E105 - Memory hacks to make you a genius: interview with Memory Athlete Daniel Kilov

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Edge of Leadership UnConference speaker Daniel Kilov reveals some amazing tips and tricks to enhance memory for reading books, recalling information, committing information to knowledge, and remembering names at networking functions.

Daniel shares critical mnemonics (memory) techniques, explains how these techniques are the single best predictor of top performance in any field and how we can create generations of geniuses.

  • How memory is the alchemy for human creativity

  • Using ‘memory palaces’ to retain vasts amount of knowledge quickly

  • Why memory is the true distinguishing feature for people at the very top of their game - geniuses - and an even better predictor than IQ



EDGE OF LEADERSHIP UNCONFERENCE, 21-22 March 2019: details here

About Daniel Kilov:


Daniel Kilov is a ‘memory athlete’.

He is capable of memorizing a shuffled deck of cards in under two minutes, and 100 random digits in 60 seconds. He's a three times silver medalist at the Australian Memory Championships and holds a national record for the memorization of abstract images.

In addition, he is a member of Mensa and a frequent contributor to the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

He has given talks in the US, the UK, India and Australia and have been described as one of "the nation's, finest thinkers and communicators" His first talk, delivered at TEDxMacquarieUniversity, has received almost half a million views.

Check out Daniel’s website here.


Moonwalking with einstein by Joshua Foer

Tony Buzan - inventor of mindmapping


Anders Ericsson - expert on expertise


Speaker 1:          Welcome to the Zoe Routh Leadership Podcast. Your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader. Influence, improve, inspire.

Zoë:                     Hey, it's Zoe Routh. And we have Daniel Kilov today, who is our guest on today's show. And he's also going to be a guest speaker at the upcoming conference here in Canberra on March 21, 22, which is coming up in just under two weeks. He is a memory athlete, which is a weird thing. But he's a specialist in it. He has got some notable things with his memory athleticism. He capable of memorising a shuffled deck of cards in under two minutes and 100 random digits in 60 seconds. He's a three time silver medalist at the Australian Memory Championships. Who knew there was such a thing? And holds the national record of the memorisation of abstract images. Which is, again, very strange.

Zoë:                     So, he's also pretty smart. He's a member of Mensa and a frequent contributor to the Australian Mensa magazine TableAus. He's given talks in the US, UK, India, and Australia. He's done a TEDx talk at Concordia University and he has been described as one of the nation's finest thinkers and communicators. Isn't that nice to have an accolade like that to your name? Good on you. So, welcome Daniel.

Daniel:                Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Zoë:                     That's good. I'm glad you're glad to be here. I'm so glad we met. And I'm really curious about this memory athlete thing. So what is it and what led you to become a memory athlete?

Daniel:                Yeah, so the ... As for what it is, it's basically the world's weirdest sport, or certainly one of them. And also probably the most boring as a static sport. 'Cause basically, what we memory athletes do is we get together once a year for the Australian National Championships. And there are other associated competitions around the world. And then, we kind of try and cram as much useless information into our heads as quickly as we possibly can. So we do things like memorise fictional names and faces, fictional historic dates, binary digits, random numbers. Shuffled decks of cards and so on. But the techniques that we use ... So the memory competitions themselves are fairly young. They've just been around since the sort of early 1990s. But the techniques we use are actually thousands of years old. They originated in Ancient Greece.

Daniel:                And for most of human history, they've been used not just for kind of cool party tricks. Well, okay, maybe cool is stretching it a bit. But not just for party tricks but really for kind of very serious learning and serious scholarly pursuits. And that's kind of how I developed an interest. I wasn't so much looking to break records and win competitions, what I was looking for was a kind of practical set of tools that could significantly improve my memory, for practical purposes, mostly for study in university and so on.

Zoë:                     So you wanted to be able to recall and remember stuff better and that sort of led you down to this funny world of memorising random facts, and fake facts as well. So do we really need to remember stuff that much? Because, given that we can google anything, and I don't know what's university's like these days actually, if you have to like just regurgitate facts and that sort of thing. Is it really still an important skill to have?

Daniel:                Yeah. So I think that's an excellent question, and I love this question because I think it goes right to the heart of how we think about memory, and how we think about learning and the relationship between the two of these things. And you know, I think that there are some things that we don't have to worry about remembering anymore. There are some things our phone remembers really, really well. My phone does a fantastic job of remembering phone numbers and it does a fantastic job of remembering shopping lists and so on.

