Hooked on mnemonics

At the USA Memory Championship, brain jockeys test their capacity for total recall.

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YOU MUST REMEMBER THISUMC contestants plumb their hippocampi.

YOU MUST REMEMBER THISUMC contestants plumb their hippocampi. Photograph: David Rosenzweig

If you’ve ever scrambled to remember the name of someone you met at a cocktail party, imagine having to recall 99 new faces in a mere 15 minutes. That’s just the warm-up challenge in the USA Memory Championship, a yearly competition that also sees mental athletes regurgitating a series of 1,000 numbers, a list of 100 words (provided verbally), a nonrhyming 50-line poem and the order of two decks of shuffled cards.

Fifty contenders are expected on Saturday 8, almost triple the number when Tony Dottino started the event in 1997. A motivational speaker, Dottino began studying how the brain works in hopes of applying cognitive fitness to the business world. “We rely on our memory constantly, but we never learn how to properly use it,” he explains. “I’m trying to show people they have a lot more brainpower than they realize. In a competition like this, you can come back year after year and see how you’ve improved through practice and mental techniques.”

While there’s no money at stake, the intellectual olympiad has proven lucrative for some: Four-time champ Scott Hagwood published Memory Power in 2005, and 2006 winner Joshua Foer (brother of literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran) reportedly scored a $1.2 million book deal for the forthcoming Moonwalking with Einstein: A Journey into Memory and the Mind, which delves into the mental-athlete subculture.

James Jorasch, a Connecticut inventor whose name appears on more than 200 patents, is readying for his fourth trip to the Memory Championship. “I’ve created special software to help with the names and faces, and spend roughly an hour a day doing drills for the numbers and cards events.” One of Jorasch’s strategies is to pair each number from 1 to 100 with an object from around his house—supplying him with a rich visual storyboard to draw from when he’s presented with a string of digits. “You need to create vivid, emotional, colorful, energetic, violent and sexual images,” he explains. “Once you know how to do that, it gets down to practice and drills, just like any other competition.”

The USA Memory Championship takes place at the Con Edison Grand Auditorium Sat 8.

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