Changing Planet

Mental Athletes Increase Brain Size in 15th US Memory Championship

Mental athletes memorize a sequence of random digits. Photo by Nicole Glass

Nelson Dellis left Saturday’s US Memory Championship with gold medals around his neck and a trophy in his hand. He had broken new records, memorized 303 random numbers in five minutes, and recited the order of two decks of cards. The second-time champion was living proof that a 28-year old with an average memory can become the country’s greatest mental athlete.

The technique? Translating data into visual images and placing them into a “memory palace” – a place in your mind that you can walk through again later and gather the storage.

Dellis came to the competition with a new technique: he would turn a group of seven numbers into a single image. To him, the number 0093495, for example, represented an image of Olivia Newton slam-dunking a helmet while wearing spandex.

Using the same colorful imagery, Dellis and the other mental athletes memorized a 50-line poem, 99 names and faces, random words and numbers, and biographical information including zip codes and phone numbers – all under the pressure of a few minutes each.

Joshua Foer, a former memory champion and author of Moonwalking with Einstein, came to cheer on this year’s competitors, but says he no longer has the skills to win.

“It’s not like training for an event like this improves some underlying generalized memorability,” he said. “You’re not turning up some volume knob in your brain. For these events, you’re quicker, faster and can remember more, but if you step outside of these doors, Nelson or I or any of these competitors are not going to have a better memory for where we put out car keys.”

But although this type of memory can only be achieved through actively applying these techniques, extensive practice can grow one’s brain the same way that one can work out to gain muscle.

According to Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness, this type of training actually causes brain growth, helping prevent Alzheimer’s later in life.

“When you’ve acquired the skills, you’re more likely to use your memory more often,” he said. “And the more often you use your memory, the stronger your hippocampus gets.”

Fotuhi refers to bad memory as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone assumes they have bad memory, they avoid efforts to train their brain — training that can help prevent brain shrinkage. And Tony Dottino, the founder of the annual championship, is familiar with the difficulty of recruiting people to compete.

“It’s easier for me to stand on the street and get people to come in here and stand on this stage naked before I can get them in here to compete in a memory competition,” he said. “The hardest thing I’ve had to do in fifteen years is to find mental athletes.”

Dellis began training his memory after his grandmother died from Alzheimer’s.

Whether memorizing to win a competition, better one’s test scores or as a hobby, the health benefits are undeniable.

“We should take care of our minds, that’s the bottom line,” said Dellis, with cards at his feet and a trophy in hand. “I hope you are inspired a little bit to explore your own mind.”

Nicole Glass is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist and a contributing writer at National Geographic News Watch. She also writes for USA TODAY, The Huffington Post, Russia Today (RT TV) and Demand Media. Previously, she was Assistant Editor and later Weekend Editor of FrumForum.com, David Frum's political news outlet (now a part of The Daily Beast). She grew up abroad, has moved more than 15 times and has visited more than 40 countries. Visit her website, www.nicoleglass.com to see her published works and follow her on Twitter @NicoleSGlass.

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