Of memory champions and memory palaces

Marilyn sez, "Nelson Dellis began training his memory after his grandmother died of Alzheimer's, and last week the 28-year-old won the U.S. Memory Championship for the second year in a row."

The technique? Translating data into visual images and placing them into a “memory palace” – a place in your mind that you can walk through again later and gather the storage.

Dellis came to the competition with a new technique: he would turn a group of seven numbers into a single image. To him, the number 0093495, for example, represented an image of Olivia Newton slam-dunking a helmet while wearing spandex.

Using the same colorful imagery, Dellis and the other mental athletes memorized a 50-line poem, 99 names and faces, random words and numbers, and biographical information including zip codes and phone numbers – all under the pressure of a few minutes each.

Mental Athletes Increase Brain Size in 15th US Memory Championship (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. For those interested, Dame Frances Yates wrote a wonderful book, The Art of memory, that examined the memory palace in the context of the Renaissance, spanning from occult philosophies to the beginning the the scientific paradigm. And any book with Giordono Bruno is great, of course!

    1. Mary J. Carruthers also has an excellent book on this topic, but she looks further back, beginning in antiquity and focusing on the Medieval period.  I’m going to go look for Yate’s book; excellent tip.

      Carruthers’ book is:  The Book of Memory.

    2. Apparently she suggests that Giordano Bruno was burnt for his Hermeticism and not his belief in heliocentricity. I always thought that was the case anyway.

  2. I’d highly recommend Joshua Foer’s ‘Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything’. Just finished it and learned a lot about the world of extreme memorization.  

  3. I’m really not understanding how you go about forming an association between “0093495” and “Olivia Newton slam-dunking a helmet while wearing spandex”, but the memory palace thing goes back at least as far as roman times.

  4. Harry Lorayne also uses similar techniques going way back and AFAIK he’s the grandaddy of these techniques.  He was on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, etc. and would flip people out with his memory skillz by memorizing every audience member’s name and offering 1000 dollars to anyone he’d forget (which he wouldn’t).

    I’ve read his memory books and they simply worked for me.

    I remember his last name to this day because I still visualize a raining storm cloud that’s low to the ground (low rain).


    1.  > I remember his last name to this day because I still visualize a raining storm cloud that’s low to the ground (low rain).

      I bet if you ever bump into him, you’ll say “It’s you!  Harry Floordrizzle!”

    2. They actually go back quite a long way – certainly to Attic Greece, and probably further; the earliest surviving works on it are from Aristotle, Cicero, and an unknown Roman contemporary. Students of rhetoric would have to first memorize the layout, rooms, and contents of an existing palace, to use for life as the model for their palace of memory. The techniques returned to popularity/visibility in the West (for awhile, at least) via the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

  5. It always seems odd to me that so many successful “memorizers” will take something simple (like a 7-digit number) and convert it into some bizarre, complicated mental image to make it _easier_ to remember.  I would always expect the exact opposite; take a complicated thing and generate a simplified representation to remember it.  The human brain is a strange, strange place…

    1. That doesn’t make sense, though. Human memory isn’t anything like a computer’s – it isn’t storage as such, and didn’t evolve to store homogeneous mass quantities of context-free numerical information. It evolved to retain associations between patterns of experience and activity operating over wildly heterogeneous domains. Featureless, sterile things are not called ‘memorable’ for a reason; to ‘memorize’ a number at all we first need at the very arbitrarily least one thing to attach it to in order to even provide initiatory conditions for recall – a person whose phone number it is, a physical constant whose value it is, etc.

      At the most basic level, you’re using a scarcity model to understand something functioning in an abundance situation. The problem-structures the brain is ‘solving’ in the operations of perception, retention, and recall deal with filtering and synthesizing a toxically hyperabundant flow of information, not allocating a finite stock of it.

  6. What a waste of effort. I just write all that stuff down!

    Now, where did I leave my notebook?

  7. I learned this trick in the 7th grade, and though I don’t use it often any more it’s the only way I could get through my Art History major in college.  I would find parts of each art work to “hang” the date, artist’s name, and any thing else I needed to remember on, sometimes also making up silly rhymes to help.  I still can’t see Zozar’s Step Mastaban without singing the “king zozar is so bazar” song.  I could also walk you through Marshal high and tell you all about my American History facts and dates from 7th grade.

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