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Extraordinary Memory Through Ordinary Means

Genetic alterations, cybernetic implants, and nanotech helper robots are not going to be featured in this article. Instead I’m going to discuss an even cooler method of human enhancement; practicing mental tricks. For thousands of years, people have been finding ways to improve their sense of memory with simple techniques that take advantage of how our brain seems to store information. By associating random data with vibrant images, stories, and steps on a journey, memory champions have been able to recall huge strings of numbers, cards in shuffled decks, and just about anything else. Memory competitions have sprung up all over the world, with the highest ranking contestants forced to memorize larger and larger amounts of data to prove their mnemonic might. Catch some of their impressive skill (and a few pointers on how to develop your own) in the videos below. As we seek to transcend human limitations these feats of memory highlight how some among us have already gained fearsome mental prowess with nothing more than a few tricks and a lot of patience.

There are many people who display the ability to recall insane amounts of information without practice. These ‘savants’, such as Kim Peek who was the basis for the movie Rain Man, in many cases owe their skills to developmental disorders or brain damage. We’ve seen how some scientists are working on ways that we can technologically induce these conditions in all of us without the disadvantages. While it may take years for those technologies to become available, memorization techniques are here now. These techniques seem too simple to work, but can be put to amazing effect.

Here’s Chester Santos, US Memory Champion of 2008, demonstrating a common memorization technique to Wired. Watch how Santos uses intense images linked to locations (the parts of the body) to improve memorization:


Ron White, who succeeded Santos as US Champion, explains similar techniques in the following clip:


And this segment from the BBC’s “Get Smart” show covers Andi Bell, who has an even more impressive record of memorization.


Like Santos, Bell teaches his interviewer a mnemonic based on spatial reasoning. This technique, called the “method of loci” is one of the most commonly used, and earliest developed of the memorization tricks. As you can see, it works really well even with first time users.


As good as Santos, White, and Bell may be, each of them pales in comparison to Ben Pridmore who was the reigning champion of the world until just recently. Here you’ll see him memorize an entire deck of cards in less than 25 seconds with no errors. Wow.]

Of course, no one stays atop the memorization heap for long. Simon Reinhard conquered a deck of cards in less than 22 seconds, and Johannes Mallow defeated Pridmore in the world memory competition in Germany this summer. (Such competitions award points for a variety of memory skills including recalling faces, names, numbers, cards, and words. Mallow was the overall point leader.) Add in those obsessed with memorizing static data sets (like the digits of pi, or the words in the Bible), and you have a diverse global community that is continuously pushing itself to greater heights.

Which is sort of loose proof that a good memory can be developed with hard work. World memory champions spend countless hours honing and practicing their mnemonic techniques. As you saw in the videos above, those techniques can be learned (in a general sense) rather quickly. We may not all be able to memorize a deck of cards in twenty seconds, but we should be able to better remember important facts using colorful images of animals playing around our house.

It’s rather remarkable that one of the best memory enhancing technologies we’ve developed isn’t a computer chip wired to the brain, or a drug…it’s a mental trick. We’ve seen how other simple measures, like avoiding distractions and getting enough sleep, are also very effective. Clearly there is room for many of us to improve our brains without the need for accelerating technology.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop more dramatic technologies for improving memory. Rather, I think the mnemonic tricks perfected by memorization champions could help us develop those technologies more quickly. Does the method of loci work because it accesses parts of our brain dedicated to visual analysis and spatial reasoning? If so, could we stimulate those parts of our brain and help us record something perfectly? Remembering something forever could be as simple as pushing a button on an implant. We’ll already have visual and audio recordings of the world around us thanks to life-logging. Improved memories, then, may be less about having an absolute recollection of events and more about improved comprehension and analysis. How much better might we be at our jobs if important facts were ingrained into our consciousness so that we could use them without needing to check a piece of paper, video, or website? Improving our memories, first through mental discipline and later through technological augmentation, seems like one of the first steps towards transcending the limits of our humanity. Take a good look at the champions of memory – we could all have even better skills one day.

For now, best start practicing your mnemonics. I wonder if I can recall all the elements of the periodic table by pretending they are throwing a party in my freshman dorm… Hey, Sodium get out of the shower. Chlorine, what have I told you about smoking inside the building? Phosphorus, stop trying to set fire to everything!

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