Memory Champions Aim For Perfect Recall

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If you want to go where everybody knows your name, try the USA Memory Championship, held each March in New York City. They'll even teach you how to do it.

Dr. Majid Fotuhi is the chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness. He says that people can learn to remember unusual names like his, or commonplace names like mine, by visualizing a story. So, to remember Karen Given, Dr. Fotuhi pictures me (Karen Given) giving him a car. To remember his name, he suggests I picture driving my mom's jeep (Majid = Ma's jeep) into a futon.

Mental athletes don't have photographic memories or off-the-chart IQs, but they have trained their brains, just like athletes trains their bodies.

Years of Training

Over the past few years, defending champion Nelson Dellis developed a system of people, actions, and objects that represent numbers. When recalling 303 random numbers at the US Memory Championship in March, a new US record, he just visualized a string of moving pictures.

First came 003 04 80, which to Dellis represents the actor Jack Black punching a tree. "Following that was 999 07 04," Dellis remembered. "Which was Shredder, the bad guy from Ninja Turtles, sipping on a martini glass that has a glove in it. That’s a lot more memorable."

Memory champions like Dellis have great imaginations. They're also physically fit. Strenuous cardiovascular exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain most responsible for memory. To keep his mind and body in shape, Dellis climbs mountains, including Mount Everest.

A Happy Ex-Champion

In Manhattan's Con Edison building in March, nearly four dozen memory experts competed wearing blue t-shirts with slogans like "I'm a Mental Athlete, ask me about docosahexaenoic acid" supplied by the event's sponsor, a memory supplement manufacturer. A few were wearing noise reducing ear muffs. Only one is wearing a wide brimmed white cowboy hat. He hesitated when asked who he was, joking, "I'm not good with names."

Actually, Ronnie White is very good with names. He regularly memorizes 150 or more as an opening demonstration at the memory seminars he's been teaching for 21 years. He hasn't been doing this event for nearly as long.

"In 2004, 2005, I first heard about this competition and I thought oh my god, those guys are freaks of nature, savants. But then it started in the back of my mind, I teach this for a living. If I don’t compete with these guys I have to stop being introduced as one of the top memory experts in the country."

White won the title in 2009 and 2010, but lost it last year to Nelson Dellis. At this year's competition, while Dellis was swarmed by media, his face set in a permanent scowl of intense concentration, White claimed that his goal was just to have fun.  "And to ensure that I have fun," White said,  "I put gummy bears and Doritos in my underwear."

Despite the snack chips, or maybe because of them, Ronnie White was in fourth place after the preliminaries and joined his fellow top-eight finishers on the stage for the elimination rounds.

First, they memorized a string of random words. Then, it was time for a tea party.

One by one, guests introduced themselves to the competitors who took notes and headed backstage for 15 minutes of memorization. It was just enough time for a former champion to wow the audience.

An Impressive Demonstration

Chester Santos won this competition in 2008. Now he promotes memory improvement and mental fitness by demonstrating his ability to recall the names of 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate, their voting districts, party affiliations, and committees. It's 4000 pieces of data, and Santos was perfect, if not quick, as audience members shout out names or district numbers.

If you think the U.S. champions are impressive, Santos points to Wang Feng from China, who memorized 500 numbers in five minutes and 2660 in an hour, both new world records, at the World Memory Championships in December.

"He's very famous in China," Santos claimed. "I was on CNN when I won, but the average baseball player, people know more about them."

Down to Four

Only one competitor was eliminated in the Tea Party round, leaving four to face the final challenge: two full decks of cards, memorized in five minutes.

Defending champion Nelson Dellis answered quickly and confidently as the other finalists began to struggle. Before long, it was down to just Dellis and Ronnie White.

"So this is either where the cowboy rides away or this is a seven of clubs," White told the hundreds of spectators.

It was not the seven of clubs, so Ronnie and his white cowboy hat left the stage. Even though he'd already won, Dellis ran through the entire second deck of cards, just to show that he could.

Tony Dottino, who co-founded the USA Memory Championship 15 years ago, is pleased at how far the competition has come.

"When we started our first year, we couldn't get past the 25th card, Dottino explained. "So that if you go from the beginning, did I ever think I'd go through two decks, my first prayer was could we get through one."

Dottino says at first the biggest challenge was finding people willing to put their brains to the test. Now the competition attracts software engineers, accountants, administrative assistants, high school students and even a few of their moms.

"They're not freaks. They're not nerds," Dottino insisted. "They're people who have learned how their memory works and they've taken the time to exercise it. Anyone can do this given the right coaching and the right desire to practice."

This segment aired on May 5, 2012.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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