Daniel:                But think about any kind of higher order thinking. If you want to, say, be able to think creatively and critically about a particular piece of literature, or if find you want to be able to spot subtle changes in the blooming patterns of a particular plant, for this you really have to have knowledge. And you can't know things that you don't remember. You know, to give another kind of example, suppose you were having a heart surgery. You really wouldn't want your heart surgeon to be looking a YouTube tutorial on his phone with one hand, the scalpel in the other.

Daniel:                We tend to think of memory as files on a computer that we just pull up when we need them, but this is the wrong metaphor. The things that we know, the things that are stored in our memories constantly enliven and shape the way that we view the world. So a better metaphor for memory is to think of it as the laboratory where the alchemy of human creativity takes place.

Zoë:                     Oh, can we just pause on that for a second. That was such a beautiful metaphor. "Laboratory of human alchemy of creativity." Love it. Okay, thank you, that was just wonderful.

Daniel:                Yeah, no worries. And the thing is, like any laboratory, the more stocked it is with resources, the more experiments and interesting results it can produce. And this is how our memories work. They aren't so much things that we sort of pull up just at a particular point in time, but the whole kind of tapestry of our experience is informed by what we know, by what we have in memory. And so our skills, our ability to skilfully interact with the world, crucially also depends on having deep wells of knowledge from which to draw.

Zoë:                     I love that.

Daniel:                Yeah. And so I think that's why ... I mean, look, again, so I have lots of books on my shelves on various topics. But they're really only useful to me once I've read them, once I've kind of internalized that knowledge. That's when it becomes something that I can kind of use to be creative with, to think laterally, to generate new ideas and so on.

Zoë:                     So that's an interesting point I'd like to know more about actually. When you're reading books, do you employ memory techniques to commit the content to memory? Tell me about that.

Daniel:                Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah. And as I say, a lot of people when they first encounter this stuff, they ... Particularly if their first contact with memory techniques is from the competitions, they get the impression that this is really just a form of kind of mental peacocking. It's a little bit of mental gymnastics that's kind of very impressive to look at, but ultimately fairly useless. And as I say, you know, I think a kind of important curative for this is to take a look at the history of these techniques.

Daniel:                So Thomas Aquinas for example, the great philosopher and theologian in the Middle Ages, he composed his entire Summa Theologica, his like greatest work, entirely in his head using these memory techniques. And he would dictate to six scribes independently different parts of different chapters, again from memory. So he'd start dictating one chapter to one scribe and as they were finishing writing it down, he'd turn to another and start to dictate it to them.

Daniel:                So these techniques, historically, we used for ... Were used basically by the kind of greatest thinkers of human history. Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, all the way through until the Renaissance really for really difficult intellectual heavy lifting. And so I use these techniques all the time in my own work as a researcher, as a PhD student, as an aspiring academic and philosopher to, yeah, remember the findings of various studies, to remember complex ideas, to remember as well the relations between ideas.

Daniel:                And so as I'm reading a book ... Well, sometimes I will memorise as I go. I'll create the various pneumonic images that will help me recall that information. Other times I'll take notes with a mind to converting those into pneumonic images later on. And so the attitude that I take towards note taking is not that I'm kind of producing something that I am going to kind of then use as a reference later on. Rather, I'm creating notes just as a kind of intermediary step before I commit them to memory.

Zoë:                     Alright. So that part, the process where you're taking notes, are you talking about written notes? Or do you highlight in a Kindle? Or what's the note taking process look like?

Daniel:                Yeah. So it varies depending on the kind of medium I'm studying with. But my preferred method, actually, is to build mind maps of the stuff that I'm reading. So my mapping as a technique was actually invented by a man named Tony Buzan, who was the founder of the World Memory Championships.

Zoë:                     Really?

Daniel:                Yeah. And the reason he invented mind mapping was because he was learning all these things about how memory works, the things that work well when you're trying to memorise. That you want to have colour and non-linear associations. And this kind of ... So yeah, basically this idea that association is the language of memory and that memory is like fundamentally visual, right? Now, suppose that you wanted to take all the things that works well in memory, and you wanted to do the opposite of them. What you'd do is you wouldn't have any colour, you wouldn't have pictures, you'd just have text and it'd just be all monochrome, right? And as then making these non-linear associations between different topics, you would just go from left to right, up to down. Something like that. Some arbitrary sort of ... comparatively arbitrary sort of thing.

Daniel:                And that's in fact exactly how we take notes normally. So the standard method of taking notes is completely antithetical to what we know about how memory works. And so the idea behind mind mapping was to try and develop a note taking that effectively cohered better with the insights provided by memory techniques and memory athletes and mnemonists across the ages.

