Memory Contest Comes To MIT, Where Brain Scientists Explain Why Training Works

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Repeat memory champ Nelson Dellis, new record-breaker Xuanxi Yang of Hershey Middle School, and USA Memory Championship founder Tony Dottino (Courtesy of USA Memory Championship)
Repeat memory champ Nelson Dellis, new record-breaker Xuanxi Yang of Hershey Middle School, and USA Memory Championship founder Tony Dottino (Courtesy of USA Memory Championship)

For the last few months, 13-year-old Claire Wang of Los Angeles has been training her memory with playing cards, phone numbers, software — "whatever I can get my hands on," she says.

She's been buffing up her skills to compete in an annual sporting tournament where the athletes are not physical but mental.

Known as the USA Memory Championship, the competition is in its 20th year and was hosted for the first time on Saturday at MIT, which is also home to one of the biggest collections of brain scientists in the world.

USA Memory Championship competitor 13-year-old Claire Wang of Los Angeles (Courtesy).
USA Memory Championship competitor 13-year-old Claire Wang of Los Angeles (Courtesy).

"The point is, memory is a skill, it's not an innate capacity," says Robert Ajemian,  a research scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "And that's the message that we want to get out, both to the scientific community and to the lay community."

Particularly, he adds, "since all of us would want to improve our memory in our own lives, and also, with the scourge of various forms of dementia, this needs to be investigated as a possibility to maybe ward it off."

The evidence is inconclusive on whether  memory training can help prevent dementia but it's worth researching, Ajemian says; long-term studies could find that memory training helps defer cognitive decline just as physical exercise protects against heart disease, he says.

Thus far, neuroscientists have paid little attention to the kinds of super-memorizers who compete in championships. But last year, a study in the journal Neuron scanned the brains of some of these "mental athletes" and did pick up some differences. It also found that regular people could dramatically improve their memory skills with just six weeks of training.

"Please tell me one learning phenomenon where very minimal training could give you drastic results like this at six weeks," says Karthik Srinivasan, who is also an MIT neuroscientist at the McGovern. After six weeks of training, the subjects in the study "are almost on par with these 'freaks of nature,' as they're usually deemed," he says. "I can start learning tennis tomorrow for 10 years, and I would still not be so good. But with this, it's not the case."

300 Words, 102 Cards, The Whole Table Of Elements

No matter how long you've trained, the challenges at the Memory Championship are daunting. They include:

• Words to remember: You're given 15 minutes to memorize 300 words, then you have to recall them in order, with contestants alternating in a round robin.

• "Tea Party:" A challenge that might remind you of a cocktail party: You meet four people and learn all kinds of things about them --- where they went to college, their childhood dreams — a total of 40 pieces of information about each one — then must recall those details.

• Double Deck: In the final challenge, you have three minutes to memorize the order of two full decks of cards — 104 in all.

These may sound particularly daunting if you have trouble remembering even a handful of names at a party. But the message of the contest is that it doesn't have to be that way, says Tony Dottino, founder and chairman of the USA Memory Championship.

"For 19 years," he says, "I've been trying to advance the science of memory in our country, which is why I founded the event in the first place, to show people there is so much more you can do with your memory than you ever thought possible."


The key is training. The contestants train for the championship just as a physical athlete trains for the specific challenges of a sport.

Much of what they do is to practice making associations from new information — like a name or a card — to old information — say the layout of your childhood home in your mind's eye — and making up stories to solidify those links. It's an ancient technique called a memory palace, or memory journey, or the method of loci.

The surprising aspect of the training is that it gets easier to remember things by adding information to them, like context or image or narrative, even though that means there's more to remember. But the way human memory works, it's easier.

"We like spatial maps of our environment, and the best way to store new information is to put it in the context of a spatial map we're familiar with," Ajemian says. "This is the essence of all these techniques. You have these familiar mental landscapes in your brain, and you dot this landscape with the items that you want to memorize. And with a little practice, voila, the information pops out clearly."

Your Memory Doesn't Work Like A Computer's

Confession: As Ajemian and Srinivasan explained why the training is so powerful, I came to the realization that my whole image of how human memory works was absolutely wrong-headed.

At least I have a lot of company. It's common, Ajemian says, for people to imagine that memory is "written in" to our brains, much as information is written into a book or a computer. But our brains are much more complex than that.

The idea at work, Ajemian says, is called "content-addressable memory," and it's simple, though the math is complicated.

Unlike books or computers, in our brains, everything is inter-connected and distributed. "Every neuron connects to 10,000 other neurons," he says, "and you're only three synapses removed from any other neuron. So it's this big, distributed, mixed representation."

We don't have good mathematical models for that system, Ajemian says, so the computer-memory metaphor still tends to dominate. But in our brains, unlike in a computer that has a finite amount of memory, "the more information you have, the easier it is to add more information, not harder."

"In a content-addressable memory system, you think of everything simultaneously being connected to everything else," he says.

The Need For Memory

If your head is hurting now, so was mine. Ajemian offers the example of the "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomenon: You might not be able to recall, say, a particular actor's name, even though you can remember his movies, his wife, his drunken scandals. That illustrates how, in our brains, content is not indexed by some address or tag; all related content is somehow grouped together.

It sounds like brain scientists have been wrestling with content-addressable memory, also known as associative memory, for decades and not gotten very far. But the memory palace techniques have worked for millennia -- including for the memory athletes competing in the championship.

Some are seasoned veterans, like memory champ Nelson Dellis, who's won the competition four times already. Others are newcomers like 13-year-old Claire Wang, who says she finds memorizing naturally easy. (Ajemian acknowledges that natural talent matters. "Not everyone will be able to be on stage," he says. But "no matter what your current level of memory, you can improve it drastically" with training.)

Of course, most of Claire's contemporaries are using their memories less than teens of the past,  referring to their supercomputer appendages instead. Memorization is out of fashion in education as well, overtaken by calls for "critical thinking" (though you can't apply critical thinking until you know enough facts to apply it to, Srinivasan points out.

But Claire still sees the value of memorizing: " I just like knowing things in my brain," she says.

And also, "What if I don't have the phone on me? It's kind of awkward when you're talking to somebody and — 'Wait, let me check, get my phone --  oh, your name is bla bla bla!' That's not how you want to have a first impression, right?"

Update: The Boston Globe reports that Claire Wang came in third in the competition; 31-year-old John Graham of Salt Lake City won. 

This segment aired on July 13, 2018.


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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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