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

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From the Archives: Mnemonics for Business

Hello, fellow mnemonists.

I’ve got a lot of new material in the works but I thought it’d be a good moment to get a sense of how far we’ve come in the last few years. This article was originally published on ZDNet in 2013 by Lieu Thi Pham. It covers some unique and oft neglected applications of the Art of Memory in a professional setting. Enjoy.


In Melbourne, memory athletes open up shop

MELBOURNE — The Australian Open Memory Championships, now in its 11th year, has spawned a new business: memory training.

Art of Memory in The Age

The AoM project, which aims to determine the impact of memory training on the academic outcomes of students, recently received some great coverage in The Age by journalist Sherryn Groch. I’m extremely proud of our work so far and am excited to watch the program develop this year. I have reproduced the story in full below, although the original story can be found here: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/mnemonics-added-memory-may-power-classroom-success-20160208-gmo945.html


Mnemonics: added memory may power classroom success

Sherryn Groch
Published: February 14, 2016 – 6:00PM

Upwey High students Aviv Dolan, centre, and Rory-Clay Edwards have improved their memories and academic performance with ...

Upwey High students Aviv Dolan, centre, and Rory-Clay Edwards have improved their memories and academic performance with mnemonic techniques taught to them by their teacher Dan Mayes. Photo: Supplied

It’s 35 degrees outside but high in an RMIT University tower in Swanston Street the air is chilled to just 19 – brain temperature. Around the room, nine people sit bent over their desks. Most wear noise-cancelling headphones. No one speaks. This is the second day of the 2015 Australian Memory Championships and it’s crunch time.

In one final lightning round, the top memorisers in the country are going head to head for the tournament title – including students Rory-Clay Edwards and Aviv Dolan of Upwey High School.

They’re nervous, both newcomers to the world of memory sports, but already the pair have broken three national records between them.

A few desks away sits their teacher, Dan Mayes, another first-time competitor and head of Upwey High’s “Memory Club”. By the day’s end, he will have placed third overall in Australia – after memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than three minutes.

While Mayes and his students are quick to assure they are not blessed with extraordinary abilities – no photographic memories, genius IQs or superpowers to report – they do share a secret. It was the same secret known by Aristotle in Ancient Greece and by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages: a 2500-year-old system known as mnemonics, or the art of memory, which encodes information into the memory using visual imagery.

Today, it has survived almost exclusively as the sport of “memory athletes” but, thanks to Mayes, both Edwards and Dolan are among the first people to learn mnemonics in an Australian classroom. And now, with a world-first trial of the techniques being carried out in schools this year by tournament host and former silver medallist Daniel Kilov, they won’t be the last.

For Kilov, it began in August with teachers’ boot camp – the memory athlete was flown to Darwin to train nine handpicked educators at the invitation of occupational therapist Greg Wills.

After more than 30 years working in Australian classrooms, it had been the sight of a little girl racing off to her principal’s office in excitement that convinced Wills it was time for a revolution in education. The girl had fetal alcohol syndrome yet, using Kilov’s techniques, she had just memorised 10 words for the first time.

“She was so delighted,” Wills says. “This was a student who would forget spelling words the day after she learnt them, who was always in trouble, and three weeks later she still remembered them.”

In consultation with Kilov, Wills is co-ordinating four research projects in mnemonics across four schools in the Northern Territory.

Kilov says science shows the best learning methods are “visual, colourful and diverse”, yet students are taught with repetitive, black-and-white note-taking.

And this disconnect marred Kilov’s own path through school.  Ten years ago, the 27-year-old PhD candidate could barely remember to bring his books to class.

But, in 2011, Australian memory champion Tansel Ali took Kilov under his wing for intensive mnemonic training. Within six weeks, Kilov was competing by his side at the Australian Memory Championships.

Having funded his own successful schools program in 2014, the School Mind Games, Ali shares Kilov’s passion for “disrupting” traditional education models.

“Rote learning is brute force,” Ali says. “It’s moving information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory by repeating it over and over. But the short-term memory isn’t designed for loads of information; it’s designed so we know where we parked the car.”

