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Remembering for a living

What does it take to be a memory champion?

Train your brain.
Train your brain.

Last month, a curious prospect made its way into my email inbox. “My name is Nelson Dellis," its contents read. “(I am) a 4-time USA Memory Champion." Dellis felt his current project, a research experiment that sought out individuals with exceptional memories, could be of interest to me. Through the course of the email, he introduced me to the concept of a “memory athlete"—someone with an extraordinary ability to memorize things, and someone who could use such a memory competitively. Some of Dellis’ feats include memorizing 339 digits in 5 minutes, and an entire deck of cards in 40.65 seconds. Dellis is also a motivational speaker, mountaineer (he has made three attempts to summit Mount Everest), and has launched several initiatives, including a website and a mobile app, to help people enhance their memory.

Nelson Dellis. Photo: Christopher Beauchamp
Nelson Dellis. Photo: Christopher Beauchamp

Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Did you always possess a good memory? How did you become the memory athlete that you are today?

I was not known for my memory while growing up. I wouldn’t say that I was horribly forgetful; I was average. But I decided to train my brain after watching my grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. She passed away nine years ago, and that is when I decided to really do something about it. I soon realized that with just a little practice, I could get superhuman results with my memory. It became my obsession, as I’m the kind of person that doesn’t let go of a thing until I’ve given it my hundred per cent.

What is your daily training like?

I’m currently training for a competition, but I always memorize cards and numbers every day for 4-5 hours. It’s hard to quantify and measure improvement. So, training for a competition is an excellent way to get better.

Can you elaborate a bit on the methods you use to remember things, such as memorizing a whole deck of cards?

When I tell people, “you should train your memory", most people don’t know how to. A really good way to memorize difficult things is to turn them into pictures. I like to call this encoding: turning the hard-to-memorize stuff into information our brains find easy to memorize. Once you have those pictures, you need to organize and file them in your mind, so that they can be retrieved easily later. Think of it as throwing documents all over your office floor versus organizing them neatly into labelled file cabinets. We all do the former, unfortunately, because no one has ever taught us how to file our memories. That’s where the Memory Palace comes in: a concept that has been around for thousands of years, and was even known to the ancient Greeks.

By using a familiar spatial location, like your house or office, you can use the pathway through the space as a sort of filing system. Let’s say you have a list of five items: ball, shoe, light bulb, milk, cheese.

I would start at the front door of my apartment, and imagine an encoded image for the first item. For a simple word like ball, encoding simply means thinking of an association for that word, so I would picture that ball being thrown right through my door. The more exaggerated and out-of-the-ordinary I make that picture, the better it will stick in my head.

Next, we have shoe. As I walk through my front door, I will imagine (or place) the shoe there. Again, to make that image more memorable, I could imagine the shoe to be filthy and smelly. Next is the kitchen, which is next to the entrance. I’ll imagine cooking a light bulb on the stove. Then to the living room, where I’ll imagine pouring milk all over the couch. And finally, gooey, melted cheese all over my bed in the bedroom.

That’s it. The order of the route through the space preserves my list and because of that, I can recite it in any order I choose. It may not seem that impressive with a list of five words, but this is what we use when we memorize hundreds of playing cards and thousands of digits. Its power is incredible.

The times we live in exacerbate forgetfulness and bad memory. I feel working on one’s memory is probably more important than ever before…

This is a big part of why I’ve spent time working on memory. The list of memory-related problems—such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s—just keeps on growing. We rely on technology so much that no one needs to use their memory. It’s much harder to pay attention as there are so many things to distract us. Having a good memory is all about paying attention.

Tell us about your association with Dart NeuroScience, and the “Extreme Memory Challenge" study.

As I started winning competitions, people doing research studies started reaching out to me. One study at the Washington University in St Louis, US, which has a phenomenal memory department, was funded by a company called Dart NeuroScience. We got talking and eventually did a project called the Extreme Memory Tournament to find outliers, that is individuals with naturally good long-term memories. But I’ve yet to come across someone who possesses a so-called photographic memory. In fact, anyone who has trained their memory will be able to remember a 30-digit number better than someone with a photographic memory.

The Extreme Memory Challenge is a much longer-term continuation of that tournament, and quite possibly one of the largest studies ever done. We want to find those exceptional individuals, and learn what makes them different from others. Dart can then use this data to create new drugs, technologies, and therapies for the brain.

You raised over $23,000, or around Rs14.8 lakh, last year for an app to help people enhance their memory…

Yes, we have created a software and a website that offers techniques, tutorials, called Art of Memory. I believe this is the first of its kind, and content is still being released in bits and pieces. It’ll be fully ready by mid-2018. The goal is to make memory techniques mainstream. I want to popularize brain health, and I’m always surprised that people have no idea that this is a thing anybody can do. Anyone can have a great memory!

Train your brain

Focus. Concentrate as much as you can on what you are going to remember. The more you practise using your focus, the better you will get at focusing.

Make it fun. Turn mundane memorizing tasks into fun challenges. See who can memorize more names at a party, for example.

Picture things. Turn whatever you’re memorizing into a picture that you can visualize in your mind’s eye. The more crazy, bizarre, silly, gory and over-the-top the image, the better your brain will recall it.

Store it. We all use something called the Memory Palace—a familiar place that you visualize mentally and where you place images along a route through the space. Because you know the space already, thinking of it is easy, and the route preserves the order of the things you memorized.

Sleep. A well-rested brain focuses better. Aim to get 7 or so hours of sleep a night when you can. The more regimented about your sleep you are, the better.

Eat right. What you eat can affect your cognition. I recommend eating DHA omega-3, usually found in fatty fish and in the form of supplements.

Review it. This is what really gets that information stored for the long term. You will have to review frequently in the beginning, but less and less often as time goes by.

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