Experience: I’ve got the best memory in the world
A Ted Talk inspired me to learn the techniques. The first time I used them to recall a 20-item shopping list, I felt superhuman
Fri 19 May 2023 10.00 BST
Growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, I never thought I had a good memory. None of my friends or family would have said I did, either.
In 2013, when I was studying biomedical engineering, I stumbled across a Ted Talk by Joshua Foer, the author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He mentioned techniques such as the “memory palace” or the “journey method”. They tell you that if you want to remember things, imagine you’re journeying through a specific physical space, depositing images that represent the information you’re trying to recall.
I applied these techniques to my studies and day-to-day tasks. The first time I used a memory palace to recall a 20-item shopping list, I felt I’d encountered an earth-shattering superhuman ability – although it’s something anyone can do.
Initially, competitions were of no interest, but I tried a few activities that they involve, such as memorising the order of a deck of cards or lists of numbers. I started training in March 2013 and by September I had broken the one-minute mark for memorising and recalling a single deck of cards. The national record was slightly over a minute, so I realised I could compete with the best. In 2014, when I was 22, I entered the USA Memory Championship and came second. That spurred me on.
It’s just about trying to make mental images that are as creative as possible to create a memorable story – it’s fun
Memorising cards has always been my favourite. I break the cards into pairs and assign an image to each pair. To the human brain, images are a lot more memorable than the abstract idea of, say, the six of diamonds.
I use my childhood home as one of my memory palaces, and the first stop is outside the house, at the mailbox. If I was remembering a deck of cards, I could associate the first pair of cards with the image of Michael Jordan slamdunking a basketball into my mailbox. Then the next stop is the driveway. So I’ll associate the second pair with an image of Ian McKellen as Gandalf leading the Fellowship of the Ring up the driveway.
The images can be random – they don’t always need to be related to the information you’re trying to remember. It’s just about trying to make mental images that are as creative as possible to create a memorable story – they are inevitably ridiculous. It’s fun, which people might not expect, because memory seems like this dry thing. The fastest people in the world can memorise a deck of cards in 15 seconds or under. My personal best in a world championship event is 15.61 seconds.
That said, the world championships are boring to watch. It’s like watching 300 people take a test, with desks all around the room. A lot of people, myself included, use earplugs. Some even have contraptions like horse blinkers to block out other people.
American memorisers used to lag behind the rest of the world, but I was able to take the fight to the Europeans and became world champion for three years between 2015 and 2017. The first time I won, the prize money was about $30,000. It’s not professional sports money, but I was a medical student at the time, and that was a lot.
Every world champion I’ve met would agree that they don’t have a superhuman memory; they just learn their techniques. I’ve never met anyone with a truly photographic memory. No one at a competition has been able to look at a page of numbers and recite it immediately.skip past newsletter promotion
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I’m semi-retired from those competitions and instead compete in the Memory League. That involves fast events, like memorising a deck of cards as quickly as you can, or 50 words in under a minute. If the Memory World Championship is a marathon, the Memory League is like a sprint. I am this year’s world champion.
In ordinary life, I’m not sure if my memory has changed much. I do almost automatically put the techniques I’ve learned from memory sports into practice, though. When I meet people, it’s hard for me not to turn their name into an image. Katherine, for example, sounds a bit like “cat run”, so I’ll remember a cat running around this person’s face. I’ve never really thought of myself as a creative person, but the nice thing about memory sports is they have opened up that side of me.