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Total Recall
Franz Lidz
March 20, 2006
Everyone was playing mind games at the U.S. memory championship
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March 20, 2006

Total Recall

Everyone was playing mind games at the U.S. memory championship

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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.

The 23-year-old 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.

The finalists 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.

To loci-ites, 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 extraterrestrial."

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