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.
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.
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.