There is one memory athlete who seems to love competition more than anything: The German neuroscientist and physicist Boris Nikolai Konrad. I met Boris in his early days of memory sports in 2004. Since then he continuously improved his memory and other fields of expertise. He managed to break world records in the two difficult disciplines Random Words and Names & Faces several times. And his amount of #37 memory championship participations is only beaten by the former World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore.
Memory-Sports: Hello Boris, thank you for this opportunity. Looking at your résumé you are a born champion and not only in memory sports. It seems difficult to describe what you are actually doing because you seem to do everything. Can you help my confusion and explain how do you spend your time with work and hobbies?
Boris: Thank you for inviting me to this interview Florian! I call myself a memory expert. I think that most adequately combines the three mayor foci of my work. The first is being a neuroscientist. I handed in my PhD thesis on the neuronal correlates of superior memory performances, spoke at scientific conferences and currently still work at a Max Planck Institute. The second focus is my work as keynote speaker, trainer and author. I give keynote speeches for companies, at conferences and various events as well as whole day seminars. Third is being a memory athletes which includes competing at championships but also World Record attempts and TV shows like “Germanys Superbrain” which I could win in December 2012, Guinness Show of Records as well as international shows e.g. in China and Japan. Last October I also published my first book called “Superhirn” in which I combine insights from all three areas. An additional hobby is Sport Stacking, where I don’t spend that much time on anymore but am still among the best in the world within my age group – but have no chance at all against the juniors.
Memory-Sports: How do you manage to live such a busy life?
Boris: I am incredibly lucky that I found my passion early in life: Memory and how to improve it. Since I enjoy what I do it does not feel like work most of the time. I can’t deny that I am competitive as well and when I decide to do something, I want to do it as good as possible. With this comes that I often don’t differentiate between “work” and “life”. When I am sitting at my laptop late in the evening reading scientific papers on memory or practicing memory sports some might call it work, but it does not feel like that, because if I would have a different job to earn money, this would most likely be how I spend the evening, too.
Memory-Sports: One of your many expertises is Sport Stacking. You are even a multiple world champion in that sport. As a memory athlete we do know the Speed Stack Timers but know little about where they come from. Can you explain this sport to us? And why is it so fascinating?
Boris: At my first memory competitions I met a lot of people who juggle. There are some studies indicating it is helpful for cognitive abilities. At least it helps to train concentration and is fun. Somehow, after managing to do some minor juggling tricks I lost attention. Then I saw Sport Stacking. Sport Stacking is the sport of up- and downstacking specially designed plastic cups as fast as you can. This sound rather strange, therefore I suggest you take a minute to look at a few videos on YouTube. When a skilled stacker does his sport, you can hardly believe the videos are not on fast forward. When you practice it, you always race against the time and can see your improvements. And even though you might not believe it on the first look, it is rather exhaustive as well, once you gained some speed! The records are actually held by teenagers, who I guess have more time to practice and learn new movements faster. The sport is actually much larger than memory sports – at the annual StackUp! Event where all stackers around the world are asked to stack on the same day, last year more than half a million people joined. Speed Stacks is the leading company for Sport Stacking equipment and since in the competitions accurate timing is important they invented the Speed Stacks timer. I suggested using it in memory sports for Speed Cards and my suggestion was approved several years ago.
Memory-Sports: How did your love for mental and physical sports influence you in retrospective?
Boris: Starting to compete in memory competitions changed a lot for me. Most likely nothing I do today would have happened if I did not join memory sports. In school I was not very good at traditional sports, that is why I stopped playing football in a team as well and went on as a referee up to high amateur leagues instead. With Sport Stacking and Memory Sports there were suddenly competitions I was good in and even good enough to progress up to be one of the best in the World. This was a high boost for my self-confidence in every aspect of my life as well.
Memory-Sports: Please tell us about your first contact with memory techniques.
Boris: Well, yeah…what can I say, it was a private channel TV show. Dr. Gunther Karsten, German Champion at that time, appeared on a program called “Grips-Show” in 2002 together with a famous German TV host and actress. He showed his own memory skill but also taught the actress, who showed impressive improvements. The show also gave a little introduction in to the techniques and I was fascinated that a prime-time TV show could teach me how to learn better, more than many years of school. It was one year before I finished High School and my reason to follow up on it was the hope for better grades with less effort.
