By Jim Schutze
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Since the brain retains pictures more readily than abstract concepts, committing long lists of numbers, words and other information to memory requires the use of visual images. This means coming up with a mental picture to associate with each number between zero and 99, and to digest numbers in even bigger chunks, an additional set of pictures for each three-digit number. When White sees or hears the number 24, he sees Chuck Norris; 752 is a gallon of milk, and 192 is Willie Nelson. For playing cards he uses a method called character-action-object, which means he has a person, verb and noun to represent each card.
In order to keep track of all of this information and recall it in a specific order, top-shelf memorizers use something called the "journey method." This means mentally placing each piece of information, and its corresponding visual, on a particular point along a pathway through a city or room. White's favorite journeys include his sister's house and the bar at Hooters. As he hears a story or a series of facts in a particular order, he imagines he's in one of those places, walking along and "filing" each fact in a couch or chair, bed or bar.
The use of visual cues as a mnemonic device is hardly new. The ancient Greeks called it loci, or a system for location. After the Greek poet Simonides became the sole survivor of a large banquet when the roof caved in, he is said to have recalled the names of all of the guests by remembering where each had been seated. Roman generals used the same method to remember the names of thousands of soldiers, and Roman orators used it to recall long speeches. In 1991, a business consultant and author named Tony Buzan took these historical techniques—and by extension, what they say about the brain's capabilities—and turned them into a competitive sport by founding the first international memory competition in Great Britain. Since then, memory tournaments have popped up in several countries, and the World Memory Competition is held annually in Bahrain.
American memory contenders lag behind the world heavyweights, most of whom are British or German. Yet in the 13 years since the first USA Memory Championship took place in New York, Americans have been setting better and better records. Many train year-round, incorporating physical and nutritional habits tailored to support the brain, and all this for an event that promises no monetary reward other than the price of an airline ticket to the World Memory Championship, boasts no fancy sponsorships and is regarded—if it is known at all—as an odd obsession in the obscure world of mental athleticism.
Ron White is the first to admit that memory isn't terribly sexy. "I always joke that the people I compete against played Dungeons and Dragons, live in their mother's basement and have invisible girlfriends, and I'm one of them," he says. Indeed, he wears thick, square, military-issued eyeglasses to study his cards and often dons headphones to better concentrate. Ben Pridmore, the British reigning world champion, cuts a curious figure in his photograph on the World Memory Championship Web site, peering out from behind a Lord of the Rings-like cloak. And while there's footage of past championships on YouTube, for most people, watching a group of thinkers poring silently over lists of numbers doesn't exactly carry the same thrill as seeing Lance Armstrong pushing up a hill past a clutch of cyclists.
Yet to Tony Dottino, founder of the USA Memory Championship, memory duels are as worthy of attention as the Tour de France. "We're trying to get people to understand that you can get better at cognitive skills through practice, that a good memory is not necessarily innate," he says.
There's research that supports that view. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor emeritus of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in the study of exceptional performance in the arts and sciences, as well as in memory, points out a 2003 study that compared world-class memorizers with control subjects. The researchers concluded that the two groups had no differences in basic brain function or anatomy. What distinguished the world-class memorizers' brain scans was simply more activity in the parts of the brain tied to spatial memory, navigation and learning associations. That additional activity was linked to their training.
"The research seems to support the view that training is the primary reason people are able to develop these skills," says Ericsson, whose research formed part of the basis for writer Malcolm Gladwell's assertion in Outliers, a nonfiction look at what makes people successful, that mastering something requires 10,000 hours of practice. "That extends to other things like music. Most people assume talent is innate, but what we're finding is that it's explainable in terms of deliberate practice."
Given competitive memory's implications for broader learning and achievement, as well as preserving brain function with age, Dottino laments that he has yet to land major corporate sponsors for the USA Memory Championship. (Deals with IBM and Pepsi fell through, he says.) "Here's something proving to help people in their cognitive function, and we can't find a company," he says, distressed. "Scott Hagood was a four-time champion, and he beat cancer. He should be a poster child for the American Cancer Society. We have a guy who uses his brain, and no one cares."