Idriz Zogaj on How to Become a Memory Master at TEDxGoteborg – Transcript
Idriz Zogaj – Memory athlete
What if I told you that in a month from now you will be able to memorize a pack of cards by just looking at it once, and that you will be able to do that in under five minutes, with a little bit of training.
And what if I told you that, that is all the knowledge you need to fundamentally understand how your memory and your brain works. And that knowledge will then help you in your everyday life whether it comes to remember people’s names, commit important information to memory and then do it as a presentation at work. Or if you’re a school child who wants to score perfect on an exam. And what if I told you also that this knowledge implemented in schools would change the way we see the school system, not only in Sweden but in the whole world.
My name is Idriz Zogaj. I’m a memory athlete. I’m not some kind of a superstar or anything. This is my alter ego.
Before the age of 25, I didn’t know anything what I know today. And the interesting with the age of 25 is that, at the age of 25 that’s when the brain becomes fully mature. That is, you are a grown up. And before that I knew nothing.
I also finished — well I knew a lot of things but — I also finished my university studies. I was thinking what happens now — what am I going to do now in my life? I’ve always been very interested in traveling and getting to know other people, culture et cetera and that requires communication. So I was thinking OK. I like the challenge. And I like to communicate with people, so I’m going to learn a language, a new language, something completely different from what I know now.
I know the Latin alphabet but I want to learn something that I don’t understand when I look at it. It’s like Arabic or Chinese or Japanese, even Hindi crossed my mind. So while I was looking at courses I could take at home because I was tired of the university life. I accidentally came across a book on memory. And I was thinking, I want to learn this new language the way children do it, by practicing, going somewhere and talking to people and in that sense learning the language. I sort of don’t like grammar, so this was my way of cheating away the grammar studies.
So I thought if I’m going to do that way, I will want to come prepared. So I want to put a lot of words and phrases into memory and then go to that country, or that part of the world. And this book of memory was excellent. Why not start to read it and then see what happens. So I ordered the book and started to read and realized that it was all about – apparently all about techniques, like thinking the right way. And it wasn’t that difficult. I was very picky with the language I wanted to learn, so I was like reading the book, doing some exercises and seven or eight years went by, and I didn’t find a new language to select. But in the meantime I was doing these exercises and getting gradually better.
And another interesting thing about this book was that at the end chapter this person talks about that you can compete in memory. And I was thinking, what they have competitions in memory! I mean this guy Dominic O’Brien had won the World Memory Championships six times. So he knew what he was talking about. But it was competing in memory and I was looking at the level he suggested that you complete and I realized hold on. During this training I’ve actually reached many of these levels. So I thought, OK, I will focus a little bit more and that’s when I started to train the pack of cards and one of the levels was to do it in under five minutes.
And in 2004 I felt ready. At the age of 27, I went to the World Memory Championships in Manchester, I thought why not think big, just go to the world memory championships. I came 22nd in the world. I also became Sweden’s best memory, a title I will hold for five consecutive years.
So when I came back, my friends were looking at me differently. They were like, “when did you become such a great man?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, come on, you just went to the World Memory Championships and competed”.
Yes, but I just read these techniques and adapted them”.
“And I don’t feel different. I mean, I’m the same.”
“Really? But what do you do at the World Memory Championships?”
“Well, we compete in memory.”
Well, every competition is 10 disciplines. It can be numbers. It can be binary digits, one zero, one one, zero zero, one one. Very funny. It can be — can also be words. It can be names and faces, people’s names. It can be historic dates. Do you know that the world record for memorizing historic dates is about the same — is more even than all the days you learned throughout school system, including high school? And this guy does it in five minutes. Imagine that, 12 years compressed to five minutes.
So OK but I think it’s easy if I show you. So they would take a pack of cards, shuffle it. Not the ones that we had before it shuffled. So they give it to me and then while we’re chit chatting, I would start and then after a while the rest may address, when are you going to start? Well actually I’m already done. What do you mean? Take the card the pack, split it anyway you want.
OK, so this is Diamonds of 9. So what comes after Diamonds of 9? What do you mean? What is the card that comes after Diamonds of 9? Clubs of 2, right? And what comes after Clubs of 2? Hearts of 10. And what comes after Hearts of 10? A Two Fives. That’s good. It’s, one is Diamond and one is Hearts. I would say that one’s heart.
So OK. So how do you do this? Well it’s just about adapting techniques and actually I think it’s easy if I show you with an exercise. OK. Look at these two images. Do you see a connection between them? I give you a hint. There is no connection. It’s just two randomly picked pictures. But here’s what I want you to do. I want you to make a fun, vivid, animated story, use all your senses. See how it looks like, feels like, to connect these two images together. And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D goggles. Your brain is amazing, it can do it anyway. It’s projected in 3D. I give you a few seconds to do this.
