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
Local

NYPD looking for man they say assaulted elderly…

      The New York City Police Department is asking for the public's assistance in locating a Hispanic male 20's wanted in connection with…

Local

Three arrested after allegedly assaulting off-duty officer in…

Three men were arrested early Saturday morning after allegedly assaulting an off-duty officer at a Bronx bodega, and the NYPD is asking for the public's…

Local

Healthcare union creates vibrant West Indian Day Parade…

Volunteers worked almost around the clock through the weekend, putting the flashy finishing touches on hundreds of costume pieces 1199SEIU members will wear while marching…

National

Top 10 most hipster college campuses

Hipsters are everywhere these days. You can't walk down the anywhere anymore without seeing a pair of skinny jeans on a handlebar mustachioed 20-something, a…

Arts

Theater: Discouraging 'Poor Behavior'

Theresa Rebeck's latest off-Broadway play, about two couples sparring on a weekend getaway, repeats a few mistakes of her past.

Gossip

Chef Todd English arrested for DWI in the…

Celebrity chef Todd English is facing DWI charges after a traffic stop on Sunday.

Movies

Box office: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is 2014's…

This weekend "The Guardians of the Galaxy" passed the fourth "Transformers" movie to become the highest grossing film of 2014.

Gossip

Spears back with controversial ex?

Is Briteny Spears back with Adnan Ghalib?

Sports

Novak Djokovic feeds off US Open crowd to…

Novak Djokovic isn't a native New Yorker, but he sure knows how to use the U.S. Open crowd to his advantage.

NFL

Odell Beckham still 'weeks away,' Tom Coughlin angry…

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has fought a losing battle against the media all preseason over the status of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

NFL

3 things we learned in the Giants preseason…

The final score didn’t matter — a 16-13 win by the Giants — but it would’ve been nice to finally see Big Blue’s new-look offense get on track.

NFL

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, 49ers start…

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots start at top

Education

These college students think breakfast is the most…

  It should be no surprise that the city that never sleeps is also home to the most students who like to order food in…

Sex

When it comes to dating, height matters

Does a man’s height really matter when it comes to dating? Unfortunately - according to a new study - the answer looks like it’s yes.…

Travel

10 free apps to make traveling easier

Finding the nearest bathroom, calculating currency exchanges and locating your departure gate must have been difficult for travelers of previous generations. But we wouldn't know,…

Travel

How to get a seat upgrade to business…

It used to be much easier to upgrade your coach seat to business or even first class, but rigid rules and tighter schedules have made…