If you're one of
those people who has trouble locating your car keys or routinely forgets to put
out the cat, recalling a long string of random numbers might seem an impossible
task. But give Joshua Foer an arbitrary sequence of figures, and he'll take
them to the memory bank.
freelance science writer from Washington, D.C., was one of 22 men and 15 women
demonstrating their anamnestic prowess last Saturday at the ninth annual USA
National Memory Championships in Manhattan. Contestants from ages 12 to
51--anyone who paid the $25 entry fee could compete--flexed their mental
muscles in six disciplines, including memorizing decks of playing cards and the
names and faces of strangers printed on sheets of paper.
Erin Luley, 17, a
high school senior from Mechanicsburg, Pa., made the final six by winning the
poetry game. She had 15 minutes to memorize 53 lines of unmemorable verse, then
transcribe it exactly as written. "My memory isn't that great," said
Luley, who, fearful of forgetting her daily to-do list, festoons her bedroom
with Post-It notes listing her chores. On Saturday she was eliminated in the
random words event when she failed to conjure up "numb," the 27th of
the 300 terms she had been given.
were a diverse group: a cosmetics importer, a business analyst, a software
engineer, a memory instructor, Luley and Foer, who is writing a book on memory.
He prepared by consulting 2004 world champ Ben Pridmore, a British accountant
whose idea of fun is learning the first 50,000 digits of pi by heart. Pridmore
nurtured Foer's memory by helping him with the loci method, a visualization
technique known since the days of ancient Greece.
memories are made of this: Data is linked to familiar mental images. Familiar
to the memorizer, anyway. "The jack of clubs, two of clubs and three of
diamonds become a friend peeing on Albert Einstein," says Foer. "The
jack of diamonds, five of spades and six of diamonds is another friend karate
kicking the Pope."
On Saturday, Foer
reeled off the precise order of a shuffled deck of cards after studying it for
only one minute and 40 seconds, a U.S. record. In the double-deck final, he
outlasted defending U.S. champ Ram Kolli, who went blank on Card 5.
No cash prize was
awarded to the national memory king, just a trip to Malaysia for the world
games in September. "I don't have a chance there," said Foer with a
shrug. "Pridmore can memorize a deck of cards in 32 seconds. He's an