Zoë:                     That's so cool. And you're gonna have to unpack this word pneumonics, I don't even know if I pronounced it properly, for listeners to get ... What does that mean, actually?

Daniel:                Yeah, so a pneumonic is just anything that aids ... any device that aids in memory. So often when we talk about pneumonics today, we're talking about verbal acronyms that we might use to remember, say, the planets in order or the kind of things that might have been taught at school. But, of course, this category is much broader and includes these techniques that, as I say, today are used by memory athletes, but historically have been used in much broader contexts.

Daniel:                The word itself comes from the name of the Greek god, the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne. Who, as a lovely aside, was the mother of the Muses, the Greek goddesses of creativity. So even in the mind of the ancient Greeks, there was this close relationship between memory on the one hand and creativity on the other.

Zoë:                     Yeah, that's really cool. So, pneumonics, you talk about acronyms as one pneumonic methodology. Do you think acronyms actually work?

Daniel:                No, not really. The reason that they don't work ... I think that they can be useful under a certain fairly limited set of circumstances. In particular, they work well when you already know the information and you just need an aide for retrieval. So, to give an example, I have this pneumonic I remember from high school. And I remember the pneumonic, the acronym. The acronym was Mrs. Skins. And I even remember what the acronym was for. It was to help me remember the elements of a religion according to the comparative theologian, Professor Nidian Smart. So I remember the acronym.

Zoë:                     Are you serious?

Daniel:                I remember what the acronym was supposed to help me remember. But I can't actually remember any of the elements that the acronym is supposed to help me recall. And so the problem is that it's only useful if you really already have that stuff nailed. By contrast, the techniques that memory athletes use are nothing like that. The techniques we use are all kind of much more elaborate, much more visual. And I can talk about those in a moment. But pneumonics can be useful. Sorry, these kind of acronyms can be useful, but they really don't exhaust the resources available to us.

Zoë:                     Okay. So let's get into the good stuff then. Like you said that a lot of memory athletes use visual techniques and you were starting to allude to that when you're taking notes for books and you're min mapping as sort of a place keeper for then developing the visual pneumonics.

Daniel:                Pneumonics, yeah.

Zoë:                     Pneumonics. God, I can't get the right ... Just spell it out. Tell me about that. 'Cause the visual thing, like I have clients who say that they don't have really great imaginations. They have a hard time picturing things. Can you talk us through this particular visual technique?

Daniel:                Yeah. So every memory athlete in every event in every memory competition is gonna be using these kind of visualization techniques. That is to say that the techniques vary across different dimensions and can vary I quite significant ways, but there are certain things that they all have in common. So one of them is that they, as I said, they all involve visualizations. Now, probably the most famous, and in some respects the most powerful memory technique, is what's known as the method of loci, or sometimes it's called the memory palace.

Daniel:                Anyone who's watching or listening who's a fan of the BBC Sherlock Holmes series might recognize that Sherlock Holmes employs the memory palace technique in one of the episodes. And basically, this technique involves traveling through a mental landscape you know well. So it could be your own home, a workplace, the route around the block maybe, around your house. It doesn't really matter. Any location you know relatively well. And then, at certain key points along that journey, placing down visual images that represent whatever it is that you're trying to remember. And then recalling that information is as simple as just traveling back across that path.

Zoë:                     So if you use your house, for example, and you want to tag something for the front door and something for the second bedroom and something for the bathroom, and you use your house in another context, do you get your pneumonics screwed up? Like, your pneumonic story gets all messed up?

Daniel:                So, crucially, you need to have a different ... I mean, this is one the problems, right? One of the problems is the techniques are so powerful that once you've used a location for a particular topic or subject, you can't use that location again if you want to use it as a kind of permanent place to store knowledge. And so what memory athletes will do is they will collect maybe hundreds of these memory palaces. But one of the amazing things is that our brains are already primed to do this. It's not as hard as it sounds. So ... to give a simple example, if I asked you know to close your eyes, you could mentally navigate through your own home, no troubles, right?

Zoë:                     Yeah.

Daniel:                Maybe a home that you grew up but haven't been back to for decades. Right? Maybe a home of a friend that you've only been once or twice.

Zoë:                     Okay.

Daniel:                Now, you can do all of this, and at a fairly high level of detail despite the fact that you never made any deliberate effort to learn this information, right? And so our brains are primed for this kind of spatial learning. They really evolved specifically for this sort of task. They didn't really evolve for kind of memorising random numbers or that sort of thing, but they're really good at spatial memory. And so the kind of secret sauce, the sort of trick to this technique is to transform the kind of information with which we normally struggle into the kind of thing that we remember effortlessly, like we remember the locations.

