The competition takes place in a dimly lit lecture hall. To the average eye, it just looks like quiet students are sitting at their desks wearing headphones. And then you realize that those headphones are actually construction-grade ear protection, and these students are actually memory champions.
The world memory championship has grown each year since it was founded in 1991. The current record? A german man named Johannes Mallow correctly recalled 501 digits in the correct order after taking only 5 minutes to memorize them (he beat the previous world record by just one digit). Sound impressive? Keep in mind that the the average human memory can keep 4 chunks of information at any given time. So what can we learn from the masters of memory?
How memory works
In 1885, a german man by the name of Hermann Ebbinghaus sat at his table, diligently studying a bunch of garbled words with no meaning. While many would write him off at the time as a crazy person, Ebbinghaus went on to study over time how many of the garbled words he could remember, eventually leading to a huge breakthrough in how the memory works. He is credited with discovering something most will be familiar with, the learning curve. More importantly and less known by all, he discovered the forgetting curve.
The forgetting curve shows exactly how easily information slips out of our memory. It should make sense now why that world history class in college isn’t exactly the most accessible information in your brain. The only thing that keeps memories solidified is repetition.
Here’s how memory works: We have both a working memory and a recall memory. The average working memory can handle about four collections of information at one time. Your recall memory, on the other hand, can store millions of pieces of information, but works in a similar fashion to a hard drive. It gets harder to recall information as time passes.
Visualization and card packs
I first learned about the world memory championships while reading ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’. I was amazed at how closely the ‘grandmasters of memory’ resembled neuroscientists. They knew exactly how the brain worked and exploited it to push the boundaries of their memories.
A great example of their applied knowledge is how they memorize a pack of cards. The world record as of this writing is 23.5 seconds to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of 52 cards. Now, if our working memory can only store four collections of data at one time, how is this feat accomplished?
Turns out, memory champions use two of the most powerful memory aids, visualization and story-telling, to trick the brain into forming more recall memories about the deck. As grandmaster Ed Cooke explained on a recent podcast, “When you or I look at a series of numbers, it may seem boring. And the brain thinks so too, it’s simply not worth remembering. But when stories are created around those numbers, the memory expands.”
Cooke and others popularized the technique of assigning a character to each of the 52 cards in a given deck. As the cards are shown to the memory champ, they assemble a story about those characters in their heads.
For example, let’s say I showed you a queen of hearts (Queen of England) followed by a nine of clubs (Brad Pitt) followed by a three of diamonds (Michael Jackson). Your job would then to be to quickly construct a story with these characters to evoke strong imagery in the mind. Think violence, destruction, love. The more emotions the better. “The Queen of England knocks on Brad Pitts door, only to find him having a fight-club style fist fight with Michael Jackson.” Bingo.
With this knowledge, I was amazed at the possibilities for making my memory extraordinary. But then, reality hit.
The reality of visualization
Turns out, inventing whimsical stories about each of your memories gets old, very quickly. After a few days of visualizing my thoughts and creating characters, I failed and went back to my old way of thinking and remembering. Where did I put those keys again?
In the midst of my failure, I turned to a technique that has saved my ass countless times when it comes to habit formation: the minimum effective dose.
A Practical Application
The way I’ve heard it best explained is through the analogy of boiling water. Water begins to boil at 212 degrees. That’s the minimum effective dose. Turn up the heat to 300 and it’s still boiling. Extra energy is expended for no gain. I became curious what the minimum effective dose for memory was.
After a month of trial and error, I found it. I created the same visual for each memory I wanted to recall as my minimum effective dose. An example of my visual at play:
When someone asks me to remember a phone number, I visualize my memory as a room full of file cabinets. I picture the phone number in large font on a piece of 8.5×11 paper (remember, more detailed the better it sticks) and picture it being filed away in the front of the room. Now that I’ve ‘seen’ the number on a piece of mental paper, I found myself much faster on the recall, because I was simply taking the paper out of the cabinet and reading it from my memory.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the most practical application I’ve found so far for increasing my memory recall on a day to day basis. What other ways have you found effective at boosting your memory? Let me know in the comments 🙂