Total Recall

Remembering the 2003 USA Memory Championship.

Memoriad Logo

“It would be easier to find people to get up onstage naked than to find people willing to enter a memory competition,” says Tony Dottino, founder and chairman of the USA Memory Championship (Memoriad), the Olympics of thinking games. According to Dottino, attracting competitors to the Memoriad is the single greatest challenge for the event’s organizers, who hold the annual championship in late winter or early spring at the ConEdison Building in New York City. “Memory is one of those things people are afraid of, because most folks—especially as they get into their forties—believe the myth that they are going to start losing their memory.”

Nevertheless, on March 1, ten memory enthusiasts ranging in age from 15 to 44 completed the daylong competition, paying an entry fee of $25 for the privilege of working through five grueling events: Names and Faces, Random Words, Speed Numbers, Poetry and Speed Cards. Dottino is convinced fear of embarrassment and the pressure of testing your memory in front of an audience both play a role in holding down the number of entrants. “All they can think about is, ‘I’m going to put my brain out for public display? I’m going to be ranked in front of a national television audience?’,” he says. Even the competitors (referred to as “mental athletes” by the emcee) acknowledge that handling the pressure is a key factor in how you fare. “It’s so much easier to do these games when you are by yourself,” says Chester Santos, a graduate student from Golden Gate University in San Francisco who finished third in this year’s competition. 

The Memoriad was brought to the United States in 1997 by Dottino and Tony Buzan, the founder of the World Memory Championship and best-selling author of “Use Your Perfect Memory.” In fact, the U.S. version has many of the same events and is designed to prepare its contestants for the experience of competing in the World games. “The World [championship] has ten events [over two days] so we selected five that we thought would give our competitors a sampling and a base of experience to build on,” says Dottino. 

However, the ultimate goal of both competitions is the same—to deliver the message that there are steps an individual can take to improve his or her memory. “You are warriors of the mind leading a global initiative,” intoned Buzan as he addressed the contestants during a break between the third and fourth events. Dottino’s messaging was less grandiose: “We’ve learned that the attitude we have, and the initiative we take, makes a world of difference as to whether or not we live the prophecy that our memories are failing,” he says. 

For those of you who have trouble recalling names or locating your car keys, the competition presents a daunting series of challenges. In the first and arguably easiest event, the so-called mental athletes have 15 minutes to memorize 99 color head-and-shoulder photos of different people, each with a first and last name written below the picture. Afterwards, the contestants are given the 99 photos again (in random order, without the names), earning points for each first and last name correctly recalled. Then, in Random Words, contestants have 15 minutes to memorize, and 20 minutes to recall a list of several hundred random words. 

In the afternoon, the participants have 15 minutes to memorize an unpublished 50-line poem, then re-write it exactly as written, with points awarded for each punctuation mark, capital letter and correctly spelled word. According to Scott Hagwood, 40, a chemical engineer from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who has won the last three U.S. championships, the poem presents the greatest challenge, in part because there’s no way to prepare for it. “Spelling and punctuation is key,” he begins. “It’s also difficult because you can practice the cards and numbers, but when it comes to seeing raw words…. ” 

Entering the last two events, it appeared Hagwood might relinquish his title, threatened by the strong early showing of Ram Prasad Kolli, a 22-year-old graduate student from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. In particular, Kolli excelled at Speed Numbers, in which the contestants are given five minutes to memorize a random, computer generated thousand digit number (25 rows of 40 digits). In the ten-minute recall period Kolli remembered the first 92 digits in sequence, while Hagwood could recount only 84 digits. For reference, the current world record is 316 numerals, achieved by world champion Dominic O’Brien in 2000.

While the casual observer might assume that each of the top-level competitors is simply blessed with a remarkable memory, Hagwood and his peers claim that’s an incorrect assumption. In fact, they have honed their skills by relying on a variety of memory techniques, often used in combination with one another. “For the [speed] numbers I have an image associated with every number from 00-99,” advises Hagwood. “I take two numbers at a time. For me ‘00’ is ‘Seuss’ and ‘01’ is ‘suit.’ So if I'm looking at a line and see ‘0001’ then I would see Seuss—Dr. Seuss from A Cat in the Hat—wearing a suit. I see one image but I’ve got four numbers.” 

Next, he uses a variation of the Roman Room method—picturing the images on the walls of different rooms in a house—to help keep them separate in his mind. “I put the first image in one corner. Then I go to the next wall and move on to the next set of four numbers,” he adds. While these techniques take some getting used to, all the contestants at the Memoriad seem comfortable making these types of associations. “If you want a bigger memory just add on another room or build another house,” quips Paul Mellor, a first-time entrant from Richmond, Virginia. 

Meanwhile, the participants struggle to overcome the impression that they are a freak of nature. “People have the mistaken assumption that those who are interested in memory are somehow bright, probably a bit nerdish and not really normal,” says Buzan. “We’ve found to our delight—and I must say, to my expectation—that the people who enter memory championships are normal people.” 

If Hagwood is any indicator then Buzan's assessment is accurate. In fact, Hagwood had no awareness of memory exercises until he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer back in 1999 and became concerned about losing his memory. “I picked up a couple of Tony Buzan’s books and became interested. I didn't really think I could use the exercises for anything, but then I saw a 20/20 segment [on ABC] about the Memoriad. I practiced a little bit and the first time I entered I won,” he says. 

During most of the year, Hagwood exercises his memory for an hour a day. But in the three weeks before the Memoriad and the World Championship—there are no cash prizes in the Memoriad but the winner earns a free trip to London to compete in the World games in August—he reports training three or four hours a day. “Perhaps the closest metaphor is when you go into a health club you see people working out the muscles of their body. These people are working out the muscles of their mind,” attests Buzan. Hagwood concurs, saying, “We come here to show that memory can be improved. It’s all skill and technique, just as if you were swinging a golf club or playing the piano.” 

Although he trailed Kolli by a narrow margin heading into the final event, Hagwood’s hours of training ultimately paid off. In Speed Cards the mental athletes have a maximum of five minutes to memorize a freshly shuffled deck of playing cards. After the memorization period is over the contestants receive a new deck of cards, which is in perfect order. The new deck must be arranged in exactly the same sequence as the one just memorized. In the two attempts allowed, Hagwood needed three minutes and 27 seconds to memorize the sequence of all 52 cards on the first attempt and just two minutes and 17 seconds (a new U.S. record) to duplicate the feat. Afterwards Hagwood appeared drained and relieved that that the contest was over, a sentiment echoed by fellow contestant, Dominic Hughes, a researcher from Stanford University who said, “My main souvenir is a splitting headache.” 

According to Buzan and Dottino, Hagwood's achievement is proof positive that it’s possible to improve your memory, even as you get older. But Buzan knows he has a long way to go to convince the public. “When I ask people, ‘What is the main problem you have with your brain?’—unanimously, wherever I am in the world—they say, ‘my memory.’ Everyone thinks we're born with lousy memories,” he says. “It’s totally untrue. We’re born with the potential for phenomenal memory. We simply need the methodology to use that power of thought.”