Europe
5:20 am
Sat December 15, 2012

Ready. Set. Memorize!

Originally published on Sun December 16, 2012 1:43 pm

In the gymnasium of a South London technical school, site of this year's World Memory Championships, Norwegian Ola Kaere Risa checks his stopwatch.

Risa is Norway's only contestant this year.

"I hope to defend the glory of my country," he says, laughing.

The 21st World Memory Championships are under way in London this weekend. About 75 competitors from some two dozen countries are vying to see who can memorize the most numbers, faces, playing cards or random words in a set amount of time.

Dong Xun, 10, is a competitor from China. His best event? Abstract images.

"I want to remember 250 this time," he says.

Yudi Lesmana's best trick? The competitor from Indonesia says he can memorize about 25 decks of cards an hour.

These mental athletes are boosting their brain power while most of us are outsourcing ours into the nearest memory chip.

Nelson Dellis, the U.S. memory champion, says that in practice, he can memorize a deck of cards in about 32 seconds.

Dellis is ranked 24th in the world. His grandmother's death from Alzheimer's disease prompted him to work on his own terrible memory, he says.

Now, he helps companies and individuals do the same.

"Because people realize that they're not using their brains as much," says Dellis. "They notice that they don't remember numbers or addresses because they're always typing them into their smartphones, you know?"

At the opening ceremony of the championships, the chief statistician of the event — Phil Chambers — receives a wild round of applause, perhaps one of the few places on the planet where this happens.

"You are warriors of the mind," competition co-founder Tony Buzan tells the crowd. Buzan — an expert on the brain and the thinking process, and inventor of mind mapping — says many of the strongest competitor nations have long traditions of memory work.

"China — 10,000 years ago, they started to develop systems that helped children remember. In Japan: the same. The Indian, the Arabic nations: extraordinary memory systems," he says.

Across the hall, officials — their title is "arbiter" — shuffle decks of cards and double-check columns of words and numbers.

Co-founder and chess grandmaster Raymond Keene says few here are human calculators or prodigies born with photographic memories.

"Everybody has their own way of creating the ability to memorize the facts they want to memorize," he says. "So they aren't machines — most of them, some of them are dyslexic, and they fought against that to get where they are."

Just ordinary people, he says, who have trained their brains to do extraordinary things.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The 21st World Memory Championships are underway in London this weekend. About 75 competitors from some two dozen countries are contending for the title. In a set amount of time, each contestant will try to memorize the most faces, numbers, playing cards and random words. Vicki Barker met some of the pneumonic competitors and has this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: In the gymnasium of a South London technical school, site of this year's World Memory Championships, Norwegian Ola Kaere Risa checks his stopwatch. Risa is Norway's only contestant this year.

OLA KAERE RISA: I hope to defend the glory of my country.

DON XUN: My name is Dong Xun and I'm from China. I'm 10 years old now.

BARKER: What's your best event?

XUN: Abstract images. I want to remember 250 this time.

YUDI LESMANA: My name is Yudi Lesmana. I am from Indonesia. I can get about 25 decks in hour.

BARKER: Of cards - decks of cards.

LESMANA: Decks of cards.

BARKER: These mental athletes are boosting their brain power while the rest of us are outsourcing ours into the nearest memory chip.

NELSON DELLIS: For practice, I do about a deck of cards in 32 seconds, so.

BARKER: That's U.S. title holder Nelson Dellis, ranked 24th in the world. His grandmother's death from Alzheimer's prompted him to work on his own terrible memory, he says. Now, he helps firms and individuals do the same.

DELLIS: Most people realize that they're not using their brains as much. And they notice that they don't remember numbers or addresses because they're always typing them into their smartphones, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning, everybody.

BARKER: The opening ceremony.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The chief statistician for this event is Mr. Phil Chambers.

BARKER: One of the few places on the planet where a statistician gets a round of applause.

TONY BUZAN: You are warriors of the mind.

BARKER: That's competition co-founder Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind mapping. Buzan many of the strongest competitor nations have long traditions of memory work.

BUZAN: China - 10,000 years ago, they started to develop systems that helped children remember. In Japan, the same. The Indians, the Arabic nations, extraordinary memory systems.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS SHUFFLING)

BARKER: In a nearby room, officials - their title is arbiter - shuffle decks of cards, double-check columns of words and numbers. Co-founder and chess grandmaster Raymond Keene says few here are human calculators or prodigies born with photographic memories.

RAYMOND KEENE: Everybody has their own way of creating the ability to memorize the facts they want to memorize. So, they aren't machines - most of them, some of them are dyslexic, and they fought against that to get where they are.

BARKER: Just ordinary people, Keene says, who have trained their brains to do extraordinary things. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.