Here’s a little secret you might never have guessed: The people who can accomplish incredible mnemonic feats like memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards or hundreds of random numbers in minutes don’t have photographic memories.
They have normal brains like you and, yes, me. This past weekend I competed in the 15th annual USA Memory Championship—an olympiad of sorts where “mental athletes” test their power of recall.
Lucky for me, I learned a few tricks from the reigning champ for the second year in a row, Nelson Dellis. Here are the techniques Nelson taught me that you can start incorporating into your everyday life to make your memory stronger.
Memory Techniques Anyone Can Learn
Although my memory is fine in general, I have to admit, I’m horrible with names. I am so bad that I forget a person’s name before he even finishes saying it—it’s like I don’t even want to hear it. After one conversation/training session with Nelson, however, I was able to remember dozens of strangers’ names in a couple of minutes.
Nelson, a 28-year-old former software developer turned “mnemonic mountaineer,” was an average student in school with, he says, an average memory. When his grandmother Josephine started losing her memory—and memory of him—to Alzheimer’s disease, he was prompted to learn more about improving memory. Now he has two national memory competition wins under his belt and the record for memorizing 303 random numbers in five minutes (beating his record last year of 248 numbers). His message is that anyone can do it. It’s all in the training and technique.
My Memory Training Boot Camp
My boot camp for this event started two weeks before the competition. I received two bottles of brainstrong DHA supplements (from the event’s sponsors), a t-shirt, a training manual, and a list of the events, which included: a 15-minute memorization of 117 names and faces, 5-minute memorization of 500 numbers, 15-minute memorization of a 50-line unpublished poem, and 5-minute memorization of a shuffled deck of cards. I seriously had no idea what I was getting into.
“How’s your memory?” Nelson asked, at the start of our training conversation. Um, ok. I guess?
When I flipped to this frightening grid of the 500 random digits (there are 25 rows of 20 numbers), which I was supposed to be able to memorize in 5 minutes, I nearly fell off my chair:
Make a Picture and Anchor It Somewhere
That grid of numbers was the most intimidating part, but in my training session with Nelson he taught me how to look at it so it was slightly less intimidating. (I have to admit, I only decided to do the numbers event at the last minute, on a whim.) There are two steps, basically, for all memory challenges, whether you’re in a strange mental sport/hobby or trying to remember where you parked your car:
Turn abstract, boring things that the brain doesn’t like to remember and can’t really latch onto (like names and numbers) into more visual ones.
Find a place to store or anchor mental images where you’re more likely to remember them—in your “memory palace,” a.k.a., in the journey method.
So, for example, for remembering names and faces, he said to take a name like Nelson and try to turn it into a picture by associating it with a famous person like Nelson Mandela (step 1). Then for step 2, find a prominent place on that person to anchor it, for example on his biggish nose—so imagine Nelson Mandela crawled up inside his nose. The more vivid, grotesque, sexual, or unusual, the better.
For the name, don’t look at how the name is spelled, but how it sounds. Break it up into syllables and turn it into pictures. (If you didn’t know a Nelson, you could think Nel is like kneeling and son is like the sun, so someone kneeling or a knee pointing at the sun.)
A prominent place (or peg or anchor) could be a piece of clothing, an eye, mustache, or whatever stands out to you on that person.
During the competition, one of the photos had a guy named Neil with sunglasses on and I thought of Neil Gaiman, the science fiction/fantasy/graphic artist, so I drew skulls on his sunglasses, which helped me remember his name. In another photo there was a girl named Laurie, like the snotty-nosed one I knew in grade school, so I imagined a tissue box underneath her nose. I think I got those two names right, at least.
My brainstrong Boot Camp manual suggests Joe might be Sloppy Joe for the image and if the person Joe’s anchor is a mole on his face you could imagine licking a Sloppy Joe off of Joe’s mole. Gross.
In truth, the more exaggerated and absurd the better (I had to tap into my inner, secret, lurid side sometimes.) And the more personal the associations, the better, too.
In sum: When you meet someone: Catch and say her name, make a picture out of the syllables of her name and place that picture onto whatever anchor/feature you’ve chosen for that person. The next time you see that person, you’ll see that image in that feature and remember her name, instantly. (Just don’t blurt out what prominent feature you’ve chosen to remember her by or the image you’ve made up, and try not to stare at the feature!)
