As some of the world’s best memory champs compete this weekend in the Extreme Memory Tournament (XMT) in San Diego, researchers will be observing from the audience.
Competitors will compete in head-to-head memory showdowns, including feats like recalling the precise order for long lists of random words, numbers, and playing cards, for $76,000 in prize money.
The tournament, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Dart NeuroScience headquarters in San Diego. Last year, about 100 spectators showed up for the first tournament, which was featured in the New York Times.
Washington University in St. Louis is a sponsor of the event in part because a team of its researchers plans to study the contestants to learn more about the cognitive processes and techniques that contribute to their phenomenal memorization and recall skills.
“We are developing a platform to test them remotely via the internet wherever they are in the world,” says Professor Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger.
“People in Mongolia and in the Philippines are coming up in the competitions and have a good chance of winning now or in the near future. We’re hoping to learn more about how they manage feats of memorization that most people would consider impossible.”
Roediger and colleagues have been working with Dart NeuroScience on related research for years. Dart, which has about 250 employees, is a private company developing new technologies, therapies, and drugs to help people maintain and improve cognitive abilities throughout life.
Although the extreme memory project is in its early stages, preliminary findings suggest that the key cognitive skill underlying extreme memory abilities may be the ability to focus one’s attention during the memorization process.
“These competitors are amazing,” Roediger says. “They excel on many memory tasks, especially those that require focused attention. They simply cannot let their minds wander during competitions, and they can use the ability to focus on other cognitive tasks besides those testing memory.”
Building a ‘memory palace’
Most extreme memory athletes, known as mnemonists, use some variation of the same technique, known as building a “memory palace,” which involves mentally placing individual items to be remembered into familiar locations within some visual or mental framework, such as the well-studied location of paintings in an art gallery or the route taken to work every day.
Mnemonists take in new information and store it in images in discrete locations in their memory palace. Later, they mentally move through their locations and call out the images stored in the various places, Roediger says.
“The general principle makes it sound easy, but believe me, it is not,” Roediger says. “For example, one of the competitors, Ben Pridmore, once was able to memorize 28 decks of cards in order after studying them for just one hour. He used 28 memory palaces, but then he had to also remember the order of his use of the memory palaces.”
Among the event organizers is Nelson Dellis, a four-time USA Memory Champion and multiple US memory record holder. Dellis holds the US national record for memorizing a deck of shuffled cards in 63 seconds, as well as the US national record for memorizing the most digits in 5 minutes, with 303 digits memorized.
While those records may seem amazing, Dellis’ worldwide ranking for various memory feats is relatively modest—15th in the world for card memorization and 24th in the world as an overall memory athlete.
Dellis and other extreme memory contestants have visited Washington University in recent years to provide memorization demonstration for students and faculty and to participate in various cognitive tests administered by the university research team.
Roediger is principal investigator on the grant from Dart NeuroScience to support research on people with exceptional memory. Co-investigators include Dave Balota, PhD, professor of psychology and professor of neurology, and Kathleen B. McDermott, professor of psychology.
McDermott has a separate grant from Dart to examine neural underpinnings of individual differences in memory ability using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
“The tournament is not, strictly speaking, a part of our research,” Roediger says. “However, we hope to recruit many of the contestants for our future research, so many of us are showing up for the tournament and are very interested in it.”