The World Memory Championships, despite the best efforts of the TV channels that host it, isn’t the most exciting event to watch. Typical events include memorising as many names and faces as possible in an hour (the record is 97), abstract images in 15 minutes (622) and numerical digits in an hour (3027). The second half of the ten-event competition spices things up by forcing athletes to recite answers out loud, head-to-head, but – however fast and furious the athletes’ mental processes – visually there isn’t much going on.
Still, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a memory athlete. The money is rocketing – last year’s first prize was $40,000 – and the sport is progressing at the speed of thought…
In Remembrance Of World Records
While physical records such as the 100m or the marathon improve at a crawl, memory records tumble every year. A few years ago, memorising a pack of cards in under two minutes – also known as ‘speed cards’, the sport’s signature event – would have been an impressive feat, good enough to win the USA Memory Championship (then regarded as one of the sport’s weakest competitions). Today, the world record is a barely believable 19.4 seconds: and it’s held by 25-year-old American medical student Alex Mullen.
‘I originally wanted to improve my memory for school, as a sophomore,’ Mullen, currently prepping to defend his title, tells RISING. ‘Medicine is a very memory-heavy field… but once I learned about it and got some exposure to the competitions, I got addicted.’ Surprisingly, Mullen only practices for about 30 minutes a day – though he’ll step it up in training for big competitions, where single events will last an hour – a fraction of the time invested by athletes such as China’s Wang Feng, who reportedly logs 6-8 hours in some training sessions.
‘I try to be very consistent about it,’ says Mullen. ‘I try to train in a way that's as efficient as I can think of. I spend a lot of time encoding, rather than just practising events – that's what really makes a difference. The recall process is not the bottleneck, it's how fast you can memorise things in the first place.’
Building Your Own Memory Palaces
The basic idea behind most memory techniques is that we, as humans, are a lot better at memorising visual and spatial information than lists of names and numbers. Evolutionarily, this makes sense – being able to find your way back to a sheltered cave or clump of berries you’ve previously only glanced at would be a useful skill for a caveman. Think back to the house you grew up in, or an office you’ve only been in a couple of times – chances are, you can trace a path around it reasonably accurately, probably even adding in a few key spots, known by memory pros as ‘loci’. Assign memorable images to these loci, and you’ll be able to pluck them back out of your brain, in order and at will. This is what’s known as a ‘memory palace’, and it’s the simplest way to remember everything from US presidents to the periodic table: imagine 007 standing on an oven-hob with his skirt flapping up around his waist, for instance, and you’ve got founding father James Monroe. The more graphic or – let’s be honest – filthy the image, the more likely it is to snap back into place under pressure: Peter of Ravenna, the 15th century’s foremost memory expert, apologises to the clergy before notes that ‘the memory is marvellously excited by images of women.’
‘The more filthy the image, the more likely it is to snap back into place under pressure’
Memory pros keep dozens of palaces, based on everything from childhood haunts to stately homes to Call Of Duty maps they’ve played dozens of times. For events like speed cards or digits in an hour, they fill them with pre-made images: 52 for a deck of cards, say. The difference-maker for Mullen is that, instead of 52 images, he uses 1352, each one representing a specific pair – allowing him to memorise two cards at a time. This is what he means by ‘encoding’ – cramming all of those memorable images into his brain is the hard part, but once it’s done, he can blitz the competition.
The other difference between Mullen and much of the competition is that he’s also pushing forward the science of using these techniques for real-world applications: taking it out of the theoretical world and into the practical. ‘We struggled initially,’ he explains. ‘I knew the techniques were very powerful and I was almost positive I could make them work, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how to do it. There's a wrong way to use memory techniques – it's possible to hamstring yourself.”
‘I spend a lot of time ‘encoding’, rather than just practising events’
What Mullen uses, for both complex medical terminology and language learning (he speaks Spanish and Mandarin, though stresses that he’s not fluent in either) is a combination of memory palaces and ‘spaced repetition’, or using regular flashcard practice to commit words and concepts to long-term memory. ‘I generally use memory palaces to memorise only things that are especially tricky or unintuitive,’ he says. ‘If something makes sense from a logical standpoint I’ll remember it using principles, but if a drug has a strange side effect that doesn't make sense, I’ll include that in a memory palace. Language learning is different because it's more non-conceptual where you need to learn all the words, so I’ll use palaces for big chunks of vocabulary – my old college campus is my Spanish palace, for instance.’ Together with his wife Cathy Chen, he’s put together a website full of memory techniques, aimed more at practical matters than memorising speed cards – while, at the same time, finishing his medical studies, carrying on his language learning, and aiming to break his own records. Can he possibly get any faster at speed cards? ‘We don’t have people who are training like professional athletes yet,’ says Mullen, who still eats sensibly, exercises and meditates with the Headspace app, ‘but for now, it’s like we’ve hit a wall. The next real leap would be to go to using even more digits – memorising four digits instead of three for the numbers event, for instance – but memorising 10,000 unique images? That comes with its own problems…’
WHAT NEXT? Your challenge – and you should accept it – is to memorise every US president, in order, today. Use your current route to work, and place a memorable image for each at various stops along the way: John Wayne and Quincy Jones dancing with Morticia Addams for John Quincy Adams, say. Once you’ve done all 45, bet someone a pint you can recite them in order. Next up, head for the Anki app to brush up on your kanji. You might surprise yourself.