Daniel:                Now, I'll give you an example from a book here, just to give an indication of just how far this can be taken. So this is from Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein. He's describing ... It's a really great book, I recommend it to anyone who wants to read a little bit more about this stuff.

Zoë:                     What's it called? Moonwalk-

Daniel:                Moonwalking with Einstein, yeah.

Zoë:                     Who's the author?

Daniel:                Joshua Foer. He is the science journalist for the New Yorker and yeah, this was Bill Gates' favourite book in the year it came out. I think they're even thinking about turning it into a movie. It's really, really great. Great fun.

Zoë:                     Oh, by the way, for the ... Just before you go on. Just for our listeners, I'll put all the references that we talk about today on the podcast show notes at ZoeRouth.com/podcast/memory.

Daniel:                Beautiful.

Zoë:                     There we go.

Daniel:                Okay. So here is Joshua talking about a mnemonist named Peter of Ravenna who was a 15th century mnemonist. So Peter, for his part, bragged of having memorised 20,000 legal points, 1,000 texts by Ovid, 200 of Cicero's speeches and sayings, 300 hundred sayings of philosophers, 7,000 texts from scripture, as well as a host of other classical works. For leisure, he would reread books cached away in his many memory palaces. "I left my country to visit as a pilgrim the cities of Italy. I can truly say I carried everything I owned with me," he wrote. To store all those images, Peter started with 100,000 loci, but he was always picking up new memory palaces on his travels across Europe.

Daniel:                He constructed a mental library of sources and quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. So you can see that basically, historically-

Zoë:                     That's amazing.

Daniel:                Yeah. Memory athletes would have taken this ... Or, mnemonists, rather, would have taken this to some pretty incredible places. I mean, there are certain senses in which contemporary mnemonists have eclipsed even these accomplishments, particularly the memory athletes can do amazing things. So the world memory for memorising a shuffled deck of cards is, you know, I think less than 13 seconds. There's another memory athlete, a guy named Lance, who can memorise 600 digits, spoken numbers, spoken at a rate of one digit per second. No mistakes at all. So basically for ten minutes, he has completely unbroken focus such that not only is he able to hear and register and pay attention to all of these numbers, but then he's able to actually recall them afterwards. I mean, this is like meditation on steroids. Most people can't even follow their breath for 60 seconds. This guy, for 600 seconds, can memorise completely random numbers.

Daniel:                So you know, these are some potent, powerful techniques that really can produce some seemingly superhuman feats. But of course, crucially, there's nothing special about any of us memory athletes. We just know some tricks that other people don't.

Zoë:                     Alright. So let's do a little example. So, for example, I'm reading, also, a book about Einstein. It's called How to Think Like Einstein. No, sorry, not Einstein, it's How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. I kind of put da Vinci and Einstein in the same category. So it's about Leonardo da Vinci. So if I'm going to commit this material or concepts to memory, I might mind map it all out as a precursor to then putting into a memory palace. And so I'm curious about that. So, one of the first concepts is cultivate curiosity. So let's say I want to anchor ... I've chosen my home as the memory palace, and the first concept is cultivate curiosity. How do you then go, "Alright, how am I going to hang curiosity in my house?"? Like, how does that work?

Daniel:                Yeah. Okay, so basically, what you have to do is ... And again, it's about making things visual. And so the ancient Greeks distinguished between sort of two methods for doing this. Well, actually, I should say that the earliest textual record we have of these techniques comes from the Rhetorica and Herennium which is a Roman text. But we can assume that the Greeks knew about this stuff as well. Okay, so the ancient Romans proposed two ways of doing this. One they called memory for words, and one they called memory for things.

Daniel:                And basically, memory for words involves thinking up images that capture the sound of the words you want to remember. So, for example, if I were to memorise the soliloquy by Shakespeare, "To be or not to be," I'd do that by imagining two bees and then an oar that you might use to row about, and then a knot like the kind that sailors tie, and then two more bees. Two bee, oar, knot, two bee. And that would be enough to help me remember that kind of, that phrase.

Daniel:                Of course, some people, including the author of the Rhetorica and Herennium suggested that this is too time consuming. It's a little bit cumbersome. So they proposed, what we do is we use memory for things, which is just the idea that we basically construct images that remind us of the thing we want to talk about or remember. So, suppose I wanted to memorise the quote ... And I will get to your specific example. But suppose I wanted to memorise the quote by Aristotle that, "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet." It might be enough for me just to visualize a kind of tree of education. And so I know it's the tree of education, maybe it has like books for fruit, or pages of books for leaves or something. And I might imagine one child gnawing on a bit of root, and another kind of pulling the fruit of the tree and eating it and being really ... remind me of that particular quote.

