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Neurons at the ready

By Tom Colls
Today programme

Memory test paper

Hush descends. Cameras flash. Sweaty palms rest on question papers. "Neurons ready," says the adjudicator. "Go."

Concentrating before the championship test
Competitors have a minute to focus their minds before each challenge

You turn the page to reveal 4,000 single digit numerals, equally spaced in rows of 40. You have one hour to memorize them all.

This is not an anxiety dream induced by too much exam revision. They do this for fun at the 2009 World Memory Championships.

Seventy-four competitors from around the world have congregated in the bottom floor of London's Strand Palace Hotel.

For three intense days, they pit their brains against some of the most bafflingly difficult tests of memory imaginable.

I'm absolutely a nerd, I'm a lot of a nerd, and I'm quite proud of it
Memory champion Ben Pridmore

Challenges include sudden-death rounds - where numbers are read out at the rate of one per-second and a error in recall leads to elimination; playing card challenges - where up to 35 packs of cards are memorized in order - and quick-fire five minute recall tests.

"There are marathon events and sprint disciplines as well," says Dominic O'Brien, a former world memory champion now involved with the World Memory Sports Council.

"It is very, very difficult, requires a lot of concentration and obviously, a good memory."

The Chinese team prepare for the next memory test
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When O'Brien won the first world championship in 1991, the prize was an encyclopaedia.

Now the winner gets a paid flight to the 2010 championships in China, hotel accommodation, limousine transport and a chance to win the $20,000 top prize.

"It is a serious mental sport now, and it is taking over people's lives," he says.

"We are pushing the boundaries of the human brain. We're seeing things that humans have never done before and it's amazing to watch."

King geek

If memorizing random sequences of numbers and cards is a sport, then Ben Pridmore is the brain athlete version of Usain Bolt.

Media spotlight on world champion Ben Pridmore
World champion Ben Pridmore is the star of the contest

The Boots accountant is the defending champion in both world and UK events, and a self-confessed uber-geek.

"I'm absolutely a nerd, I'm a lot of a nerd, and I'm quite proud of it," he says.

"I am the kind of nerd that all the other nerds look up to and want to be like and that is a wonderful thing to be."

Being memory champion takes a huge amount of preparation - practicing the tasks and getting your mind used to concentrating for long periods of time.

And perhaps surprisingly, the rigours of the contest take a physical toll on the champion mental athlete as well.

"After three days memorizing at a world championship, I like to spend the whole of the next day in bed, recovering," he says.

And well might he exert himself. Despite years of dominance from British memory champions, memorizers from China and Germany are fast gaining pace.

At this years championships a German, Dr. Gunther Karsten, broke the world record for memorizing abstract images.

Dominic O'Brien

And while the UK has no youth team at these games, China has fielded a 9-year-old participant and 10-year-old under-12 world champion, Constantine Skudler, is here from Germany.

But Dominic O'Brien is confident that the British youth will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come. Some 1,700 pupils took part in this year's UK Schools Memory Championship, eventually won by 15-year-old Eva Ball.

"We believe we are hot-housing the champions of the future," he says.

Weird hobby

With growing numbers of people taking part, programmes in schools and increasing prize money, the only remaining question is - why should anyone chose to memorize thousands of meaningless numbers?

For advocates of memory sports like Dominic O'Brien, who is used to fielding the question, the contest gets to the very heart of human nature.

German memory youth champion
Constantine Skudler, the under-12 German memory champion

"What is the point in running around a track for 400m going around in circles going nowhere?" he says.

"It is not the sequence of 2000 numbers in my head that is important, it is how it gets there. I believe that reveals the very essence of the learning process.

"Without memory, your life would be in chaos. So it is something we need to look after, it is something that we need to protect and nurture."

But for the current world memory champion Ben Pridmore, the reasons for taking part are somewhat more prosaic.

"I like to keep this as a weird hobby I do," he says. "I just like to do it for the fun of it."

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