Full text of Australian Memory Champion Anastasia Woolmer’s talk: Memory Fit – How I Learned to Exercise My Memory at TEDxDocklands conference. In this talk, she explains that combining the two types of fitness training – mental and physical – helps us to achieve the most out of life.
Anastasia Woolmer – Australian Memory Champion
Three years ago, if you invited me to a dinner party – let’s say ten people – I wouldn’t have remembered the names of nearly anyone around the table.
I wouldn’t have remembered the facts from the interesting stories they told. And so if I wanted to retell any of those stories, I kind of couldn’t without those credible details.
And I really didn’t try to remember any of it, because I knew I had no chance. I, like many of us, had an average memory.
Fast forward to today, and I’m a two-time Australian memory champion. I’m the first female to hold this title, and I’ve got several Australian records.
So my memory for remembering new information now, when I apply myself, is no longer slow or good — it’s fantastic.
I’ve always been physically fit. When I was 15, I moved into south, went to the Australian Ballet School, and then graduated into a career of ballet and contemporary dance, touring across the world.
After my dance career, I went to university. The problem was I really didn’t have any senior high school. I had no study skills, and I couldn’t remember any Maths past about primary school level.
And I had an average memory for facts and Maths. And I was studying economics, which has facts and Maths — lots and lots of Maths.
So I might have felt physically fit, but I certainly didn’t feel mentally fit.
Well, I survived uni, and in fact I did well, but only because I worked harder than everybody else. I was so paranoid about my inability to learn new information quickly that I consciously did three hours of study for every one hour that had been recommended.
It worked. I got a perfect GPA, and I was awarded a Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award. Everybody started to say I was really clever, which I liked.
But I felt like a fraud, because I knew that I had succeeded simply because I worked harder than everybody else. I hid an average memory through over-preparation, and I lived in fear that some new job or challenge that required quick learning would reveal this weakness.
And unlike a good bottle of wine, I wasn’t improving with age.
Then, about three years ago, I read a book on memory sports, I was enthused. These athletes could remember amazing amounts of information quickly, and most of them claim to have been born with average memories.
But these were skills that had acquired through a little bit of hard work. Well, hard work was something that I knew how to do. So I decided to turn my focus towards memory techniques to see if it would make a difference.
Five months later, I was the Australian memory champion — after all that university though.
In memory sports, athletes train themselves in memory techniques and then use these techniques to achieve remarkable feats of memory in competition. So for example, the world record for correctly remembering the exact sequence of numbers simply read out loud is 456. That is hundreds of digits are spoken out loud at a one-second interval, like …three, eight, nine, four.
And the athlete recalls them all perfectly, only making a single little error on the 457th digit. Imagine that, most people max out at about one phone number.
There are equally astounding range of records in all the different disciplines, so there’s names and faces, words, abstract images, binary. I remember when I first started training these techniques, I felt completely liberated.
I was astounded to see that by using these techniques, I could remember new information far faster than I ever thought possible and retain more of it too. In fact, the more I trained, the faster I got, and the more able I was to take those skills to translate to other areas to learn.
It almost felt like how your body responds to physical fitness, you know, you do the work, and you get the results. I remember thinking after a couple of weeks that I was learning so quick. It was almost like I could get a USB with information on it, put it into my head, and there it was; it was incredible.
I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if someone had told me I’d be able to do it.
So for someone who loves learning, this is an amazing gift. I wasn’t avoiding events that might have some quick learning anymore, I was seeking them out. And dinner parties had become a blast.
But there are many parallels that I see between mental and physical fitness as a professional dancer. We get physically fit because we want to live a happy long healthy life — you know, get a big existence.
But if we’re just physically fit, it’s not the full package. We need to exercise our minds as well.
So, I want you to imagine if you could take new knowledge, facts, processes, and quickly and truly remember them. You can. You can improve your ability to remember, given the right tools.
And this isn’t just for competitions, you know. It’s for anything that you want to learn: languages, university courses, the names of all the football players in Australia. The world is your oyster.
How good is that?
And it’s for everyone: it’s for students, overworking high achievers, or all of us who just want to get a little bit more out of our existence.
And yet memory techniques are an unknown skill. They’re rarely taught in our schools, universities or anywhere. The techniques used by the athletes are simply about translating information from something that we can’t easily remember into something that we’re going to struggle to forget, by creating a memorable story.
So it’s about learning differently, learning using imagery and creativity, the thinking outside of the square, and then linking that information together. So we create an exciting visual story rather than remembering a boring list of numbers or words.
Now, humanity has been surviving with visual memories for millions of years, and we’ve only been verbal for around a hundred thousand.
So thanks to this past, we all have fantastic memories for images, faces – but not the names attached to those – movement and journeys or locations that we’ve travelled to. It’s just a matter of hacking in to that existing power, using our creative minds over boring matter.
I want to show you how I create exciting memories out of something abstract and boring: a list of numbers.
Take pi, the longest list of boring numbers there is. It’s the ratio of any circle circumference to its diameter; it’s an irrational number of infinite decimal length, so memory athletes, like me, love it because it’s endlessly random. It took me less than two minutes to learn a hundred digits of pi.
A string of numbers is just abstract and boring and therefore impossible to remember. So I don’t remember a string of numbers; I remember a story that’s full of visual creativity, and it’s exciting and therefore easy for me to remember.
So I’ve attached a movement to every three-digit number from 000 to 999. So for example, if I see or hear a 777, I just as equally see in my head one of those good-luck little cats you see in your local sushi bar, swinging its arm like this.
In my head, I simply build a sequence of movements as I read or hear the numbers, and because of my dance background, I can remember the choreography. I’m simply attaching or scaffolding on new information onto something that’s already easy for me to remember.
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