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The USA Memory Championship: How to stop forgetting stuff

In the lead up to the USA Memory Championship, a writer learns the ancient secrets of anamnesis from the tournament’s founder.

Illustration: Jan Kallwejt
USA Memory Championship

In a long-forgotten epoch—the halcyon days before cell phones and the Internet—humans were forced by necessity to remember thousands of annoying little things during the course of a day; life’s details for which we now rely on our super-smart robot-phone sidekicks. Between this technological crutch and a lifelong affection for beer, my own memory occasionally feels like something vestigial, similar to an appendix or pinkie toe. Enter Tony Dottino, founder and chairman of the USA Memory Championship, an event that tests the very limits of human recall. If Dottino can’t help me jump-start my head movies, then no one can. Before the competition gets under way on Saturday 16, Dottino walked me through some of the techniques used by memory champions past and present.

The first point he emphasizes is that you don’t need to be a Rain Man–type savant or dues-paying Mensa member to access the brain’s storage regions. It’s literally as easy as knowing what your kitchen or bedroom looks like. Most mental athletes use some variation on the Roman Room or Journey method, where the detail you’re trying to memorize is associated with an item or fixture from a familiar setting. To demonstrate, Dottino asked me to choose nine objects in my kitchen. Then he gave me a shopping list of nine things to connect to them. The first items in my room and on the list were a flower case and paint, respectively; I linked them by imagining Tom Sawyer painting his fence with flowers instead of a paintbrush. The next item was my coffeepot, which got paired up with turpentine. Although that would be one terrible cup of joe, the absurdity of the image ensured that it stuck in my mind.

Top competitors have taken this technique to the nth degree. Nelson Dellis, the defending two-time U.S. champion, can nail down the order of a shuffled deck of cards in just over a minute. And the 2012 World Memory Champion, Germany’s Johannes Mallow, owns a number of international records, including for retaining 434 abstract images in 15 minutes and 1,395 separate numbers in half an hour. I was looking for decidedly more modest results—maybe not forgetting someone’s name seconds after we’re introduced. The mnemonic device for names and faces (itself an event at the championship) is a slightly different formula. It usually involves breaking up the person or object’s name into component parts, and then forming a corresponding image. By way of example, Dottino pulled the name “Joe Jablonski” out of the air, and then described a mental picture of an army guy (G.I. Joe) skiing alongside a blond woman. This approach is effective, but only under certain field conditions. At a party recently, I learned that recollecting names this way—much like operating heavy machinery or maintaining your self-respect—is inversely proportional to alcohol consumption.

Through repetition and practice, it’s surprisingly easy to mentally index things. And Memory Championship spectators (the event is free and open to the public) will likely discern who has put the most time into both, as Dellis defends his crown against a host of challengers including former title-holders Chester Santos (2008) and Afghanistan War veteran Ron White (2009, 2010). Throughout the day, contenders will be memorizing names, faces, numbers, poetry, personal details and playing cards in an attempt to out-recall one another. For my part, I’m nowhere near being able to compete professionally, but Dottino’s tutelage has given me a more effective approach than my old method of scrunching up my face and looking like I’m trying to pass a kidney stone. I may never be able to recite 67,890 digits of pi like world-record holder Chao Lu, but now I can at least tell you the capital of Kazakhstan and what I’m doing standing around in the frozen-food aisle.

The 16th Annual USA Memory Championship takes place at Con Edison Grand Auditorium, 4 Irving Pl at 14th St (usamemorychampionship.com). Sat 16 8:30am–4pm; free.

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