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.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Mutant worms stay sober, even on alcohol

U.S. researchers have developed "mutant worms" that do not get drunk by alcohol, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatment for people trying to quit drinking

Local

K-9 nose helps capture $150K in cocaine at…

A furry, four-legged security agent helped authorities stop an illegal cocaine shipment from sneaking past JFK customs.

National

Minnesota man asked to leave Southwest flight after…

A man and his two sons were asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight after the man sent a tweet complaining about being treated rudely by a gate agent.

National

Man sues hospital after surprise penis amputation

An Alabama man who went in to a hospital last month for a circumcision awoke after surgery to find his penis had been amputated, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Arts

Scientists recreate world's smallest Monet copy

Scientists have reproduced a famous Impressionist painting using nano-printing, to create what has been described as the world's smallest work of art. Reworked at the…

Television

Jerry Seinfeld is ambidextrous, and other Reddit AMA…

See some of the weirder highlights of Jerry Seinfeld's recent Reddit AMA.

Going Out

Grab a pedestrian and start dancing at What…

As a New Yorker, I’ve mastered the art of focusing my gaze straight ahead. Though it occasionally piques my interest, the absurdities that play out…

Movies

Shia LaBeouf disorderly conduct case pushed to September

A judge on Thursday adjourned until September the disorderly conduct and harassment case against actor Shia LaBeouf, who was charged with disturbing a Broadway theater…

NFL

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player…

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player rankings

U.S. Soccer

NYCFC announce signing of Frank Lampard

The tease of a big signing Thursday by new MLS side NYCFC ended up being one rumored for weeks. England midfielder Frank Lampard agreed to…

NBA

NBA great LeBron James sends 800 cupcake apologies…

By Kim PalmerCLEVELAND (Reuters) - NBA star LeBron James, whose recent return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in his home state of Ohio sparked a frenzy…

NFL

Jerry Reese confident with Giants, skipping countdown clocks…

Last year, Giants GM Jerry Reese installed a countdown clock in the locker room to inspire Big Blue to play in their own stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Tech

Forget Wi-Fi: Li-Fi could be the future

Li-Fi technology – developed by Mexican company Sisoft – is wireless internet connectivity using specialized LED light.

Tech

Weather app Climendo might be the most accurate…

The wait for a truly accurate weather forecast could finally be over thanks to a nifty new app called Climendo.

Tech

Napkin Table puts focus off the phone and…

Michael Jan, a design student at Tunghai University in Taiwan, has invented a serviette-picnic blanket hybrid called the Napkin Table.

Style

Essie's new Color Boutique

Essie launches high-tech kiosks at major airports and malls across the country.