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The many applications of memory

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Ron White, 2009 U.S.A. Memory Champion, speaking to journalists about his memory techniques after winning the title. (Photo by Ryan Auer)

The championship round of the 2009 USA Memory Championships is about to begin, and the finalists are pacing the halls of the Con Edison building in New York City trying to make the images in their heads as vivid as possible.

Frontrunner Ron White, a naval reservist who served in Afghanistan, broke two national records in the qualifying rounds by recalling 167 consecutive digits in five minutes, then memorizing a shuffled deck of cards in one minute and 27 seconds.

In this last round, the three finalists try to memorize the order of two shuffled decks of cards. After several tense rounds, two contestants falter. Then White correctly identifies the 37th card as the 10 of clubs, to become the 2009 champion.

“I approached this like a military mission; I trained,” said White, after receiving his trophy, a plastic rendering of a bald eagle landing on an American flag. To prepare, White memorized a shuffled deck of cards 1,116 times, cut out alcohol, took supplements and even used a snorkel and plastic cards to memorize entire decks while underwater, a Navy Seal technique to increase oxygen levels in the brain.

White will now progress to the World Memory Championships, to be held in Bahrain this November, joining a growing number of experts who use techniques of association and visualization to push their memory to the limit. But while competitors and memory experts maintain that anyone can learn techniques to boost their recall, how applicable are these methods for everyday life?

“Even average human beings can learn the kinds of associative and other techniques used by competitors in events such as the World Memory Championship, although extensive practice is required,” said Dan Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard University and an expert on human memory.

But skeptics abound. “The techniques these people use are mainly to help them recall meaningless material – e.g. long strings of binary digits," zeros and ones, said Elizabeth Valentine, a memory expert at University of London. “Remembering where you put your car keys is a different kind of memory from what these guys are normally up to.”

Most competitors use techniques of mnemonic association, or assigning images to random pieces of information; and loci, or visualizing the images in a specific place. While the methods seem arcane at first, they rest on a simple foundation of association, visualization and location, which can be learned quickly with practice and focus.

Chester Santos became the 2008 USA Champion after only a few years of training his brain to apply vivid images to numbers. Santos can recall a 100-digit number in minutes.

The world’s top-ranked memory competitor, Ben Pridmore, is an accountant from Derby, England, who says he stumbled into competition in 2000 for lack of something better to do. Since then he has won the World Memory championships twice and broken numerous world memory records, including memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 24 seconds.

While the feats they accomplish in competition may seem abstract, competitors argue that the techniques have numerous practical applications, such as remembering grocery lists, names and telephone numbers, which many tacticians try to relate to the general public through seminars and books.

Popular books by competitors include “Use Your Perfect Memory” by Tony Buzan, co-founder of the World Memory Championships; “Memory Power” by Scott Hagwood, a former U.S.A. champion; and “How to Develop a Perfect Memory,” by former memory champion Dominic O’Brien. White, this year’s U.S. winner, has self-published a book called “The Military Memory Man.”

Techniques are growing in popularity at schools. In the U.K., 500 school memory teams compete in a national contest. The U.S.A. Memory Championships hosted five high school teams, including Hershey High School in Hershey, Pa., which won the national team competition. Hershey’s success has also won them an invitation to address the state senate and describe memory techniques and their benefits in schools.

Business and world leaders from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Al Gore and Colin Powell profess to use mind-mapping memory techniques to organize complex ideas and retain and store data.

Never mind the thousand-digit number, say some, I just want to find my wallet. Would it be worthwhile to invest in one of those memory courses advertised on infomercials? Not necessarily.

“The techniques used by memory experts are clearly designed to achieve specific goals, mainly memorizing long strings of random material," like numbers and playing cards, said John Wilding, a psychologist who has studied the brains of memory competitors. “And it is well-established in psychology that specific learning does not generalize well to different tasks.”

Pridmore, the reigning world champion, for example, has memorized the number pi to 50,000 decimal places (a feat that takes more than seven hours to recite) and memorized entire decks of cards in under 30 seconds. Yet he regularly forgets people's names, the location of his lucky hat and even has a problem remembering where he was when breaking world memory records, he told a British tabloid before last year’s World Memory Championship.

However, Tony Buzan, who founded the World Memory Championships in 1991, argues that skills used in competition can be easily adapted, practitioners are not always willing to apply them to other areas.

Brian McAdam, a doctoral student in philosophy at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., has used memory techniques to learn several languages and complicated philosophical concepts, but said he does not always apply them. “There is something of a fixed cost to using the techniques, which makes them ideal for learning lists,” said McAdam. “With little things like where you put your keys it appears not to be worth the effort for something so small.”

E-mail: rma2122@columbia.edu