The Beautiful Mind of Johannes Mallow

Q&A with Johannes Mallow, two-time World Memory Champion

Johannes Mallow is a top athlete. When he trains, he doesn’t have to leave his apartment or change his clothes. He is a memory champion. But while his mental abilities grow, his physical strength declines.

When we think of sports, we think of sweat, shortness of breath and physical exertion. You’re a memory athlete, so your discipline doesn’t involve any of that. What makes it a sport? 

Why do we do sports at all? It’s about wanting to improve our performance, to do something for our health, to compete with others, to beat our opponent or to win with our team. In this respect, mental sports are not so different from physical sports.

And memory sports are also physically demanding. The brain eats up 20% of our energy. I am totally burnt out after 6 hours of competition.

Aged fourteen, you were diagnosed with a rare disease called facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). What was growing up like for you? 

As a boy, you always hear that you have to be strong. But while the other boys at school were all growing muscles at some point, I kept deteriorating physically. After I was diagnosed at fourteen, I spent a lot of time in the hospital.

I used to be quite athletic. I played table tennis in a club, and soccer with friends. It was a lot of fun. At some point I couldn’t get up the stairs properly and couldn’t do any physical sports. I went to a nightclub one time and fell over in front of everyone in the middle of the dance floor.

That put huge psychological pressure on me. I felt like I couldn’t keep up with my peers and was very afraid I wouldn’t get a girlfriend. I was angry at myself, angry at this illness.

What role did memory sports play in overcoming your self-doubt and accepting yourself?

I discovered memory sports by chance on television. It became a kind of counterbalance to the crap that was going on around me and inside me. I realised that it was fun, that I could improve. Finally, there was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could do it. Of course, that’s nonsense. We are not only worth something when we achieve something. But that’s what we tell ourselves when we’re depressed. At the end of the day, depression is the real problem.

Today, I know that it’s not my fault that I can’t get up the stairs anymore. It’s the fault of the stairs—they shouldn’t be there. But it took me a long time to come to that realisation.

You became World Memory Champion at the same time as you were fighting for your independence. What was it like to feel your muscles failing you?

At that time, walking was becoming more and more difficult. I hardly ever went out the door. I was scared because I kept falling over and sometimes couldn’t even get back up on my own. I definitely didn’t want a wheelchair. I thought that once I was in a wheelchair, it would all be over. But I had no choice: I wanted to get to the top, to win the world championship. And to do that, I had to be able to travel. That would only be possible in a wheelchair.

The wheelchair meant I was no longer falling or being pushed over by passersby, or tripping over when crossing the street. Then, in 2012, I flew to the World Championships in London in my wheelchair and won. Discipline and waking up at six in the morning to train hadn’t been enough to become world champion. It took something I had been resisting for fifteen years: to accept that a wheelchair means freedom for me. I can only feel included in the world when I use a wheelchair.

You’re a two-time world champion, hold many world records, and train every day. You’re also a memory coach, teaching others how to improve their ability to remember things. What is the secret to a good memory? 

The brain is lazy, so we have to trick it. That’s where routines and mindfulness come in.

There are certain techniques we can learn to use our memory in a way that makes it easier for us to remember things. One approach is to convert everything we want to learn into pictures and then link them to stories. If I want to remember a row of numbers, I assign a picture to each number from 0-9, with 5 being a farmer, for example, and 8 a loaf of bread. Of course, this method brings best results when the number series is a little longer.

Just to give you an example, I have the numbers 5, 8, 6, 7, and that’s not so easy to remember. But if I tell you a story about a farmer who harvests bread from a field, takes it to a butcher, and then the butcher makes potatoes out of it, it will stick better. It’s a silly story, but because it’s exciting, funny or maybe even sad, you will remember it better than a series of abstract numbers.

Stories touch us emotionally, which is why we remember them better. This is because our ancestors already worked with pictures and stories over five thousand years ago. Writing and numbers, on the other hand, only date back a few thousand years, which is why our memory cannot handle them so well. So, if we want to remember information better, we have to try to transform it, and package it in an exciting, funny or visual way.

What is the other approach?

The other approach takes place in everyday life. One of our problems is that we are constantly somewhere else in our heads. When I get home and I go to the computer to answer an email, I put the key down somewhere and then I can’t find it again.

We’re always stressed out and never focus on the task, on what we’re actually doing. That’s why we forget things a lot. Why do children win at Memory? My theory is that as soon as the cards are turned over, they don’t just see the two apples, they have the whole apple in their minds: what it tastes like, what it looks like, what it smells like, when they last ate one. Children are much more in the here and now. They are much more attentive to little things, and therefore much better at remembering. Adults see the apple and they’re already thinking about their dentist appointment the next day.

It’s all about attention. For example, when we meet new people, we tend to forget their names immediately after we have introduced ourselves. That’s because we’re excited and don’t even try because we tell ourselves we can’t remember names anyway. The trick is to pay more attention in the moment, and use the name immediately. “Hello Mr. Müller, nice to meet you!” We don’t even have to try to train our memory. Attention makes memory.

Memory seems to be playing a special role during the pandemic. On the one hand, people stuck at home are drawing on vivid memories like never before, and on the other, the virus is threatening to damage our ability to remember. Many people have reported memory loss after contracting the virus. Why do you think memory is important in a time when we can look everything up online anyway? 

First of all, there’s a difference to be made between remembering facts and remembering events.

We learn the first in order to improve our general knowledge, language skills and ability to connect things in our brain. So it’s more about education. Many of my students come to me because they want help to memorise vocabulary or dance steps. Others want to do something about their nerves in job interviews or important presentations. If we can remember 50 words, then we can also remember 20 key points or bits of data that we absolutely want to bring up in an important conversation. We then go into such a conversation with a completely different level of confidence.

Factual knowledge can be an advantage in many social settings. When we know more, we have more context, and we can relate to new information better. If I have certain knowledge, I have the tools to assess whether something is true or totally absurd. That plays an important role when it comes to fake news, for example. Google cannot replace this contextual knowledge.

I think people who have more contextual knowledge are also more creative and can find solutions more quickly. And there’s another thing: if the people around me are talking about a topic I don’t know anything about, then it’s hard for me to connect. But if I have a good general education, I can participate more easily in discussions. It’s about social acceptance.

The other form of remembering—remembering events—is key to our identity. It’s what makes us who we are. We are what we’ve experienced, whether or not we remember it consciously. When old people forget things because of dementia, the reason it’s so hard for them is because it causes them to gradually lose their sense of self.

Everything we remember is in our heads. None of it exists anymore in the way it once did. If the world had been created only ten minutes ago, it wouldn’t make any difference whether we really experienced something or we only remember it. That, I think, is an exciting thought.

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Illustration by

Rron Bajri