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Jan 3, 2019

How to sharpen your memory: advice from a 4-time USA Memory Champ

Nelson Dellis doesn’t know where you left your car keys … but he thinks you can train yourself to remember where you put them.

Nelson Dellis is an expert at training his memory. He can recite pi to 10,000 digits, and he once memorized a deck of cards at 26,000 feet on Mt. Everest — where the air is so thin that other climbers often hallucinate. A four-time USA Memory Champion, Dellis didn’t reach the top of his game without careful training. Dellis recently authored a book premised on the notion that anyone can improve their memory, and he’s given us a preview in the interview below.

What inspired you to get into memory competitions?

My grandma had Alzheimer’s disease, and it got me thinking about what I can do for my own memory. That’s when I discovered the world of memory competition, and I figured I’d give it a try when I was 24.

What has been your most interesting memory feat?

One of my favorites was actually a record I tried to break but I didn’t quite make: memorizing 10,000 digits of pi. To break the record you don’t just have to state the numbers from start to finish—you to have to recite 50 randomly chosen five-digit chunks, and the digits that come before and after, all while being timed.

If someone is just starting out, what techniques or strategies do you suggest?

Flex your memory. It’s like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it’ll get. Stop relying on your devices or even pen and paper to help you remember things like dates, phone numbers, and grocery lists. Once you commit to using your mind and your memory, you’ll find that you are forced to pay attention because the stakes are higher—you might forget something you needed at the store.

Associate. I visualize what I’m trying to memorize, and if there’s not an image to represent the item, like a number, I create one. The goal is figuring out how can you turn that thing that you want to remember into a picture, something that stands out in your mind.

What imagery do you use?

It helps to make it funny or bizarre, gruesome, violent, or sexual. These things are emotionally tagged, and we naturally remember them better. My images tend to be gross and gruesome, because that’s just what sticks for me. It’s like I’m creating a comic book in my mind, with those artistic nuances that make it exciting and riveting to read. So a lot of my images make crashes and sounds or disrupt things, but what works best depends on the person.

Is this similar to the concept of a memory palace?

A memory palace is a mental device that uses a space or place to organize pictures of the items you want to remember, in a certain sequence, to help you retrieve them later. Our default is to kind of throw a memory in there and hope for the best in the future, while the memory palace helps give it a map that helps you access the information later.

How do you go about creating a memory palace?

Say you want to memorize your grocery list. You can do that with a memory palace. The way to start is to think about a space that you know very well, like a house or an office—this is your palace. Then you start to create mental paths through it that make sense to you. You could start at your front door and end at your bedroom and that would be one memory palace route. Then you start placing—or imagining, really—pictures of things that you want to remember along that path through the space: carrots by the door, milk in the middle of the hall, eggs outside your bedroom. What happens is later on when you want to recall the information, you just walk through that same route in your mind’s eye, and the images for the things you are memorizing will be along the path in the places that you remembered them.

It sounds like a simple framework, but is it harder in practice?

The reverse! It’s easier done than said!

What was it like to memorize a deck of cards in the Death Zone on Mt. Everest?

The memory part wasn’t that bad, but honestly, it was hard because I was exhausted. I had climbed all day and I was in the tent and doing this memory feat, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Just staying focused was the hardest part.

How was the rest of your expedition?

I’ve attempted Everest three times but I haven’t summited. Each time I had to turn around for different reasons, but the year where I have a video of me memorizing the cards is when I got the closest. I had to turn around because my oxygen mask broke, and I kept climbing without additional oxygen. I was very close to a bad situation, but fortunately had the mental strength to make it back down safely.

Are there any memory tools or resources you recommend?

I love exercising my brain with Lumosity. It’s all about keeping your mind active, so any fun way to get you going every day is a great resource, and Lumosity provides that. The short bite-sized games are great because you can squeeze them in between things in your day. It is hard to make mind and memory games attractive and fun, but Lumosity does an amazing job of that. For memory competitions specifically, I use a few different softwares to practice: Memocamp, Memoriad, and Memory League, which is an online platform I created.

Can you tell us more about your new book?

I wanted to make a book on memory that is actually memorable. There have been a lot of memory books over the years, but they are more of these dry self help books, and while the tutorials are useful, they are not very useful if you can’t remember them. That’s why my book is called Remember It!: The Names of People You Meet, All of Your Passwords, Where You Left Your Keys, and Everything Else You Tend to Forget, and it is filled with different types of practical tips presented so you’ll actually remember them. Ever forget where you parked the car, where you put your wallet, names and faces, dates and facts, anniversaries, and things like that? There are strategies for remembering these daily challenges, and I also go into depth on how to memorize cards, memory palaces, and other memory strategies. You can also find a lot of my techniques on my YouTube Channel.

Were you born with this ability?

I don’t believe I was born with any innate memory capabilities. It’s all about learning techniques, and practicing them every day. Do it every day, even if just a little bit, so the techniques become habit. It’s not a given that someone will teach you how to memorize in school, but it is something you use every single moment of the day. The secret is being excited about your potential and working daily to unlock the capabilities of your own mind.

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