By contrast, he says, mnemonics play to the brain’s strengths. Hard-to-remember information such as numbers and names can be converted into visual or spatial memories – things the brain loves to learn – by making up stories and images to go along with them.

“It’s fun,” says Monash University student Sophie Tversky. She’s just finished explaining how she remembered the name of a particular criminal case by imagining a giant chicken schnitzel holding a knife in her kitchen.

“The case was called Snatzel, which sounded like schnitzel to me,” Tversky says. “These days, I’m always giggling at my notes.”

Two years ago, Tversky trained for a month under Kilov and last year she saw her hard work pay off – sitting a gruelling open-book law exam closed book.

“My friends were giving me weird looks because I’d left my notes under the table but I could see all the material clearly.”

While Kilov and Ali are adamant anyone can learn mnemonic techniques – from law students to children with intellectual disabilities – Professor John Sutton, the world expert on the philosophy of memory at Macquarie University, is not convinced.

“I think the current challenges about memory in the classroom are not quite the ones those techniques would solve,” Sutton says. “My hunch is that they’re not as easy and workable for everybody.”

At Upwey High, Mayes, a former psychology teacher, is still regularly contacted by former students benefiting from their early memory training. But he agrees that mastering the techniques is often up to the individual.

“I teach mnemonics every week to about 20 kids,” Mayes says. “The difference with Rory and Aviv is that these guys took the system and adapted it to themselves.”

Now in year 10, Edwards and Dolan spent two semesters in “Memory Club” last year, intensifying their training before the November championship.

“We didn’t expect to break any records,” Dolan says. “Now, my dad’s telling everyone about it and I’m even teaching my big brother stuff.”

“I think I have a better memory just in general from practising it,” Edwards says.

At Munich University in Germany, memory champion and neuroscientist Dr Boris Konrad is one of the few people in the world to have put his techniques through rigorous empirical testing. He recently compared levels of improvement in memory training between those of high intelligence and those of average intelligence.

“While we did find that memory athletes all on average have high IQs, both groups improved at the same rate,” Konrad says. “So it really shows that anyone can learn it.”

Early feedback from Kilov’s Art of Memory Schools program is equally encouraging. One teacher at a Darwin primary school reported remarkable improvement in two students with “extreme emotional problems”, writing: “It’s a bit like therapy for them and also they’re learning.” Another two students moved up two reading levels after just one month.

Still, Wills knows better than anyone how hard it can be to get teachers “on board with new ideas”.

“It’s the first time this has been done so the education system is going to be wary,” he says. “We’re starting small, testing its value, and the students are loving it. If we can show they’re also learning long term, then I’m sure these techniques will be picked up.”

Kilov is also optimistic. “It’s hard to overhaul a system that’s been around since the industrial revolution,” he says. “But if you give these techniques to students, you’ll empower them to transform the stuff they’re learning into something memorable for them, without having to overhaul anything at all.”

Over in Germany, Konrad is now studying the effectiveness of mnemonic learning aids on university students. His results should line up with those from the Northern Territory program – where student post-testing is due back by the end of first term this year.

“Revolutions have a tendency to come out of nowhere, don’t they?” Kilov says. “In Darwin, we’ve got a small group of dedicated teachers who are hopefully going to be a catalyst for something bigger, a kind of groundswell.”

But, according to Sutton, the biggest spark in the mix might just be Kilov himself.

“One of the advantages of getting that knowledge out into the education system is seeing the enthusiasm someone like Daniel has,” Sutton says. “I think those children are going to benefit very much from it.”

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/mnemonics-added-memory-may-power-classroom-success-20160208-gmo945.html

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 DanielKilov.com 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.


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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 http://world-memory-statistics.com/competition.php?id=auomc2015

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog. Thank you to everyone who supported me this year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 20,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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

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

Memory and elite performance

EinsteinWhat explains elite performance? Traditionally, the achievements of successful individuals have been explained in terms of giftedness or innate talent. Scientists in the early in the twentieth century believed that experts were innately talented with a superior ability to store information in memory. Numerous anecdotes were collected as evidence of an unusual ability to store presented information rapidly. For example, Mozart was supposed to be able to reproduce a presented piece of music after hearing it a single time. According to this narrative, Gary Kasparov’s unrivalled dominance of the chess world was possible only because he was born with the right genes; Einstein was able to bring about a revolution in physics because he was born with an astronomical IQ. Recent evidence from the cognitive sciences, however, has converged on a very different conclusion. World class performers are built and not born.

