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Interview with World Memory Champion Boris Nikolai Konrad

A look inside the mind of a world memory champion

In 2009, Boris Nikolai Konrad set two world records at the Germany Memory Championships: he memorized 280 words and 195 names and faces in 15 minutes. In 2010, he beat his own record by memorizing 201 names and faces. He is currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing 21 first names and birth dates within two minutes, a feat which he performed on national German television in 2011. He has also done well at the Memory World Championships, becoming World Champion as part of his team and individual World Champion in memorizing words and names.

He is currently a neuroscientist working in the Neuroimaging lab at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, and is a keynote speaker and author known as an expert for mnemonic techniques and memory training. In his spare time he is president of 'MemoryXL', the largest memory sports association in the world. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with him.

What memory feats can you do?

In memory competitions we have a range of disciplines including memorizing digits, memorizing lists of words, playing cards, historic dates or names and faces. I am currently holding a Guinness World Record for memorizing the first names and birth dates of 21 people within two minutes. At a regional tournament in early 2012 I memorized 114 random words in order within five minutes, which is a world record as well.

Why did you decide to become a memory expert?

I first heard about mnemonic techniques in 2002. I wanted to know more about them and if they might help me in school and later on in university. After a little bit of training I was amazed at how much I can improve my memory in some memory tasks and I heard about memory as a competitive sport and decided to give it a try. Since I was quite successful and highly enjoyed it, I kept competing. Over time I also started to look into memory research more and more. After I finished my Masters degree I started to look for a PhD position, knowing there was only one topic I really would like to work on.

How do you do it? Can you quickly tell me the gist of how you can store so much information so fast?

The foundation of most artificial mnemonics is the use of visual imagery and to associate them with pre-learned cues. The method of loci is the most famous example. The idea is to prepare a list of locations, for example in ones home. When memorizing data, for example a list of words, one will mentally walk along them and make visual associations between the to-be-learned word and the location. The locations are a tool for ones memory. If I memorize digits or playing cards, I first have to encode them into an image. Therefore I also have a list of images prepared. That means, for each number between 00 and 99 (or even 000 to 999) a memory athlete has a specific image that always represents that number. One way to come up with these images is the phonetic mnemonic, also known as the “Master” or “Major” system.

What does this reveal about how human memory works?

So far the amount of research done on superior memorizers is rather limited, especially if compared to research on people with brain lesions or other deficits and how these affect memory. The brain is able to store more information if they “come in” in a specific way. Apparently the mnemonics enable us to directly encode information into long-term memory. Using visual imagery one can influence which memory system encodes particular information. This is very interesting when we think about the various roles of different memory systems in general and try to understand how they are connected.

Were you always talented at memorizing useless pieces of information?

No, I was not. Just when I started to practise mnemonics I realized that I can do that.

Have you always been interested in numbers?

I have always been fascinated by science and computers for example and I liked math in school. But I never played with numbers or tried to memorize them before starting memory sports.

Were you a good student in school?

I was not head of class nor did I pass every subject with honours, but I did well enough to be able to study what I want and to please my teachers and my parents.

According to the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, IQ is irrelevant in acquiring expertise. To him, it's all about deliberate practice. Have you ever had your IQ tested?

About ten years ago I did the Mensa IQ test and passed it. Barely.

How many of the memory experts at these competitions do you think have a high IQ?

Over the last years we had a large number of memory athletes come to our lab in Munich at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. We found that most of them had a pretty high IQ on standard tests. This does not answer the question whether IQ is a necessity to perform at world-class level in memory sports or if it is just because intelligent people are more likely to enjoy constantly challenging themselves in cognitive tasks. But it was quite apparent that nearly all of them had really high (>130) IQ scores.

Do you think IQ affects the rate of learning and the ultimate level of memory performance that is attainable?

My opinion is that the IQ affects both. I am very sure on the correlation between IQ and the rate of learning mnemonics, since I see it in my studies that students who have a high IQ progress faster in the courses. Regarding the ultimate level, I can only give you an educated guess on that, since so far my scientific data does not allow the answer the question and might never be able to. But if I look at memory competitions, I see people using the same techniques, spending the same amount of time on practising them, and still achieving different results. But I do not think it is the most important factor for success in memory training, it is just one of several factors.

You conduct training courses on how to improve memory. Do you notice individual differences in how fast people learn your techniques?

Yes I do. But I find it important to mention first, that so far everyone who showed some motivation in my course achieved big increases in his memory skill by using and practising mnemonic techniques. Still, how quickly people improve and how far they get in the time I follow their progress varies.

Do you notice any common characteristics among competitors of memory competitions?

As being one of them I might not notice. I guess they share a passion to challenge themselves. They also seem to have a common passion to share their knowledge, as most of them are very open in discussion and sharing their mnemonic techniques. I also see, that about all of them have successful careers, which might not be the impression you get from some media reports.

All in all it’s more the kind of people with affection for technology and science. Most of the athletes are very aware of the scientific research on memory and react to the somewhat unscientific to borderline-esoteric comments by some self-claimed memory trainers with distance and humour.

What characteristics do you think separate the absolute creme of the memory crop from all the rest?

