To Improve Your Memory, Take a Cue From the Grand Masters

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How good is your memory? Your answer probably depends on how well you perform everyday tasks of remembering: the name of the new neighbor down the hall, where you put your car keys, your niece’s birthday, or perhaps the Pythagorean theorem from geometry class decades ago. But according to the “grand masters” of memory, the key to championship memorizing has little to do with any of that.

Each year a select group of mental athletes competes to win the USA Memory Championship held in New York City. The contest includes events like memorizing an entire deck of shuffled cards in less than two minutes, or memorizing 99 faces and names in 15 minutes.

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The trick is to use elaborate mnemonic devices. Champion memorizers can almost instantaneously associate abstract, hard-to-remember symbols like numbers or playing cards with more memorable images, actions or places; these images can then be strung together like mental sentences, allowing people to remember vast quantities of data.

Anyone can have a champion memory, say the masters. You just need to practice; it’s a skill like any other. “You talk to an Olympic swimmer or something like that and they might be intense in the water, but outside of the water they may be the slowest, chill, laid back [guy],” says Nelson Dellis, the current reigning U.S. champion. “So a lot of people expect me to have this awesome memory, which is not necessarily the case. I can turn it on when I need it.”

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In a video for TIME.com, Dellis and others (including a six-year-old) show how to use mnemonic devices to remember cards, numbers, faces and the names of all the presidents:

Think you might be interested in competing for the championship title? Take these words of encouragement from Dellis: “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, this is not for me, I have a horrible memory.’ But that’s the thing — I didn’t have a good memory, I just had a little desire to do something.”

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