Modern research shows that the traditional account of genius gets the relationship between memory and performance backwards. Although high performers do outperform novices, their superior memory is limited to their domains of expertise and is the result of acquired skills and knowledge relevant to each specific domain. Research has shown, for instance, that it is facts stored in memory rather than innate ability or IQ that accounts for the mental powers of high level chess players. In 1946 a dutch psychologist named Adriaan De Groot conducted an experiment to determine the source of the skill manifested by high level chess players. The experiment involved showing players of various levels of skill different configurations of boards from actual, though unfamiliar, high level chess games. The participants were then asked to reconstruct the boards from memory. The results were astonishing. Chess experts were able to recall the configurations of the chess pieces with almost perfect accuracy while novice players could only recall the position of about a third of the pieces. Chess is generally thought of as a game of pure reasoning and abstract strategy, but in actual fact, the source of skill of expert players is what they remember about the game, and the way that those memories influences their perceptions of the board in front of them.

Similar findings have been made in other disciplines too. K. Anders Ericsson , the world’s foremost expert on elite performance, looked to determine what factors predicted world class performance amongst music students. The critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in intensive training, which totalled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts,  around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists.  More generally, the accumulated amount of targeted practice at the edge of their abilities is closely related to the attained level of performance of many types of experts, such as musicians. This research gave rise to the now popular ’10,000 hour’ rule, according to which genius is the product of at least ten thousand hours of deliberate study of a particular field.

Genius is not born, it is painfully cultivated, generally over a period of 10 years, but could the ’10,000 hour rule’ perhaps be bent? Could it be possible, without invoking science fiction technologies or dangerous ‘smart’ drugs to learn at superhuman speeds?

Every year, a group of mental athletes from all over the world assemble for the world memory championships where they perform astonishing feats of high speed learning. For instance, the world record for memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards is 21.9 seconds. The world record for memorizing binary digits in five minutes is 1080 digits. Outside of competition, these athletes have demonstrated their incredible potential for practical learning; one competitor at the first world memory championships, a mnemonist named Bruce Balmer, taught himself 2000 foreign words in only one day. Another competitor from the 14th World memory championships famously taught himself Icelandic in only one week. To prove he had done so, he then went on a talk show in that language.

These feats are astounding, but even more incredible, to my mind, is that anyone can learn to learn at the rate of these memory athletes. The competitors of the World memory championships don’t have any special talent or natural ability. Rather, they all use a small set of memory techniques.

The earliest record we have of the techniques that make up the art of memory come from an ancient Roman treatise known as Rhetorica ad Herennium, which was written sometime between 86 and 82B.C.  The Rhetorica ad Herennium attributes the origins of memory techniques to the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, who lived during the fifth century B.C.

These techniques universally practiced by the thinkers of the ancient world who valued the art of memory as a tool of rhetoric and oratory.

Memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks, who used the techniques of the art of memory as tools for composition and meditation and the internalization of the virtues and vices. Safe within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries, the art of memory made it through to the later Middle Ages and The Renaissance.

By The Renaissance, mnemonic training was taught to almost all students, alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic.  Even the invention of the Guttenberg printing press and the relative availability of books had little effect on the status of a trained memory; books were considered aids to recall rather than a replacement for a well-stocked mind. It was only during the Protestant reformation, which sought to eliminate the lush visual imagery of The Renaissance, including the elaborate mental images used in mnemonic training, that the art of memory was driven underground.

If it is remembered facts, rather than abstract reasoning skills or innate talent that gives birth to phenomenal performance across a variety of fields, then the case for training our memories using the techniques and methods of memory athletes is all the stronger. We don’t have to have been born geniuses to develop the kind of memory that would allow us to learn all the things we ever wanted, but never thought we could.