Memory-Sports: Since 2004 you are breaking world records in the memory discipline Random Words. I believe this is one of the easiest disciplines to start with but one of the most difficult disciplines to master. How do you do it in detail? And why have you been so successful with it even in your early career as a memory athlete?
Boris: As far as I know, I do nothing special compared to other athletes, sometimes to the surprise of other memory athletes who approach me to hear the secrets to my success: I apply the method of loci. More detailed: I place two images on each locus, associating the first word with the location and the second word with the first word with a little interaction. I try to visualize the scene as good as possible. The points of my locations are rather small and specific. Within a given single room I might have ten to twenty locations, like a bed, a cupboard or my TV.
Why I am especially good at it? When I began memory sports I trained using the MemoryXL trainer. Here for the discipline words to achieve level 9 you had to memorize 40 words within five minutes. With the method of loci that is no difficult task, so it was the first event where I got to level 9. For level 10 I needed 70 words and practiced a lot to achieve that. Then at my first ever memory competition I won the event with 140 words in 15 minutes to my (and everyone else’s ;)) big surprise. This first huge success motivated me to further focus on that event and I improved year by year. So at the end, as boring as it sounds, a lot of training and endurance most likely is the “secret”.
Memory-Sports: Your second specialty is Names & Faces (N&F). You have won the gold medal position at many World Memory Championships and even broke the world record several times in both 5 minutes and 15 minutes N&F. This is even more difficult than words and many skilled memory athletes becoming desperate by this discipline. Are you willingly to share your secret about your mastery with us? Keep in mind that you also talk to other memory athletes here and not exclusively to the regular guy in your seminars who never used memory techniques before.
Boris: Florian, I can see you are also looking for that specific secret (laughs). But honestly, there really isn’t much more to it than what I tell in the beginner seminar: Make an image out of the name, associate it with the face. I do not use the method of loci for that event. I am surprised myself that some of the best athletes in that discipline say, they hardly use any images and other Memory champions kind of fail in that event as well. If you look at my scores at the very beginning (e.g. 70 names in 15 minutes the first time I competed) you can see that I did improve a lot over time – correlated with training.
When I started my speaker and trainer career in 2006 I quickly concentrated on names and did a lot of demonstrations, like memorizing the names of the 100 people in the audience before the speech. Therefore I also have a lot of “real life training” in contrast to just practice the event on the computer screen.
Maybe there is one detail I do a little different that might be important: I do NOT look for a specific characteristic detail in the face, as some other athletes seem to do. On the opposite I try to “see” the whole person perform an activity. So if the name is Chandler, I would visualize the person carrying a large candle. I really try to think, how the person whose picture I am currently looking at would do that. By that I never have problems identifying the faces I memorized and usually also remember the mnemonic images, and by that then the name.
Memory-Sports: You are right; I AM looking for your secrets! Thank you for sharing them. Boris, you have experienced a whole decade of memory sports. What have been your highlights?
Boris: Both World Championships in Bahrain, in luxury hotels with a lot of local media interest and a great event. Also several of the German Championships, e.g. in Darmstadt, Hamburg, Tuttlingen or Heilbronn, often with great evening programs and very well organized. Besides the competitions I also remember the MemoryXL anniversary in 2012, where we did not compete but met in the city of Weimar where the club was founded and had a great time. And recently being a guest at the 2nd Arabic memory championships, which I also won’t ever forget due to being treated with biggest honors and seeing how memory sports develop into more and more countries.
Memory-Sports: Even Shakespeare said: All that glisters is not gold. In Germany we are very sensitive regarding ethics, manipulation and transparency due to our own dark history – even if our government often tries to avoid these crucial elements of a 21st century cosmopolitan as we can see with the Euro crisis. As a critical memory athlete what would you change about the sport to make it better?
Boris: I guess I am not just known for my performances but also for my involvement in “memory sports politics” (laugs). Since right from when I started I thought: “This whole thing should be so much bigger and better known”! And therefore I am willing to put in a lot of hours as president of MemoryXL. I also criticize and I hope people appreciate my drive for improvement and see my suggestions as ways to improve memory as a sport, and most people do.
I think a lot of things have improved in the decade I am involved, and that is great! Yet, more steps have to be taken. Still far too often dates or locations of memory competitions including the World Memory Championships are published late or even change on the last minute. I know many people who quit memory sports due to that and that is a shame. The people in the World Memory Sports Council are doing fantastic jobs and working with incredible effort and I am very grateful for that. I hope they will continue in appreciating external input and critics as measures to help the sport improve and grow and to increase transparency.