Daniel:                Okay, so to speak to your specific example. Well, there are kind of two ways that we might go about this, memorising now this idea of curiosity, cultivating curiosity. One is to find something that sounds like curiosity. So we might imagine the, let's say the Curiosity rover, the Mars probe. If we place this Curiosity, the rover named Curiosity in the first place in your memory palace, so that's your bedroom or whatever, then when you come and you see that, that's gonna remind you, "Oh, yeah. Curiosity, that's the thing I'm cultivating." Alternatively, you might think of something that evokes this. You might actually visualize yourself, or somebody, or da Vinci, let's say, in that space doing whatever the book says is required to cultivate curiosity.

Daniel:                So what is the advice that the book gives on cultivating curiosity?

Zoë:                     I'm just gonna flip to it now 'cause I don't remember. Okay. He just roamed the countryside and he looked at things. So he went on walks, he explored objects from different angles, he sketched things from different angles.

Daniel:                So you might ... Yeah, you might imagine da Vinci walking around your room, picking something up, looking at it at different angles, setting it down, with this kind of look of sort of enraptured fascination and curiosity on his face. "Look at that."

Zoë:                     So I'm thinking of Leonardo picking up the cat that killed curiosity, or curiosity-

Daniel:                Beautiful, yeah.

Zoë:                     ... killed the cat. So that's nailed down. I've got that. I'll never lose that.

Daniel:                Yeah. And I mean if you want to make it particularly memorable, you might even imagine da Vinci kind of ... You know, 'cause he did a lot of these amazing anatomical drawings. You might even imagine him dissecting the cat, right? 'Cause the-

Zoë:                     Well that's kind of nasty.

Daniel:                Yeah, but memorable, right? So things that are kind of a little bit shocking or macabre, or alternatively things that are sort of funny, surprising, or even things that are kind of sexy, or really attractive to us. These are the things that we're most likely to remember. And so when we're building our pneumonic images, we want them to be as effective as possible. We want them to stimulate, both, our kind of imaginary senses. We want them to be visual. We want to imagine what they sound like, feel like maybe. But also, to stimulate the affect, stimulate the mind as well.

Zoë:                     I can see how, as a speaker, this is brilliant. You know, I'd never have to rely on notes again. You'd just ... It'd have the whole story laid out.

Daniel:                Absolutely. And look, you know, the ancient Greeks, this was one of the main uses that these techniques were put to in that period was to be used by poets to memorise compositions for performance, and also by orators and people that were politicians that wanted to give speeches. So particularly in the early days of the history of the art of memory, that was its primary purpose, yeah.

Zoë:                     Fantastic. So, memory has turned up in your PhD studies. Like, I know when you set out to do your PhD, you didn't think it was going to be about memory, even though you'd been doing this memory athletics. Tell us about your PhD and what you've discovered so far.

Daniel:                Yeah. That's exactly right. So, my PhD is, as I said, in philosophy and basically started out to be ... When I started out, I was interested in something that was completely orthogonal to the memory stuff. Well, at least I thought so. So what I was really interested in was expertise, the cultivation of expertise. And in particular, I was looking at philosophical expertise. So, in the last few years, psychologists have discovered some surprising examples of punitive experts who'd turn out not to be experts in the way that we thought.

Daniel:                So, for example, there's some really amazing research by a psychologist named Philip Tetlock who had basically so-called political experts make their political predictions. So this included Ivy League professors of political science, professional politicians working in the White House, political journalists and political pundits. And he had them make thousands of predictions over however many years. And by the end, found that they were actually no more accurate, with all of their sophisticated theories and fancy mathematical models, were no more accurate in making predictions than the average reader of the New York Times, and basically barely better than a chimpanzee throwing darts.

Daniel:                So at least in this respect, at least in terms of telling us what's gonna happen, making predictions, political predictions about the future, the so-called experts are not really experts at all. And there are a few different examples like this where supposed punitive experts have turned out not to be able to do some of the things that we might have originally expected they were able to do. And so one of the things that I was interested in was ... Well, one of the things that my PhD concerns is whether or not philosophers are like this.

