Memory athlete and ANU PhD researcher Daniel Kilov. Photo: Caroline Hendy

Think you have a bad memory? It’s all in your head

What do Greek mythology and Sherlock Holmes have in common? Megan Dingwall finds out. 

Daniel Kilov had a bad memory. Famously bad. It was the butt of family jokes and a continual source of dismay to his teachers who felt he wasn’t living up to his potential.  

“It would be a lie to say it really bothered me,” he says. “I just accepted it. I didn't know there was any opportunity or method by which one could improve that. I thought it was a sort of natural gift that someone had.” 

So how did he go on to become a memory athlete who can memorise 80 digits in one minute? 

The ancient art of memory  

It’s the stuff of legends, specifically Greek mythology. The connections between memory and creativity that form the foundation of mnemonic techniques can be traced back to the ancient world. The word mnemonic is derived from the same source as Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, who was also the mother of the nine muses, the goddesses of creativity. The ancient thinkers used the techniques to remember speeches, poems and stories.  

But the history may go back further. Kilov says there’s research showing indigenous cultures around the world, including in Australia, used these same memory techniques. “The techniques are even older than the art of memory that originated in ancient Greece. But they're all bound by the same sorts of principles.” 

Kilov, a PhD researcher at ANU, was introduced to memory techniques in 2011 when he stumbled on a book while working in a library. He did one of the exercises and memorised a list of words. 

“I was shocked to discover I could remember all the words, and not only remember them, I could repeat them in forwards or backwards order,” he says. 

“It was the wonder that one experiences when you see a magic trick. It’s like, how did that happen?” 

A few weeks later, Kilov took part in his first Australian Memory Championships and set a national record by memorising and recalling a sequence of 99 abstract shapes. The following year he broke his own record by memorising 115 shapes.  

“One of the really exciting things about these techniques is that, let's say you want to learn piano, it can take years of dedicated and difficult practice before one is half decent at piano, but the memory techniques have a much, much shorter learning curve,” Kilov says. 

“What they involve is creating visual mental landscapes and then travelling through those landscapes and visualising things happening that represent whatever it is you're trying to remember. This technique is sometimes called a ‘memory palace’.” 

Unlocking the palace 

In Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes it's a mind palace; a "mental map", describes his offsider Dr Watson as Holmes begins to plot his way back through a maze of words, images, sounds and places to solve a mystery in The Hounds of Baskerville

In reality, it’s not quite as animated, but it is a journey.  

"Suppose you wanted to memorise a shopping list, you might close your eyes and visualise your home,” Kilov says. “As you travel through from location to location, you'll place various objects that represent whatever you're trying to remember, in this case, the various groceries you want to buy. Then recalling that list is simply a matter of walking back through those locations." 

A study of London cabbies, who must memorise a labyrinth of routes known as The Knowledge to become licensed, revealed the drivers had significantly large hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for spatial navigation. The same researchers did a similar study on memory champions. 

“While there were no differences in the size of the brain in memory athletes, the study showed there was significant activation, again, in the hippocampus – a major part of our brains,” Kilov says. 

“That's because of the spatial nature of the techniques. They are wandering through the memory palaces and memorising, which is not something we ordinarily do.” 

Unless you’re a memory athlete. 

The world’s most obscure sport 

The world record for memorising and recalling a shuffled deck of cards, or 'speed cards' as it’s known, stands at 12.74 seconds. Kilov used to be able to do it in less than two minutes, although his focus now is on improving numbers and, like many athletes, he trains every day.  

To memorise a deck of cards or numbers, memory athletes use the major system, a phonetic alphabet that associates each digit with consonants, and then add vowels to make words.   

"For example, one is 't' or 'd' and two is 'n'. If you want to memorise the number 12 - one, two - we can remember tin, or den, or tan. 

"To memorise the three of diamonds would be 'd' because it's diamonds, and then three is 'm'. It could be 'dome'. So to remember the three of diamonds just visualise a dome. I actually use the Shine Dome,” Kilov explains, referring to a Canberra landmark that’s home to the Australian Academy of Science next to the ANU campus. 

But what if you don’t want to play speed cards, or memorise two Yellow Pages phone books in 24 days like Kilov’s first memory mentor, Tansel Ali? What if you just want to get better at remembering names and faces, or what you need from the supermarket? 

Secrets to success  

Kilov says there are three fundamental principles to effective remembering: mindfulness, visual encoding and organisation. 

“On the Australian $1 coin, which way is the Queen's head facing? To the left or to the right?" 

If you can’t remember, don't feel bad. A coin collector at a Mensa conference where Kilov asked the same question also didn't know. "We're talking about someone who's got an IQ in the top two per cent of the population, is a coin collector, and still got this wrong. And the reason is simple; we never bother to pay attention." 

The next challenge is taking abstract information and making it concrete, visual and easy to remember to store in your memory palace.  

“Then the third step is organisation and this is important because it’s how we organise information when we learn it that dictates our capacity to recall it later on,” Kilov says. 

“What makes the memory palace technique so powerful is that I can just walk into the appropriate room to find information I left there.” 

Plugging the leak 

Kilov’s training as a memory athlete helps him retain information and identify connections as he researches his PhD on philosophical expertise, and he sees enormous potential for memory techniques to be applied in education. 

In the 1880s, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus performed an experiment to test his memory. His study, which led to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, showed that a day after learning something, he had forgotten 75 per cent of it.  

"Trying to fill our minds is like filling in a leaky bucket where the water is constantly pouring out," Kilov says. 

“If people could really see how quickly they were losing information, they would stop trying to fill the bucket. They would patch the bucket up." 

Kilov believes if he can use the memory techniques to improve his recall, anyone can. But he is often asked why, in an age of search engines and smartphones, should anyone bother?  

If our phone or other technology can do the job, Kilov says we should use it.   

"The problem is that when it comes to actual learning, the kind of thing we do in university, when we want to not just be able to recall isolated facts, but actually work with them, use them, array them before our mind's eye and manipulate them and analyse them and compare them and combine them. 

"You can't do that if you don't have that stuff in here," he says, pointing to his head. 

"Merely being able to look up some isolated fact on my phone, devoid of context, isn't helpful for any kind of real high-order thinking. 

"Where these techniques are really important is in helping us learn and accumulate knowledge, and as a result, be able to generate insight and wisdom." 

It’s a powerful point well worth remembering.