Here’s how I would see it. Let’s see at the audience where you’re sitting. You see a big signal. You look next to you, you see a big signal. It has a door on it, you open the door because it says welcome, so you open the door and you’ve never been inside a [snap cell]. You go in and oh it’s like I’m in here, why they do that? Look at these two images. OK, give you the same, make a story.
Let’s take the stairs where I came up. And you see a flamingo building a big brick wall. So we have to climb over it. It’s no point but at least three, what do you think? We all know white elephant and you can see a big elephant, you all know why they are strong, why they carry a lot of weight. So — and you see a big giraffe up to the screen and a skier like I’m going to go skiing down the draft neck. Look up on the roof. This is — the last one is a little bit obvious, right, because you see a reptile, they like to be in the sun. It’s quite common, so you might think this is an obvious one. This one I will remember. And that’s a dangerous thing. Because obvious things we tend to forget. I bet I could find people in this room that don’t remember what they had for breakfast. Maybe today was different because you were going to TED, so you had breakfast later or whatever. But it’s a common thing you do, so it’s easy to forget, not registered.
So see the snake with big glasses, a nice drink and enjoying the sun on the roof. And the drink is not spilling. So what did we just do? Well we let our brain have fun and when we did that we focused on the task. And when we focus on the task we let our brains – we tell our brain this is important, remember this.
So first we use – we enforce the power of remembering. And what is the brain? The brain is a biological lump of neurons. It contains about 3% of our body weight but consumes 20% of our energy intake every day. And it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in the audience, standing here talking. What are you doing, it’s about the same level of energy consumption all the time. So it has a lot of neurons. And they like to connect to each other and they can make tens of thousands of connections. This is also why we are all unique. I mean it’s impossible to copy to make two identical brains. So we are all unique and the stronger we make the connections the longer we will remember the information.
So we can make weak connections and we forget them because that’s a natural thing. The brain selects, we always forget. That’s a natural thing because the brain – if you have a normal functioning brain it sorts out information that is not important. But you can tell it what is important and what is not. And the stronger the connections you make the longer you will remember it.
And this knowledge, I would say today that students study too much. I mean the reason they do, I could say that is because many students today don’t know how to put the information into their brain. So they study and study and study and study, it becomes late. They go late to bed, wake up tired. Instead of putting the information in their brain in the way the brain likes to have it. And then they can rest, commit time to the hobbies, spend time with the family and then do a repetition of the information they learn. But if you don’t know that the information is there you don’t trust your brain. And if you don’t trust your brain you study all the time.
So I will prove this to you that you brain actually is better than you might think yourself. The exercise we did before, I do with five year olds. But then we use 30 pairs. So don’t feel any pressure.
Look at this image. There’s something missing, right? I bet your brain fills in the gaps. So if I say wait. You say [inaudible]. Thank you and if I say bricks, you say [inaudible]. And if I say the obvious one [inaudible]. Thank you. If I say door, you say [inaudible]. And if I say ski. And if I told you give them to me in the right order as they came up, what will you do? You would close your eyes, go to the first place, go to the second place, go to the third place, the fourth place and the roof is last one. Give them to me backwards. You just go backwards. And this is what we do at memory competitions.
We just put – now you memorize 10 words. And that’s what were one of the events. To memorize words. So you can go to competition and perform. The only thing we do is that we do it faster and longer. I mean it’s very interesting to note that the world record for memorizing a pack of cards by just looking at the ones as fast as possible is about the same time it takes Usain Bolt to run 200 meters. Think of that the next time you see – you watch the Olympics. When he starts, see how many cards remember.
Now I don’t know Usain Bolt but I know the world record holder for the cards, Simon Reinhard. And I know how much he trains. But I know he doesn’t do anything different from what we did just before. So he just structures the knowledge. He puts into his brain. He looks at the information once. And he knows it’s fixed there.
So it’s all about having fun and letting the brain make strong connections. And then there’s no limits. I have a friend who comes and helps me to organize the Swedish Memory Championships every year. Now if this would be – if we have a scale here of the math, over the math. Here is a person that has difficulty with memory. Here is the normal, you know, this normal — Here’s what most people would be. And here is where the genius, all the super memories. So when she came at first 2009 I contacted the [inaudible] and told them what is your awesome test for memory tests on this because I like to work with a scientist to show them what we’re doing. Because there’s not so much research going on in this area. And that the guy who did the research on her which is actually that guy — the same guy — Solomon. He said like we have to redo the scale because she’s over there. She’s outside of our scale. What she did is like way outside. We have this. How can you do this? But you haven’t studied what we do because it’s like we would invent sports today and all of a sudden people are running, they’re moving so fast.
But we’re not doing anything else. We’re just doing how the way working with the brain – how the brain likes to work. And the techniques are very old. I mean the oldest one comes from the Greeks, the ancient Greeks, several thousand years ago. So we didn’t invent anything, we just packed it into this and it’s the training that has done it. And you can start your training right here right now. The next time you hear something you want to remember make a fun story of it. And you will make strong connections. So happy practicing.