Daniel:                So there are genuine experts, of course, right? So if you want to get, as I said before, if you want to get heart surgery, make sure you find a good surgeon. Don't just go to some random person on the street. And so I had this question, "Are philosophers real experts like medical professionals, like surgeons? Or are they fake experts like political scientists?" And so this was my sort of starting point. And really what this kind of led me to was to dive fairly deeply into some of the cognitive science of expertise. And what I discovered and what kind of brought together in a kind of fairly dramatic way, these sort of two parts, the fairly distinct parts of my life, my intellectual life, was the discovery of the significance of ... of memory, basically, to world class performers. To, really, the kind of most profound expressions of human genius.

Daniel:                So, what mediates expert performance, it turns out, in just about every field where this kind of expertise is kind of replicable, doesn't matter if you're talking about chess, music, science, mathematics, tennis even, is ... I'm sure you've heard of the 10,000 hour rule, right? This idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. So this is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, who's kind of the world's foremost expert on expertise. And basically, what mediates the performance of these experts, what the 10,000 hours are 10,000 hours spent building, are basically these mental representational structures. These kind of new cognitive capacities that experts develop in virtue of the things that they learn.

Daniel:                And what's really fascinating is that when you go and you look at the kind of key case studies that Anders Ericsson looks at, he actually spends quite a little bit of time looking at mnemonists, or people that are basically building these pneumonic structures. And so what mediates a lot of the performance of these experts is the fact that they have these very sophisticated, he calls them retrieval structures. It's very sophisticated retrieval and encoding structures that basically allow for the kind of rapid encoding and retrieval of memory that allows us to kind of bypass some of the normal cognitive limitations imposed by short term working memory and so on. He actually refers to this, this capacity, as long term working memory.

Daniel:                So any of the interested listeners or viewers can, if they really want, can go look up long term working memories theory.

Daniel:                And so this really started to change how I thought memory techniques, or rather kind of started to give me a sense of some of the outlines of the kind of contribution that cognitive science could make to understanding what was already kind of, at least intuitively, you know, that was something that I was sort of dimly aware of, was the role of memory in this kind of most important and highest of cognitive faculties. The faculties of creativity, of insight, of analytic thinking.

Daniel:                So what this kind of gave me was a way of starting to see how memory, yeah, basically contributed to genius. And the view that I've sort of come to now is basically that when what you're talking about are the highest human performers at the highest, highest levels, that the thing that matters most is what those people know. So I'm ... As you mentioned, I'm a member of Mensa, and so I'm very interested in IQ as well. And IQ is often pointed out as like the best ... so the single best predictor of lifetime success. If you had to get one number to use to predict someone's lifetime success, after the socio-economic status of the parents and level of educational achievement of the parents, the single best predictor of lifetime success is IQ.

Zoë:                     Still? Still? That's still true?

Daniel:                Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Very robustly as well. I know it's not a popular idea, you know people like to talk about perseverance, like the grit, or conscientiousness, those things. But the reality is, the single best predictor is still, really, IQ. And so people who are very interested in debates on talent and debates on genius will still often point to IQ. They'll say, "Look, a high IQ is a necessary condition for world class performance." Right? And the reason they have this idea is because if you were to go, let's say, a national level of chess championship and you would look at a bunch of young sort of high school chess players, the ones who were doing the best ... Oh, sorry.

Zoë:                     Is that you're ringtone?

Daniel:                It is my ringtone.

Daniel:                Yeah. So the ones who'd do the best would be the ones with the highest IQ. But what's really interesting ... And so that's led some scientists to kind of assume that the highest levels of the distribution curve of achievement are just the same ... It's the same as is going on at these lower levels. You just kind of extrapolate out, right? And that makes a certain kind of intuitive sense. Also, you know, it does seem to be the case that in laboratory studies on simple tasks, simple skill acquisition, people with higher IQ do attain skill more rapidly.

Daniel:                But the thing is, if you really want to understand performance at the highest levels, if you really want to understand genius, it seems to be what you really have to do is go and study at those levels, people that are performing at those levels. And when you do that, something really interesting happens. IQ drops out of the picture completely. So at the very, very highest levels of attainment in chess, IQ has no predictive power at all. And the average IQ of a Nobel Prize winner is only 130. Now, that's significantly above average. Average IQ is 100, so 130 is something like the top 2% of the population.

Daniel:                But still, you know, think about it. 130 is the average IQ of the average graduate student at a university. There are a hell of a lot more graduate students in universities than there are Nobel Prize winners, right?

Zoë:                     Yeah.

