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

Gunther from 'Friends' talks Central Perk

We spoke with Gunther (James Michael Tyler) at the preview for new pop-up Central Perk, based on the cafe in "Friends."

Local

Central Perk opens in SoHo

Central Perk, of "Friends" fame, is giving out free coffee in SoHo through Oct. 18.

National

Beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch reproaches NFL over domestic abuse

Anheuser-Busch chastised the NFL for its handling of domestic violence cases, making it the first major advertiser to put pressure on the league.

Local

Sen. Krueger dishes on prospect of legal marijuana…

New Yorkers may see the legalization of recreational marijuana use as early as 2015 if State Senator Liz Krueger (D) gets her way. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act will…

Music

FREEMAN makes Freeman a free man from Ween

For nearly 30 years, Aaron Freeman was known endearingly to his listeners as Gene Ween. But with "FREEMAN," he makes it clear that he's gone somewhere else.

Television

'Outlander' recap: Season 1, Episode 6: 'The Garrison…

Whipping, punching, kicking and a marriage contract. "Outlander" is not for the faint of heart this week with "The Garrison Commander."

The Word

The Word: Hey girl, it's a girl for…

It's a girl for Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, who reportedly welcomed a daughter last Friday, according to Us Weekly. The super-private couple managed to…

Television

TV watch list, Tuesday, Sept. 16: 'New Girl,'…

Check out the season premiere of "New Girl," as Jess competes with Jessica Biel for a guy's attentions.

MLB

5 top contenders for NL Rookie of the…

The outing rekindled award talk for deGrom, who appears to hold the top spot for NL Rookie of the Year honors. Metro breaks down a few other contenders.

College

College football Top 25 poll (AP rankings)

College football Top 25 poll (AP rankings)

NFL

Tom Coughlin says Giants 'beat themselves' against Cardinals

Head coach Tom Coughlin, who had a day to cool off and reflect, still sounded like he had a gnawing feeling in his gut.

NFL

Marty Mornhinweg accepts blame for Jets timeout fiasco

Jets fans looking for a scapegoat for Sunday’s timeout fiasco found a willing party on Monday: Marty Mornhinweg.

Style

Rachel Zoe: New York Fashion Week Spring 15

Rachel Zoe goes 'Glam bohemia' for Spring.

Food

Where to find SweeTango apples

Introduced in 2009, SweeTango — a hybrid of Honeycrisp and Zestar — is a sweet apple with plenty of crunch.

Style

London Fashion Week recap

London Fashion week gets in on the action with politics, heritage and summertime living.

Food

Padma Lakshmi's recipe for green mango curry

Padma Lakshmi shares her recipe for green mango curry in UNICEF's new book, "UNICHEF."