The best memory athletes spend much more time on deliberate practice than the average competitor and a lot of training is a necessity for success in memory as well. One part of that is the number of images they have prepared. While one can start memorizing numbers by having an image for each digit from 0 to 9, everyone at a competition will have at least 100 images for the numbers from 00 to 99. And the world-class competitors have 1000 images prepared for every number from 000 to 999 – and often even 2704 different images for each combination of two playing cards for the disciplines based on them. The same thing is true for the locations used for the method of loci. An average competitor might have a few hundred locations while the top notch ones do have several thousands of them.

New world records in memory championships are being set every single year. What do you think that means, and do you think there is a limit to what is possible in humans?

The first world memory championships took place 20 years ago. And it was a quite ambitious name given that a few Brits met in London. But that changed over the years. And it is just since the last five years, that the Asian countries got heavily involved. With an increasing number of competitors, the level one has to perform at to win raises as well. So people practise more and improve the mnemonics they use. Prize money available for the top spots is pushing the motivation to spend a lot of time on that too. And still, memory sports is a minor event with a few thousand competitors around the world, far below about any physical sport existing. If memory sports keeps growing, I hope it does, it will attract more people. We will also have more kids starting to practise their memory who then go on practising and competing as adults, so I guess the limits are still way ahead of us. But there will be limits. Even with more and more digits or playing cards encoded into one image, we can not infinitely increase our mental speed.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist Joshua Foer becomes a memory expert and wins the United States National Memory Championship. Do you think he adequately represented the personalities of the other memory experts who taught him, considering you personally know those people?

Moonwalking with Einstein is a popular science book. It is meant to be a pleasant read and therefore Joshua over-simplified some characters and exaggerated here and there. But the main observations he states are correct. There are for sure some eccentric figures at the memory competitions and I understand that it is more interesting to write and read about these, than about the vast majority of the “average” girls and guys competing in the events.

Do you think there was any other misinformation in his book about the world of memory experts and the techniques that people use?

Most of it was correct, yet simplified as well. I doubt most competitors will have such bizarre imagery he describes as normal. Mine are quite normal and seldom explicit. There are also quite a lot of people who use the techniques in various fields and not just in competitions. The book might give the impression that memory experts only use them for records and performances, but again the majority of people learn the techniques to benefit from them in every day life.

Ben Pridmore, whom Foer mentions in his book, is a prominent memory expert whom you know. Does he have a high IQ?

Oh yes. He once won the “World Intelligence Championships”, a competition for difficult IQ-test like tasks and he is really good in many cognitive demanding games and activities.

Foer speculates that the prodigious savant Daniel Tammet uses mneomic techniques to memorize numbers. I've interviewed Tammet and he came across as incredibly authentic. What do you think?

I have never met Daniel Tammet in person. If I ask memory athletes who were around when Daniel Tammet competed under his birth name Daniel Corney, most of them think he uses mnemonics. Especially that he won the discipline Names & Faces seems to be conflicting with Asperger syndrome. But since I never met him and I am no autism expert either, your observations as well as the studies by our English colleagues who tested Daniel Tammet are very interesting to me. The way he describes how he memorizes digits or other information sounds to me a lot like the mnemonics we use. If his brain came up with the techniques in a less formal way and he kind of uses them naturally it would be really fascinating.

There are some people in memory sports with synaesthesia. They have inborn associations between digits and colors, sounds or even emotions. So Daniel Tammet might be an extreme case. There are others around. In Germany Rüdiger Gamm has a little fame as a non-autistic savant, since he is a brilliant mental calculator and a memory artist too. He also says that he has a somewhat inborn talent that numbers mean something to him and he can easily memorize them and use pre-learned results for further, more extreme calculations.

Do you think authentic memory savants exist—people who never intentionally set out learn how to memorize but automatically chunk vast amounts of arbitrary numbers based on their own unique brain wiring?

Kim Peek and Stephen Wiltshire among others are cases of savants where to my knowledge no one doubts their authenticity. But their form of autism is pretty severe. And as one has to point out, neither of them would do well in a memory competition with its specific rules, where not just the vast amount of data stored, but also the accuracy of recall, counts. The famous case of Shereshevsky studied by Luria most likely was another case of someone who functioned in every day life despite some problems who had an apparently inborn memory talent that sounds similar to mnemonics in the descriptions he gave.

Tell me about your current research.

In late 2009 I joined the Neuroimaging lab at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. In an ongoing study we so far had 25 memory athletes who all ranked at least in the Top 50 on the day of their inclusion in our study come to our lab to do extensive memory testing. With subsets of them we could do sleep assessments as well as functional and structural MRI measurements. In 2011, we presented our first results at the 5th International Conference on Memory (ICOM) in York and various other conferences and are currently preparing our publications.

My own focus is to look at students, who do not know mnemonics before joining my study and then following their progress. There is the famous study by Ericsson's student from thirty years ago as well as some interesting work by Kenneth Higbee. I hope to be able to add a lot to that by having MRI measurements at various stages of their progress. After the initial training course they do a structured and highly controlled training program using an online platform, so I have detailed statistics on their progress.

What do you think people like you and other memory experts reveal about the nature and nurture of human potential?

My main fascination for memory training comes from the observations, that we can influence the way our brain works by changing how we think. By applying an artificial learning technique I manipulate the activation in my brain resulting in an improved memory capacity.

Traditional sports shows us what the human body is able to achieve. Mental sports can show us what the human brain is able to do. I hope in the future physical and mental sports will show the same levels of acceptance and attendance, and people will want to train their brains just as much as they want to train their bodies. For health, for fun, for competition.

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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