Memory masters: Metro meets the human computers

Speed cards trial - final round. Credit: Kieron Monks/MWN
Two contestants wait their turn in the final round of the speed cards trial.
Credit: Kieron Monks/MWN

In 1978, sharks turn vegetarian. In 2041, a mouse swims across the ocean.

This is unlike any test I have experienced — in five minutes I must memorize 150 pairs of abstract events and dates, competing against the world’s best memories.

Around the room competitors have their eyes shut in fierce concentration, their ears covered with headphones, some tap their feet or rock back and forwards. I am out of my depth and relieved to score 10. “Not terrible,” according to a supervisor.

The UK Open memory championship, held at the Science Museum in London, attracts many leading “mnemonists” to compete in 10 disciplines that include memorizing decks of cards in under a minute and reciting 400-digit binary numbers.

“This is about creativity — you take the numbers and turn them into pictures and make stories out of them,” says three-time world champion Ben Pidmore, who describes himself as an “accountant with the soul of a hippie.”

Today’s winner, Swedish prodigy Jonas Von Essen, 21, agrees it is about imagination. “I write, draw, make movies and look at different shapes to figure out what they could be – that is how I get the discipline. Anyone can do it with practice.”

Changing the impression of a closed shop for science geeks is key to the sport’s growth, and although there are no women here, new ground is being broken all the time. Since the first World Championships in 1991, seven founding members have grown into global rankings for a top 1,000 and a thriving tour of prestige events from Bahrain to China.

Standards have been driven up along the way. “In athletics we measure success and failure by 100ths of seconds, but in mental athletics every year we are discovering the brain capacity is much bigger than we thought possible,” says Chris Day, general secretary of the World Memory Sports Council.

In the 1980s it was widely believed that no one could recall more than 30 numbers, but the 2012 World Champion Wang Feng from China has memorized 2,660. To compete at the top, training requirements have gone from one hour per day for a week to 10-hour days for six months, and many competitors use audiovisual stimulation machines to keep them sharp.

Some have questioned the need for memory training in a digital age, but author and former champion Dominic O’Brien believes it is essential. “If you don’t exercise your memory, your attention span and mental agility suffers. Google is fast food and we need to work it off.”

O’Brien has secured government funding for a scheme that teaches memory techniques in schools. “You have the kids learn a story and then they realize they have learned the first 20 elements of the periodic table.”

But for real-life application, many competitors tell me they are still just as likely to forget their car keys or get lost on holiday, as the techniques need to be consciously applied. Others have been chased out of casinos for their card-counting tricks.

Chris Day foresees a military use. “If agents could memorize a lot of data it would get through searches.” Human surveillance units? In the NSA era, our memories may be the only safe place left.


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