 70 world records yourself, right? What drives this progress? Is it the development of more efficient methods or algorithms? New and better finger tricks? Sheer volume of practice or something else?
Right now, I’ve actually broken 94 world records in official competitions—I’m almost at the century! Certainly, there will come a time when progression in world records slows down and the fastest solves are very difficult to beat. In the early part of this decade, records were certainly driven by individual practice and method development; however, you don’t need to know hundreds of algorithms to solve the cube at world-class speed. Equally as important was the development of better cubing hardware. There are a bunch of companies in China that continue to produce and enhance speed-cubing technology and create awesome speed-cubes that deliver better and better performance.
What recommendations would you make to someone new to speed-solving who wanted to improve? What do you think is the most important thing that most people fail to focus on in their practice? Do you think there is anything many cubers spend too much time on?
Like with many other things, it’s important to have good fundamentals and good technique before you go all out with practice to try and improve. The improvement process in speed-cubing involves learning techniques, algorithms, and developing good habits, and then grinding practice to implement those in your solves and get faster. I think the most important thing people fail to do is actually take a step back and self-evaluate. This can take the form of videoing yourself and then recognising what the weaknesses in your solves are, and then doing deliberate practice to improve those components. This is something that can be applied to many things, not just speed-cubing. I think most speed-cubers are actually pretty decent at practice, but sometimes cubers spend too much time doing heaps and heaps of speed-solves without thinking about whether what they’re doing will actually help their solves.
What’s the funniest, strangest, or most memorable story you have from a speed solving competition?
Haha, I really should have a list of these written down somewhere, because whenever I get asked this question I don’t have a good answer—even though there are probably many things! One guy actually said that he would legitimately get a tattoo of my signature on his ass if I was willing to sign it—we discussed it for a few minutes and then decided not to proceed with that plan, lol.
Are there any ways in which you feel like your cubing skills have informed or influenced other aspects of your life? Relatedly, what do you think the average person could gain from learning how to solve a cube?
The biggest lesson I have learned is that practice is the key to just about anything. Things don’t often come quickly and easily without a lot of hard work and dedication. I apply this to other things including my studies and occasionally work and other pursuits. I know that if I put in the work and do it in an intelligent manner then I can trust that I’ll get, for example, good results in my exams and other things like that. Being a world champion also opens doors to some cool opportunities both inside and outside the speed-cubing world—I’ve been lucky enough to travel and compete in Rubik’s Cube competitions on all six continents!
The main skills that people can develop by learning how to solve the Rubik’s Cube are things like pattern recognition, memory, patience, finger dexterity, spatial awareness and general problem-solving ability.
What do you wish more people knew about Rubik’s Cubing?
That anyone can do it! You don’t have to be good at maths or physics or puzzles—all you need to solve a Rubik’s Cube is a bit of time and patience! To learn a beginner’s method for solving the cube, you just need to be able to follow some instructions and a process. After that, you develop and improve your techniques—once you understand what you’re doing it becomes a lot more fun!
I thought I had this post scheduled to publish last week but I must have done something wrong. Here it is, a little late!
This week, I’m sharing an interview I did for an Australian TV show called ‘House of Wellness’. In this clip, I teach the host the method of loci (or memory palace), a fundamental technique in the Art of Memory. We used actual rooms and physical objects to make it obvious what’s going on.
Although only one room is shown in this clip, Ed actually memorised three rooms, each with 12 items for his final test and scored 100 percent.
Here is a brief summary of the show from their website: “Welcome to The House of Wellness show – your weekly slice of TV goodness that helps you live, look, and feel well. Hosted by Ed Phillips and Zoe Marshall, with regular appearances from Resident Pharmacist Gerald Quigley, we explore the world of health and wellbeing, addressing your health concerns in an entertaining, interactive and informative format. From raising your kids, to staying fit, ageing gracefully, and keeping beautiful inside and out, as well as the A to Z of every vitamin under the sun, The House of Wellness is designed with one thing in mind – to help you ‘Live Well’.”
I didn’t post much in 2018. But I’m committing now to posting at least once a week in 2019! Each week I’ll share a video, article or interview centred around memory and other mental skills.
To get the ball rolling, here is an episode of Child Genius I appeared in late last year. In addition to appearing as a guest judge, I also designed the memory rounds for this season.
These kids are extremely impressive. It’s all worth watching but the memory rounds begin at around the 30 minute mark.
SBS offers the following summary of the show:
Presided over by quizmaster Dr Susan Carland, Child Genius follows Australia’s cleverest 7 to 12 year-olds and their extraordinary families as they compete for the title of Australia’s brightest child.
I can’t embed the video but the full episode can be found by clicking below:
Note: This article about my recent talk was published about by the Times of India, here. I share it here, unedited. More coverage of my talk can also be found in this article from The Hindu.
CHENNAI: Imagine a loaf of bread soaked in milk, grains of rice bouncing
off an umbrella or a hot boiling cup of coffee being poured over your
mobile phone. Instead of remembering these objects mentioned
individually in the form a list, placing them in a visual and spatial context
makes it automatically easier for your brain to remember them, according
to international memory athlete Daniel Kilov who interacted with students
at Anna University on Wednesday.
Kilov, who has won several memory championships, spoke during the
international techno-management fest of Anna University, Kurukshetra, on
“The language of memory is association. There are two ways to remember – one is through memory for things and other being
memory for words. Don’t treat your memory as a filing cabinet but as a laboratory where alchemy takes place,” said Kilov. He
stated that practising recalling and testing ourselves over and over again was a better technique for embedding long-term
memory rather than even writing. He also encouraged using mnemonic techniques like the ‘method of loci’ which is based on
linking something to a place you are familiar with to embed it in your memory.
The fest was inaugurated by governor Banwarilal Purohit who said the fest will help bring about more industry-academia
exchanges. Higher education minister K P Anbazhagan, who was also present, said the university was taking up all
preparations to conduct the Tamil Nadu Engineering Admissions online for the first time this academic year.
This 12th edition of the fest which will continue till February 3 will feature more than 35 competitive event.
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.
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.
This weekend past I participated in my 3rd memory competition, the 2016 Australian Memory Championships.
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:
Names and Faces
Historic / Future Dates
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.
This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
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?
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.
This article was originally printed in Issue 426 (November/December) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
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!