The Art of Memory: Daniel Kilov (Transcript)

Daniel Kilov at TEDxMacquarieUniversity

Full text of memory athlete Daniel Kilov’s talk: The art of memory at TEDxMacquarieUniversity conference.


Daniel Kilov – Memory Athlete, Speaker and Academic in Training

So later this year in London, not far from where the Olympic games have just taken place, a group of athletes will be coming together to compete in a very different competition, but one which is no less fierce and which also exemplifies the Olympic model of higher, faster, stronger.

The competition I’m talking about is the world memory championships, where world-class memory men and women will be coming together to perform some truly astonishing feats of mental agility.

To offer up just a couple of examples: The world record for memorizing a deck of cards, 21.9 seconds.

Now imagine how hard it is to memorize the order of 52 cards. Let alone he’ll do it in less than half a minute. Just shuffling through a deck that fast.

The world record for memorizing binary digits is a staggering- 930 binary digits. That’s 930 ones and zeros memorized in only five minutes.

Now to me, it’s astonishing to think that there are people walking among us with these kinds of superhuman memory abilities. But what’s even more amazing and to my mind, much more exciting, is the thought that anyone can learn to do these things.

That is to say that the competitors at the world memory championships, they don’t have any kind of special abilities or innate talents. Rather, they all use a very small set of very simple techniques.

And I know, I know that anyone can learn to do these things because as it happens, I’m a memory athlete. And I didn’t have a good memory in school as we said before. And if you don’t believe me, you can just go ask my team. I’m sure they’ll attest to this.

Last year, after only a few months of training, I competed in the Australian memory championships. And I came second after my coach Tansel Ali, which is appropriate I think. And only after a few months practice, and I also set in Australian record for memorizing the order of apps; 99 abstract shapes.

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Oh, I’m just kidding.

Now when I tell people that I’m a memory athlete, the question I tend to get asked is this:

Why, why, why on earth in an age of smartphones, of Google, of Wikipedia, of ever present internet access, why would I bother training my memory?

And I really like this question. I really like this question because I think it goes right to the heart of the conception we have of memory, and of the relationship that we think that it has to learning.

And so what I’d like to do today, it’s a conception of memories I think we get from school, but we’ve given kind of lists to memorize. And we sort of do it by kind of repeating it and repeating it, repeating it, and drumming it into our heads. It’s a conception of memory as being a kind of dull, impersonal, and ineffective parroting.

And so what I’d like to do today are two things. The first thing is to challenge and undermine that conception of memory and offer up instead a vision of memory as something which is creative, which is personal, which is fun and which is highly effective.

And the second thing I’d like to do is in light of this new conception of memory, I’d like to make a case. And the case that I’d like to make is that the art of memory represents a potential revolution in education.

Both in the obvious sense of the word and also because as a matter of historical fact, we would be revolving back to these techniques.

Because although the world memory championships is the most recent chapter in the history of the art of memory, like the Olympics, these techniques find their origins in ancient Greece.

The ancient Greeks… In fact, a lot of memory was practiced universally by thinkers of the ancient world who recognized that creativity and focus and critical analysis was the kind of thing that could only happen in the minds of a well-trained mnemonist.

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Indeed, the relationship between memory and creativity is even enshrined in the mythology of the Ancient Greeks, appropriately Mnemosyne, which is where we get our word mnemonic. The goddess of memory was also the mother of the muses, the Greek goddesses of creativity.

The memory techniques were then adopted by early Christian monks and saved within the curriculums and cloistered walls of Christian monasteries.

Try saying that five times really fast, gave me a bit of a headache practicing this speech. It meant that these techniques made their way up through the renaissance, where they formed a cornerstone of the education system and were taught alongside grammar, rhetoric and logic.

In fact, it was only with the Protestant reformation, which sought to do away with much of the lush visual imagery of the Renaissance, including the rich mental imagery of the art of memory, that the art of memory was driven underground and replaced with the kind of rote methods of memorization that we know today.

So a quick glance at the history of memory becomes quite clear that these thinkers have had a conception of memory and a view of memory that is completely alien to those of us familiar only with the sort of rote methods of learning.

And I think the best way to kind of see why they cared about this stuff and why they still value these techniques is to actually do a bit of memorizing ourselves.

So today what I’d like to do, we’re going to memorize the order of the planets. And this is a good case because it’s something we all would have learned in school and we probably would have learned the traditional way of just kind of repeating and repeating and repeating and sort of held it in our heads right up until we were successfully tested on it, where we could kind of put it down along with our pencils.

So what I’d like you all to do is close your eyes and in full brain bandwidth using all the kinds of sensory energy and imagination that you can muster, just picture the following story.

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To begin with:

Picture the sun, a giant bowl of incandescent plasma bits of flame flying off. Feel the warmth on your skin and rotating around the sun is a thermometer. And as it goes around because of the heat, it starts to rise and as it rises it makes that noise, that kettles and thermometers making catchup with…. As it reaches the top, it explodes.

And balls of Mercury, which is of course the first planet in our solar system, tumble out across the spacescape.

Next, a curtain opens in the fabric of space and through steps Venus, the goddess of love. And in all of her beautiful goddessly naked glory, she strides across the spacescape and she picks up a ball of mercury and using only the strength of goddess can master, she hails it high into the air.

And the bowl of mercury goes up and comes down, and with a crash it lands in your backyard, which is of course Earth, the next planet in our solar system.

At this point, your next door neighbor comes out and he’s red faced and angry and he’s wielding a Pitchfork and he’s ready to go to war. And this is of course Mars, the next planet in the solar system and the God of war.

Are you going to keep the peace? Along comes Jupiter, the giant wearing shiny shoulder pauldrons and carrying a big shield and a big sword. And standing in stark contrast to his regal and godlike armor, he’s wearing this really tacky tourist t-shirt. And emblazoned across the chest of his t-shirts, three letters- S, U and N, which of course spell Sun, but it’s also the letters for the next three planets in our solar system: Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

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