We talk about digital competitions with immediate scoring and public display for audiences and media for years. Memocamp and the Memoriad events show what is possible already. This should be adopted and further improved. We might see shorter disciplines and head-to-head competitions as well to make the sport more media friendly.
Memory-Sports: There are many alternative forms of memory competitions. We competed against each other at the Speed Cards Challenge in Germany in 2006. For years now there are the Speed Memory Championships by Ramón Campayo. There is Melik Duyar’s Memoriad, completely held in digital. In 2014 US champion Nelson Dellis will hold the Extreme Memory Tournament (XMT) in San Diego with the huge price money of $60.000. It will also be completely in digital. What do you think about this development and how is this influencing memory sports in general?
Boris: I think this variety is important and it is great that new ideas are tried out and tested. It also makes me confident memory sports will grow further. It is important though that the successful ideas will be implemented more widely.
Memory-Sports: We know the phenomenon of several sports organizations from other sports like Football, Boxing or Wrestling. That can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. What we do know is that there is a massive corruption going on in these sports. What is your opinion about all that?
Boris: I think the best results are achieved if organizers join in working together rather than competing against each other. In particular in a small sport as memory sports still is. I do hope one day the WMSC is transformed into a sports organization, with elected members, as in other sports disciplines. It might be the governing body for various kinds of tournaments, from Speed Memory to the “Traditional WMC”. It should also own all intellectual property of the sport and be financed appropriately. That is no guarantee to prevent misbehavior as we can see even in some of the biggest sports organizations, but more transparency and more involvement of the memory athletes is needed in my humble opinion and that would prevent the raise of competing bodies.
If this is achieved, memory sports can progress towards a widely recognized sport, like Chess is. A membership in SportAccord and the International Olympic Committee could be long-term goals on that road! I envision memory sports as part of the World Mind Sports Games and memory sports being publicly supported as Chess or Go are.
To achieve that besides an increase in professionalism of the organization, many more changes will be necessary. Memory is a huge topic in the world, as an important element of education but also due to wide-spread fear of Alzheimers and dementia. I am sure memory sports can be magnitudes bigger than it already is and I am motivated to keep working to achieve these visions and hope many, many, many of your readers will follow us in making it happen!
Memory-Sports: Like most German memory athletes, including myself, you are a member of the memory club MemoyXL and since 2006 even its president. Can you explain to our international readers what this club does?
MemoryXL was founded in 2002 by a handful of memory enthusiasts including Gunther Karsten, Steffen Bütow and Franz-Josef Schumeckers. Besides its German origins it is a European association and today has members in seven different countries. We host memory competitions, run seminars for teaches and work to raise the awareness of memory techniques. The MemoryXL trainer is free for download and despite being ten years old still pretty popular and earned several awards. It is also a great possibility to meet other members, even though most communication is done online since members are spread all over Europe.
Memory-Sports: One of MemoryXL’s founding goals is to make memory sports an Olympic discipline. Do you believe that might ever happen?
Boris: It is a vision! The Olympic Committee founded the World Mind Sport Games in 2008 with the goal “of introducing a third kind of Olympic Games (after the Summer and the Winter Olympics)”. SportAccord hosts the World Mind Games. I am sure these events will get much bigger and gain more attention. So far they include Bridge, chess, draughts, go, and xiangqi, which all are accepted as Mind Sports by being members at SportAccord. I am confident memory sports can grow to be a part of that, opening all the possibilities of public funding, private sponsors and media awareness.
Memory-Sports: What is your vision for memory sports in 2024?
Boris: I am sure non-physical sport will grow a lot over the next decade. This will include computer games as sports as already highly popular in some countries, but also memory sports. In ten years we will see that most memory championships have adapted to fully digital recall on computers, tablets or other devices. Scores will be known immediately and we will have found ways to display them in an exciting way, as TV shows already do. I guess the disciplines will change due to that more within the next ten years than they did in the past twenty. We will have so many people interested in competing that for the World Championships a form of qualification is necessary. There will be even more TV attendance than we have today, but the biggest shift in media will be that it is not TV magazines and documentaries reporting, but Sports Channels, thereby attracting more sponsors.
Memory-Sports: That sounds marvelous. I am looking forward to that golden age of memory sports. Thank you for your time, Boris.
Find out more about Boris Konrads memory records