Kevin Spacey Fencing Doughnuts with a Sneaker on My Couch
For remembering lots of digits and random cards, the same fundamental techniques (make abstract things more visual and anchor it somewhere) still apply, but stronger techniques and systems are also needed.
The technique everyone used is the Dominic System, invented by memory champ Dominic O’Brien, which basically translates numbers to letters. We turn digits into two-letter initials for people and associated actions and objects, so we can better visualize them. So, for example, the number 0, because it is round, is an O, and since it’s at the start gets the two-letter translation OO. Many people use Ozzy Osbourne as their person for that number 0, the action could be biting the head off a bat, and the object a bat. It’s easier to remember Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat than a 0 in a sea of numbers.
But for the system to work, you have to make it personal, so for memorizing the deck of cards, for each of the 52 cards I had to create a person with an action and object. The Jack of Hearts became my husband frying eggs and the object was eggs in a pan. The King of Spades (KS) was Kevin Spacey (which I thought worked out well initials-wise), lighting a cigarette, and the object was a lighter. Edward Scissorhands (ES) was trimming hedges, and the object was hedges.
And then you need to find a familiar place to store the information. We’ve noted how previous memory champions have built a memory palace to peg information in familiar places or loci. It’s the same technique Nelson taught me. In my memory palace, I walked through my house, starting at my front door, and placed these familiar people or numbers on my furniture.
The system enables you to memorize three cards at a time quickly. Imagine the person of the first card doing the action of the person on the second card with the object of the person on the third card. Flipping three cards up, I saw Audrey Hepburn (Queen of Diamonds) taking a bath (5 of Hearts) with a pirate sword (Jack of Spades) on my couch. Scooby Doo (Six of Diamonds) playing the cello (6 of Spades) with a dumbbell (Ace of Spades) on my kitchen counter. And Nicholas Cage (9 of Clubs) yodeling (3 of Diamonds) with Batman’s grapple gun (4 of Clubs) on my entertainment center. Ok, that’s not so weird.
It takes a heck of a time to set up and practice, but it also stretches your brain and when you practice putting the cards together, it really does make you think creatively (Kevin Spacey trimming hedges with Edward Scissorhands knife-hands and a hobbit ring?). I was impressed with how fast the memory champs could go through a deck of cards (Nelson has the record for remembering the order of a deck in a minute and three seconds.)
Your Memory Training Boot Camp
For everyday use, the memory palace is helpful for remembering a list or sequence of things. Start a journey beginning at a place you’re very familiar with, say, your home, starting with your doorstep. So for a grocery list, the example goes, imagine a container of milk overflowing on your doorstep, and when you get inside, perhaps two giant steaks attacking you in your foyer. Continue to your living room to find pretzels dancing on your rug.
Again, the more animation, exaggerations, and senses you can put into your memory palace or journey, the better for your memorization. And the more you strengthen your memory and keep practicing to sharpen your brain, the better your chances of fighting off Alzheimer’s disease.
If you don’t think you’re a visual person, incorporate other senses: sounds, smells, touch. In everyday life, pay more attention to how things look and sound and feel, which might improve your visualization skills. Start looking more at things and paying more attention. (I confess, pure lack of attention is probably why I always forgot people’s names and faces!)
If you really want to train like a memory champ, try this great name remembering game, download Memoriad (Windows) competition training software (it’s pretty serious), and lurk in the Mnemotechnics forums. And perhaps we will see you at the memory championship next year!
Updated to add: Nelson and the other mental athletes, including a team of kickass high school kids from Hershey, PA, make it look easy, but becoming a memory champ takes serious training and practice. Most of my hours training were spent just developing the cards system and working out the numbers system, which in the end wasn’t a great one (because I was short on time, instead of coming up with 100 people to memorize for each digit, like I was supposed to, I used 10 characters, from They Might Be Giant’s Here Come The 123’s videos. Bad idea. On each number, I was stuck in a video loop singing in my head for too long). At home I could do about half a deck of cards in five minutes, but at the competition, dazed and distracted, I only got about half that. I did name about a third of the faces right, thanks to practicing with that fun name game I mentioned above obsessively.
In the end, I ranked 36 out of 46 of all the mental athletes who had come to compete—perhaps not bad for someone who would never have dreamed of entering such a thing before and who had only trained for a few hours over a week. As Joshua Foer’s training-to-champ story suggests too, there’s hope—if you train like a world-class mental athlete.