USA Memory Champ Nelson Dellis Shares Memory Secrets


This morning in Studio C at the Chelsea Piers in Mahattan, Nelson Dellis, the twice-crowned and reigning USA Memory Champion shared some of his secrets to memorization. In an event sponsored by life’sDHA, the amiable Miami native explained that the brain memorizes through pictures. Think, for example, back to when you first started learning your native tongue. It was by matching an image (whether virtual or real) to a word. This is how the brain does it and just because you get older doesn’t mean you stop doing it.

Although he can memorize the order of a full deck of shuffled cards in 63 seconds and more than 300 numbers in just five minutes, Dellis claims he has no special or photographic inherent memory. Okay. But why spend 5 hours a day training for a memory championship? Turns out there’s a personal side to his story. He watched his grandmother Josephine suffer through Alzheimer’s and when she passed away, he began to think about what he could do for himself – his brain – to fend off or better yet avoid entirely the debilitating disease.

Brain training is like muscle training and comes in many forms. Like going to the gym, it consists of exercising the brain with crossword puzzles, suduku, learning a new language, challenging yourself to a new skill, experiences, to participating in social interaction.

Physical exercise is good too. It’s good for circulation and there’s a lot of blood to circulate in the brain. Keeping active grows the hippocampus, a major player in the brain’s memory system. How much is enough? It’s good to exert yourself and create some sweat…you can do that even with power walking, right?

Along with exercise comes nutrition which is also very important. Dellis says he eats foods with antioxidants to battle the oxidative stress in the brain. Look for fruits and vegetables with vibrant colors like blueberries, tomatoes, and broccoli, to name a few. He also eats fish like salmon and sardines, when he can, which has DHA, one of the three major omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 found in the brain and retina. It is also an important structural component of heart tissue and naturally found in breastmilk.

Sometimes Dellis takes supplements with DHA. There are studies that prove that taking DHA enhances memory and learning in children and adults. While it can be found in fish, life’sDHA is from a vegetarian fish-free source which makes it naturally free of the risk of ocean-borne contaminants. Afterall, the source of DHA doesn’t come from the fish, per se, but rather the algae the fish chomp on before it lands on our plate at the Red Lobster. life’sDHA is on a mission to bring awareness and inclusion of DHA in a variety of foods thereby mainstreaming its consumption in our culture.

Okay, but how can I learn to memorize a card deck like Nelson? Dellis said the technique he uses is less “crazy” and more of a realization of how your brain is meant to work. He proceeded to teach us how to use it by showing us how to memorize a list of 10 words.

There are two steps. First, take what you’re going to memorize and figure out how to turn that into a picture in your mind, something that’s meaningful. The simplest way to give meaning to words is through pictures. The idea is to have systems in place, depending on how serious you want to get with memory training, to be able to convert the stuff you’re memorizing into these pictures. It’s a highly individual thing. Dellis, for example, is a big fan of sports and knows a lot of jersey numbers so when you say numbers to him he can picture those players.

Once you have that picture, or series of pictures, you need to store it somewhere. Problem is we don’t usually bother to store what we’ve memorized in a place so we can’t retrieve it. It’s like saving a document on your computer without placing it in a folder. Hard to retrieve. The way to do that, when it comes to memorization, is to use an ancient technique that even the Greeks and Romans used which is called “Method of Loci” or “Memory Palace,” or “Journey Method.” You take a location you know very well, one you can walk through easily since our brain is very good at spacial information. Choose your house, for instance, and choose a familiar path through it. Front Door, Kitchen, Den, etc. and then place the items you’re memorizing in those specific places. Later you will recall them in your mental walkthrough.

Demonstration time. We memorized a list of 10 words by placing 5 pairs of words in 5 specific places in Studio C, the room we were in. The first two words were elephant and tractor. The place was the platform in the front of the room on which Dellis was standing. We were advised to make the images “crazy, maybe violent or sexual,” something that really makes an impression.

“Imagine a huge elephant on a little tractor, way too small for him. Really try to use your senses – the tractor is chugging along and you can hear the motor, maybe spraying some grass, you can smell that summer grass, and the elephant sprays some water with his trunk, making his trumpeting sound.”

The second place was the counter exhibiting a variety of life’sDHA products. Our pair of words was strawberry and pencil. We were to imagine huge mounds of strawberries and walking with a yellow pencil, then starting to jab them wildly like an axe murderer with strawberry jam dripping everywhere. Highly creative and fun! Doctor and nail, sweaters and roller skates, llama and planet rounded out the list as we went to 3 more locations in the room.

While Dellis provided us with extremely entertaining descriptions of the image pairings, and even earlier when he was describing the steps of brain training, we were also treated to the engaging talents of Nora Herting, a graphic recorder from “ImageThink” who, as a graphic recorder, listens, synthesizes the information for key themes and main ideas, and then translates that into words and pictures. She drew pictorial graphics of Dellis’ “lecture” and our training on two whiteboards, providing a real-time example of connecting words with images. Please see images below.

"Train Your Brain," Nora Herting, ImageThink
"Memory Technique," Nora Herting, ImageThink

Test time. The boards were hidden, and Dellis asked us to repeat the word pairings. We did very well. We even went around the room the opposite way to retrieve the pairs in opposite order.

This memorization technique can be applied to a grocery list, learning the Presidents names. You can create as many Memory Palaces as you want. Dellis uses museums, favorite cities, houses he’s lived in. He says it’s fun to explore the places in his mind and at the same time memorize things.

You can watch Nelson Dellis defend his title of USA Memory Champion 2012 this Saturday, March 16th at the USA Memory Championships held in the Con Ed building in Manhattan. It’s a lot of fun and you will witness the best in the business competing in a variety of modes.

ONE FINAL NOTE…when he’s not competing in memory championships, Dellis climbs mountains to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research. To date the mountains have included: Rainer, McKinley, Mont Blanc, Everest (South Summit), Alpamayo. Dellis plans to make another attempt at climbing Mt. Everest in 2013, with a goal of raising $290,000. For more information visit

Tags: Arts, Balance, Brain, Children, Education, Energy, Exercise, Happiness, Health, Humanity, Learning, Memory, Neuroscience, Psychology, Science, Wellness

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