Daniel:                And so, really, I think we can kind of explain even this sort of above average IQ in terms of various selection effects. And if you were to sort of account for that, it might not even be the case that you need an IQ of 130 to be a Nobel Prize winner. So, basically, what's happening is that once you reach a certain level of skill, once the kind of representational structures that you're building through deliberate practice kind of come online, once they reach a certain level of sophistication, then what it looks like is that these kind of natural abilities like talent drops out of the picture, stops being useful.

Daniel:                And so what that means is that, really, given the appropriate opportunities and the appropriate training, and, again, the appropriate educational techniques ... And we don't always know what those are, right? So the nice thing about chess and music and a lot of the other examples that are studied is that we know how to produce elite performers reliably in these 'cause we've been doing it for a really, really long time. You know, it's much less clear how we do that in some other fields. Like, say ... Well let's say business for example. We don't have the same kind of really structured curricula and drills and exercises and so on that we do for some of the other things.

Daniel:                But given those conditions, it really looks like, in a certain sense, anyone given the appropriate opportunities could attain ... basically genius. And so this I think is really, really significant and has really great significance for how we think about our educational institutions. Right? Because if we're kind of, let's say, dividing people up by levels of ability at a really young age, what you get is what sociologists or social scientists call the Matthew effect where the kids that are, let's say just in virtue of being a little bit older and so their brains are a little bit more developed. They're gonna do slightly better on standardized tests and then they get put into an acceleration class where there are fewer of them, so they get more attention. They're pushed harder than the other kids on the assumption that they have talent.

Daniel:                And so what happens is that next year, when you come to give all the kids standardized tests again, the gap, the original gap that you found is even bigger. And so then you end up at 12 ... Fast forward to 12 years later, kids come out of school and it looks like some kids are really talented at mathematics and they always have been as well. And other kids just aren't. But that's not true. It's just that those kids had been given additional opportunities that other kids hadn't been given.

Daniel:                Now what that means is that we are wasting enormous human capital, enormous human potential, because we could produce talented kids in any discipline. Again, if we gave the right opportunities. And so, what I kind of envision, my kind of pie in the sky sort of idea is that using memory techniques basically allows us to kind of take shortcuts on the skill acquisition process. It let's us learn much, much faster because we can kind of ...

Daniel:                So in one of Anders Ericsson's early studies, he had a look at the ability of people to, of this subject, to memorise random numbers. And eventually, over time, the subject developed pneumonic strategies to help them do it, and they eventually got up to like 80 digits or something like that. But of course, if you'd given me two hours with that guy, I could have helped him do that in a couple weeks, rather than months. Because I already have the appropriate pneumonic structures for that.

Daniel:                And so, given the appropriate pneumonic structures, you can, as I say, kind of basically take shortcuts on this. You can significantly cut down on the rate at which skills are acquired. And so I just, I kind of imagine this world inside a utopian vision of an educational system built on these pneumonic techniques that allows us to teach hundreds of times, thousands of times faster in the same way memory athletes are currently able to memorise, say, numbers or decks of cards thousands of times faster. Where we could produce entire generations of Picassos, and Ghandis, and Darwins, and Einsteins, and da Vincis.

Daniel:                So if it's not about ... If people's capacities for insight and genius and analysis are not predicated on natural ability, but rather on what they know and what they learn, then that, to me, seems to a real game changer, and places memory as the kind of king of cognition and something that we really ought to spend a lot of time studying and thinking about and so on.

Zoë:                     That's just so amazing. What an enormous insight to realise that memory techniques can accelerate people's learning comprehension, recall, and connectivity and creativity so that we could have a whole generation, planet full of people can be creative geniuses like Leonardo, like Einstein and so on. That is just giving me goosebumps, and it's almost a shame that I'm going to ask you a very banal question. 'Cause I feel like we need to finish on a flourish after that kind of like, "Wow, that's amazing." So we'll just let the amazingness be amazing for a second. Yep. That's pretty amazing. And I'm so excited to learn your techniques in greater depth at the unconference to get a leg up and get my genius going personally, let alone the people who are coming along.

Zoë:                     So the banal question, which is all related, is, right. So people are coming along to this networking event, the unconference, and there's gonna be 40 odd people there, many of them I haven't met before. How do you remember people's names? I'm guessing it's a pneumonic technique, but if I'm going to imagine like Leonardo strangling a cat, or dissecting a cat, I'm not sure I want to do that necessarily for the people I want to meet. So tell me, what's your best approach for that?

Daniel:                Yeah, so I've got to tell you, the approach is very similar to imagining Leonardo strangling a cat. So, crucially, when you use a pneumonic device to remember somebody's name, you don't have to tell them what the pneumonic is, right?

