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Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 12:15 UK

How a memory champ's brain works


The Memory Challenge - one pack of cards versus seven packs of cards

By Stephen Robb
BBC News

It takes less than 30 seconds for the reigning World Memory Champion to recall the sequence of a pack of playing cards. In an hour, he can memorise 26 more packs. But can the secrets of memory grand masters help the rest of us find our car keys?

"I forget everything," says World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore.

"I walk into a room and forget what I am doing there, open the fridge and wonder why I am looking in there. I am famously bad at being able to remember people's names and faces."

And, it seems, appointments. When I arrive to interview Mr Pridmore, he has forgotten our scheduled encounter.

"I'm going to have to confess to a lapse of memory," he says sheepishly, though it sounds like a line he has used before.

But he regains ground quickly - displaying how it takes him just 10 minutes to memorise seven packs of playing cards and then recite them in order. His single mistake from the 364 cards leaves him slightly disappointed.

His record in an hour is an astonishing 27 packs - 1,404 cards. Other records he can lay claim to include memorising a single pack of cards in 26.28 seconds; memorising in 15 minutes an 819-digit number; memorising in 30 minutes a binary number of 4,140 digits.

It is all down to training the memory, says the 32-year-old accountant from Derby, who adds "Anybody can do it. You don't have to be some sort of natural-born genius - I'm certainly not."


"Think in pictures, because the brain remembers images better than it does anything else," advises Mr Pridmore.

The precise techniques used by memory competitors vary, but most are based on translating information into pictures.

Mr Pridmore has developed a system of distinct images that he memorises for every possible combination of two playing cards.

Candle, swan, lips
0 - Football, ring, wheel
1 - Candle, streetlamp, stick
2 - Swan, snake
3 - Lips, handcuffs
4 - Sailboat, flag
5 - Snake, seahorse
6 - Elephant's trunk, monocle
7 - Boomerang, axe, cliff
8 - Snowman, egg timer, female model
9 - Balloon and string, lasso
Source: Dominic O'Brien's How To Develop A Brilliant Memory

While that total of 2,704 images might seem impossible, not to mention unnecessary, to the rest of us, the principle behind it can be helpful to anyone.

Dr Chris Moulin, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Leeds, explains: "We know that memory is very, very visual, and that visual memories are stronger.

"Imaging it is always a good start."

A good example of the process is the "number shape system" of eight-time world champion Dominic O'Brien, now a trainer and author of several books on improving memory.

He translates numbers into images that resemble their shape, so 1 could become a candle or streetlamp and 8 a snowman or egg-timer.

To help remember a Pin of 1580, for example, he suggests imagining walking into the bank carrying a candle, standing in a queue behind a snake, and seeing a snowman bouncing a football behind the counter.

"It's surprisingly easy when you get into it," says Mr Pridmore.


Mr Pridmore's suggested strategy for remembering people's names involves picturing them in a scene made up of associations to their names.

Using the example of George Bush, he suggests: "You might picture him dressed up as St George, attacking a bush that has been clipped into the shape of a dragon."

Or to remember a shopping list of sausages, bread and milk, he moots the idea of forming a picture of milk being poured over bread wrapped in a string of sausages.

"Make it memorable," he says. "If you are trying to remember something boring, spice it up a bit."

Dominic O'Brien
In effect, you are tricking your brain into believing it is experiencing something
Dominic O'Brien

As well as making it easier to retain new information, Mr Pridmore suggests unusual or highly specific details can help to recall apparently forgotten facts.

Memory is made up of associations, explains Mr O'Brien, pointing out that the sight of a strawberry might prompt thoughts of tennis at Wimbledon, pick-your-own farms and "everything but the dictionary definition of a strawberry".

Accessing these associations is key to memory, they argue - and so could be key to finding those lost keys.

"Think visually," says Mr Pridmore. "Sit down, close your eyes, try to sort of play it back through slowly. Imagine yourself walking through the door. Fill in as many little details as you can - the pictures on the walls, the carpet - you might just be able to bring back that memory and see yourself putting the car keys somewhere.

"The memory is usually there, you just have to try to get it back."


While the World Memory Championships have been running only since 1991, the dominant technique among competitors dates from ancient times when it was a learning tool used by orators and students.

It is known by various names including the "method of loci", and has been adapted to many slight variations - Mr Pridmore calls his version simply the "journey technique".

Ben Pridmore explains his technique

It involves imagining a familiar journey, and placing along that route the pictures associated to the information being memorised - a person should then only have to replay the journey to recall the information.

"If you're trying to remember a speech, you might reduce it to a list of keywords, make an image out of each of them and picture them at different locations along a journey so as to remember what order you want to make those points," says Mr Pridmore.

He has about 40 different journeys to call on, mostly moving through workplaces and houses and towns in which he has lived.

Mr Pridmore points out that he uses each journey only once per competition, otherwise he can get confused by "ghost images" from an earlier task.

Again this technique simply exploits a natural way of remembering, says Mr O'Brien, pointing out that if a person is asked to recall everything they did during a day they will tend to start by running through everywhere they went.

About the technique, he adds: "In effect, you are tricking your brain into believing it is experiencing something."

"There is no magic," says Dr Moulin. "The only reason why these people can do these things, it's not actually by improving their memory, it's by improving all the structures that surround their memory."

Mr Pridmore describes the technique as a filing system for ordering and accessing information automatically absorbed by the brain.

"Basically, we 'remember' everything we see, hear, feel, taste and smell. What we do with our memory systems is learn to file information away sensibly," he says.

"We just learn to access the filing system that all of our brains have."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Loci systems, peg systems and number / image systems were taught in schools and academies up until the time the Christians took over Europe and decided that such practices were akin to black magic. Imagine what our GCSE and A Level curriculums would be like if we had continued to be taught these systems, from our earliest lessons, as kids of 4, 5, 6 years old. I'll stick my neck out and say society might even be a tad more chilled out - everyone exercising their minds as part of the day, imagining, creating scenarios and playing with associations...

Dean, Exeter

Since I have virtually no visual memory those techniques are useless to me. If I want to remember anything visual I have to effectively describe it in words and remember those (I can still quote large chunks of text I read 40 years ago). It is never a simple "one method fits everyone", there are a lot of different ways people remember things. Some remember number patterns, or word patterns (rhythm and rhyme), or even as tunes (I tend to memorise digit sequences, like my car mileage, by setting them to a song).
Chris C, Aylesbury UK

I'm 45 years old and recently played pelmonism with a friend's six year old daughter. When the cards were spread higgledy-piggledly on the table she beat me every time. Comprehensively. When the cards were arranged something close to columns and rows however, I beat her every time. Equally comprehensively. Whilst logic makes it easy for me to understand that something close to columns and rows could help me, I can't understand why it should have hindered her; if she made a winning match I would expect the same winning running to follow that she demonstrated with "chaotic" placement, but it didn't. If I made a match though, the winning run would then follow. We both found this interesting once we had noticed it!
Steve, Warks, UK

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