The room on the 19th floor of the Con Edison Building at 4 Irving Place in New York City is filled with long tables. At the tables are men and women, boys and girls huddled over pieces of paper, decks of cards, in deep concentration. You can hear a pin drop it is so silent. Some are wearing gigantic earphones or “sound dampening ear muffs” as they are called here. Some mouth words or snap their fingers silently.

What is this scene, you may wonder? as your brain begins to feel heavy from all the mental activity that’s in the air. This is the 15th annual USA Memory Champtionship, where fifty “mental athletes” are competing in a day-long set of mental challenges to test their powers of recall. Brain-child of Tony Dottino, a former IBM executive turned business consultant, the competition was established as a way to promote the capabilities of the human brain.

“You are not stuck with the memory you were born with,” Dottino says, which will become more and more evident as the day moves along.

The memory challenges range from memorizing an unpublished poem, recalling biographical information of random people, remembering rows of random numbers and matching about 100 names with faces. You can see the action in the video here. Witness University of Pennsylvania sophomore Michael Mirski who placed 3rd this year and his unique technique for memorizing a deck of cards.

I especially enjoyed the “Tea Party” where five people came up in front of the five remaining competitors, each offering bits of personal information: name, date of birth, place of residence including zip code, 10-digit telephone number, 3 hobbies, 3 favorite foods, favorite car, etc. One by one the people returned in random order, each competitor was asked to recall a particular bit of information about the participant. They went three rounds before anyone made a mistake. Amazing!

Nelson Dellis, the mountain climber from Florida who competes in honor of his beloved Grandmother Josephine who suffered from Alzheimer’s won for the second year in a row. He even broke his own record of memorizing 248 numbers in five minutes, by increasing the number to 303. How did he do it?

“It’s all tricks,” Dellis explained of his win. “I don’t have a good memory naturally. It’s something I learned and taught myself.”

Having trained for the national memory competition by memorizing a randomly shuffled deck of cards as he climbed Mount Everest, he explained his process in greater detail. He relies on an ancient method he refers to as the “journey method,” where he visualizes memorized objects as he moves mentally through a place he knows well. To recall the information, he mentally walks back through the journey. Last year he was able to memorize 6 digit numbers. This year he upped it to 7 digits. For example, take the sequence “0093495.” To Nelson, 009 is Olivia Newton in her workout video wearing spandex. 34 is Shaquille O’Neal, more specifically his famous action of slam-dunking. 95 is Tom Brady’s helmet. Put it all together and you have Olivia Newton slam-dunking a helmet. The locale he places all of this in is the Bahamas, familiar territory to him.

I asked someone the significance of the seahorse, the emblem for the memory championship. It seems that the shape of the hippocampus which is the part of the brain associated with memory resembles that of a seahorse. During this year’s competition a keynote presentation was given by Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness, and assistant professor of neurology, John Hopkins University School of Medicine.  He stressed the importance of physical and mental exercise and diet in brain health and said that it was necessary to grow the hippocampus.

As we watched many different types of memory races, it became more and more apparent how association is the key to this type of mental retrieval. Whether it’s faces, numbers, random words or decks of cards, each person creates a personal language of familiar images which he or she strings together in a story. In this respect, there is nothing random or impersonal about faces, numbers and words…when it comes to memory and the brain’s particular way of making connections.

For more information on the USA Memory Championships sponsored in part by life’sDHA to

Tags: Brain, Education, Exercise, Happiness, Health, Learning, Memory, Neuroscience, Science, Wellness

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