Did you know there’s a USA Memory Championship? It’s true, and over the weekend, reigning memory king Nelson Dellis (right) smoothly defended his title in New York City. We could think of no better person to ask for tips about improving one’s remembering skills. Which is, in fact, doable. “I never had a good memory,” says Dellis. “I learned it just like everyone else who competes. After you see the benefits, you get hooked. It’s a really cool power to have.”
Dellis, inspired by his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, trained four to five hours a day to triumph, quickly memorizing two full decks of cards in the final faceoff. He now competes—and climbs mountains—to raise awareness for memory work and funds to fight the disease. We just want to quit spacing on the names of business associates and, you know, women. Here’s how Dellis does it, and how you—perhaps with a little help from BrainStrong, a supplement maker that sponsors the event—can, too.
“I never had a good memory. I learned it just like everyone else. After you see the benefits, you get hooked.”
1. Forget What You’ve Learned
The way we’re taught to remember things is rote: repeat it over and over again. If you forget a word or line, you’re screwed. But if someone gives you a cue, you remember, which means it is in your brain. So what we do instead is, we put these interesting visual pictures in places in our mind where we can retrieve them. Picture your office, your apartment or how you get to work, and you could actually do it with a pretty impressive amount of detail. When I memorize a deck of cards, I am walking around my apartment with these pictures that represent cards along the way. To recall, all I do is start that journey through, as the ancient Greeks called it, the memory palace. You can also use this technique to remember facts about a person, storing those nuggets of info on parts of his or her body.
2. Names and Faces
When you meet someone new, the basic technique is to look for a distinguishing feature on their face—big nose, bushy eyebrow, scar, dimple—whatever jumps out at you first. That’s gonna be your anchor point. The face is a place to store this information. Say the person’s name is Nelson. Come up with an association—Nelson Mandela or Nelson from the Simpsons—and stick it on that distinguishing feature. Say Nelson has a large nose. Stick Nelson Mandela on top of his nose, or imprisoned—like Robben Island—in his nose. Entwine the name and feature with some crazy vivid image. When you see that person again and that feature jumps out at you, you can recall that image and remember the name.
3. Quotes and Poetry
To memorize poetry—which, like names and faces, numbers and cards, is a phase of the championship—the key is to group phrases, make images out of them and store them on a journey. If the line is, “where do balloons go” maybe I’m standing on my bed saying, “where did my balloon go?” If the next line is, “when their strings are cut,” I’m walking to my closet, looking at my watch and cutting strings with scissors. After I’m done visualizing, I’ll go back and write it out a few times to kind of build it into muscle memory. If you really get inside the poem, you may be able to do it naturally.
4. Numbers and Cards
Because numbers are such an abstract thing, we use a system where we translate groups of numbers into pictures. We translate of numbers into letters and associate them with a famous name. For example, 11 is AA, so that could be Andre Agassi, 27 is BG, so that could be Bill Gates, 35 is EC, so that could be Eric Clapton. With cards, competitors do a similar thing with the number and suit. For example, the 4 of Diamonds could be Donald Duck. The associations need not be pure number to letter; 23 could be Michael Jordan. Then, to remember a string of numbers, you simple need to go on a journey—Agassi playing tennis on your bed, Gates computing your closet, Clapton strumming in your kitchen—that takes you to all those people. Wanna go next level? Associate each person with an action and object to create little phrases that from six number sequences. In this case, the sequence 112735 might translate to Andre Agassi computing with a guitar. Madness? Yes. But it works.