Marcin “Maskow” Kowalczyk is a speedcuber. That means he can solve a Rubik’s Cube very quickly. Oh yeah, and he can do it while blindfolded. As it so happens, he’s also a Cambridge Brain Sciences customer.
He has held the world record for blindfolded cubing, solving a 3x3 Rubik’s Cube in 21.17 seconds. That’s an amazing physical and mental feat, but he has also demonstrated incredible accomplishments in memory: he once solved 41 cubes, blindfolded, in less than an hour. And we’re not talking about peeking at each cube before solving it; the blindfold was on the whole time.
When we saw that Maskow was using Cambridge Brain Sciences, we couldn’t resist asking him how he does it. He was generous enough to sit down with us to answer some questions about memory sports, and he revealed two important lessons that can help everybody do incredible things with their brains.
Memory sports are a thing?
They are a thing. Many countries have a memory championship event, where hopeful mnemonists recall as many numbers, words, and decks of cards as they can. There can even be money in it—the top prize in the World Memory Championship has been up to $40,000. Maskow concentrates specifically on speedcubing, and notes that it is growing in popularity, with Poland, where he lives, becoming one of the leading countries in the increasingly competitive field. Top performers in these mental sports can make a living out of speaking and teaching others about the techniques involved.
How does one get into memory sports and speedcubing?
By accident, according to Maskow. “Just before the most important exam of my life, my girlfriend at the time had a Rubik’s Cube, but didn’t want to lend it to me, so I bought my own. I looked up out how to solve it on the Internet, but when I learned the method, it was too easy. I spent another two months becoming faster and faster at it. Then I decided that it was again too easy, and I found that there was a sport of doing it blindfolded.” He became dedicated to improvement and competition, rising all the way up to the title of world record holder. Now he helps others do the same by teaching people how to better use their memories. He lives in Poland, where he is well known as the go-to memory expert.
What is special about memory champions?
People like Maskow may appear to be born with mental gifts, but he doesn’t believe his brain is radically different than anybody else’s. When he first played the Cambridge Brain Sciences tests, before learning advanced memory techniques, he did better than average, but not exceptional. “Not everybody can [achieve a world record], but anybody can improve brain power to a level that you never imagined was possible. I once memorized 8,000 digits of pi. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but it was. It was slightly tedious, but I did it.”
Are these skills useful in everyday life?
He believes his brain has been improving as he uses it for tasks that require all of his concentration. However, the biggest benefit has been more motivational. “Being good at something helps you to believe in yourself. Many [people] believe they can’t achieve anything, but if you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”
The “believe in yourself” message may not be new, but it takes on new meaning when proposed as a specific, learned strategy to achieve seemingly unreachable goals. He emphasizes that knowing goals are reachable can motivate you to take the steps necessary to get there. “From my point of view, ‘special talent’ is just a good attitude, and understanding this basic concept: If you practice something in a good way, then it's impossible that you won't improve.” The confidence boost from setting and achieving goals is not unique to cubing or memory sports, Maskow says. “I know a lot of world record holders who believe they can do anything. For many of them, it’s an attitude that they learned to become world record holders.”
How has using Cambridge Brain Sciences helped?
Maskow signed up for Cambridge Brain Sciences for an objective measure of his performance, and to compare himself to others. He has pushed the limits of our tests—with his strategies and brain power, tests like Digit Span can go on forever, since he can memorize an indefinite number of digits. His preferred tests are those with a time limit that challenge quick thinking, such as Spatial Planning, and tests similar to standard IQ tests, such as Odd One Out. Lifestyle tracking has also been useful, helping him discover when his cognition was at its peak by matching up factors like exercise, stress, and sleep with his performance. What is the most important thing the average person can do to improve brain performance?
“Take care of your sleep!” he says. Maskow notes that physical athletes are careful to get enough sleep, and people who use their brain for a living should be no different. “When I slept three hours in a day, then I didn’t do well at Grammatical Reasoning. I was reading the sentences, but I didn’t understand them.” Other factors, such as diet, also make a difference, but he notices they are not independent—for example, certain diets promote better sleep. “That’s the most important thing I learned through all those years. Practice is one thing, but sleep is always the most important thing. […] If you don’t sleep, you won’t improve.”
What is something everybody should know about improving memory?
So, sleep is the most important lifestyle factor for Maskow. What’s the other big lesson he can share? “My message for people is: everybody can do this. Not everybody needs to, but everybody can.” For memorizing a list of items, for example, he says you just need a system, and you need to practice it. It’s not magic, and it doesn’t even need to be particularly hard work.
During our interview, Maskow modestly referred to himself as “lazy” several times. While he probably couldn’t have gotten as far as he has without any drive to succeed, it demonstrates the theme of our conversation: even average, occasionally lazy people can do incredible things with their brains, just by learning a few techniques and staying cognitively healthy. That’s what Cambridge Brain Sciences is meant to help with. Whether you’re memorizing 41 Rubik’s Cubes or just want to remember where you put your keys, treat your brain right and it will be sure to impress you.
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