Zoë:                     That's probably a good thing.

Daniel:                Yeah. And there have been occasions when I have had to sort of think very quickly to make something else up when people have asked me in various interviews or on TV. People are like, "Oh, how do you memorise this deck of cards?" And my images really aren't TV friendly. Maybe they're just a little bit too violent, or maybe a bit sexual or something. So I will say this, though, even Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of Catholic thinkers, said that it was okay to use beautiful naked women in your memory images. Though, in his theory, only if it's in the service of memorising things from the Catholic faith. But this is how central this idea is to the memory tradition.

Daniel:                So basically, what I would do is, I would think of something that sounds like the person's name, and then I would create an association between that and the person's face. So, for example, if I met someone named James, I would imagine wrapping chains around their head. Chains rhymes with James, and so this is my pneumonic. Or if I met someone named Robin, I might imagine a robin, the bird, sort of landing and sitting on their head. Or if I met someone named Leon, I might imagine them, say, putting their head in the mouth of a lion. Lion and Leon.

Daniel:                And so this is basically how we do it. This is the game that we were talking about before when we were talking about memory for words. We think of something that captures the sound of the name, and then we associate it with something about that person. So, normally, we'll pick out a feature that sort of stands out, really stands out. And again, we don't have to worry about telling them. So let's say they've got really big ears or something. Then we might imagine a lion kind of nibbling on one of their ears or something.

Daniel:                But this is effectively how we do it. So, it's a lot of fun. And, you know, if the person is kind of, that you're meeting, is kind of good humoured, you might even share your pneumonic. But again, you really don't need to. So when I spoke at TEDx Canberra which was the second TEDx talk I did, I actually got up on stage and I helped the audience remember the order of the speakers for the day. Not realising, of course, that I'd be spending a lot of time with these speakers, and would have just gotten ... over a thousand people or whatever it was ridiculous stories to help remember their names. Fortunately, almost all of them thought that they were very funny.

Zoë:                     Almost all, not all. So, in this particular technique, you're not using a memory palace? You're just using word association?

Daniel:                Yeah, that's right. But crucially, it's still visual. We're still creating these visual mental images. So the visualization is the same, and still this idea of creating associations is the same. So, before we were kind of anchoring the images to your memory palace, to various locations around the memory palace. Here we're doing the same thing, but the anchor point is the person's face, or something about them rather than ... yeah, rather than a location. So there's still a sense in which we're doing something very, very similar. But we're kind of ... The face becomes a kind of landscape in miniature, in a sense. So yeah, it's still about creating these visual images and it's still about creating associations. 'Cause as I say, associations are the language of memory. That's the way to think about it. So we're kind of always doing these things. And a few other bits and pieces which I'll talk about at the conference. Don't want to give everything away now.

Zoë:                     No, no, that's true. So I guess it gets easier with habit, right? So I'm thinking of, "What rhymes with Daniel?" Like spaniel. Or, there we go! I didn't even think about that. So I'll have to remember you as a little spaniel puppy dog.

Daniel:                Great. Yeah. I'm certainly that enthusiastic.

Zoë:                     I'm almost scared to ask. How would you remember my name?

Daniel:                Yeah. I mean Zoe's a hard one 'cause it's hard to think of things that rhyme with Zoe. But you know, maybe a joey, like the young kangaroo. I might imagine you riding around in the pouch of a kangaroo. That's a pretty good image. So something like that. Now the thing is, what happens is once you get a good image for a name, you can always use that image again and again. So whilst coming up with them on the spot can feel a little bit slow or a little bit cumbersome, it is something that you get better with practice. But also, you start to build a kind of internal pneumonic library of images for names.

Daniel:                And so every time you meet someone named, yeah, James, to use the example I used before, I'll always use the same image. And because there's a kind of, a sort of power law distribution on names, there are a whole lot of Jameses and Thomases and Johns and not that many, say, Zashawns. And so you know, you can very quickly develop a very functional library of internal pneumonic images. What we call pegs, 'cause you sort of hang information off them. And yeah, so it's not nearly as difficult or time consuming as it might sound.

Zoë:                     Okay. That's fabulous. Thank you spaniel, I mean Daniel. Thank you Daniel, you've been amazing, so I'm really excited about your vision for the future where we unleash the genius of the entire planet through memory technique. That is ... That's probably one of the most powerful thoughts I've heard in a long time. And I'm super excited to reveal you and share you with the community at the unconference just next week. So thanks again.

Daniel:                Wonderful, thank you very much. 


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