The USA Memory Championship is a reminder there are ways to improve your memory. For instance, you can create associations or memorable stories with people and events.
Where are the keys? What was that person's name? Memory occupies a front row seat in frustrating, head-scratching ways every day.
A National Council on Aging Study found that 60% of Americans are worried or somewhat worried about memory loss as they age. TV and online advertisements for cognitive-boosting vitamins, memory training games and books play into that fear of memory loss and the quest to increase recall.
For a few self-proclaimed mental athletes, ages 13-60, the USA Memory Championship in New York City is a chance to prove that the average person can push the limits of what a good memory looks like. These athletes will compete against each other Saturday in events that seem nearly impossible to mere mortals: memorizing 52 cards in five minutes or a sequence of 100 names and faces in 15 minutes.
One of the competitors, Brad Sundstrom, a dentist from Chattanooga, Tenn., said that in his 20s, he watched Alzheimer's cause his grandfather to forget who he was and decided to try to improve his own memory. While watching TV one night, Sundstrom said he came across something on brain games and mental athletes and became intrigued.
"I didn't feel as sharp as I used to," Sundstrom said. "It's not like I was slipping away like my grandfather, but it crossed my mind; I'm 44 now – I want to be ready."
Sundstrom, who describes himself as a self-improvement junkie, began training a year ago for the USA Memory Championship. He uses techniques such as associating a person with an action or an object, the weirder the better. For instance, he said if someone introduces herself as Karen, he will think of her face with a carrot that she put in her nose. (Karen sort of sounds like carrot.)
The USA Memory Championship is a one-day event at the Con Edison headquarters in New York City. The competitors come from across the country, and there are no qualifications to compete. The competitors begin with a qualifying round, and those who pass move on to the championship round, which has three events — such as memorizing random facts about six people in 15 minutes.
Who are these mental warriors? Do they have the IQs of Albert Einstein, or were they child protégés?
"The people in the competition are very normal people. We have secretaries, engineers, software developers, high school dropouts," said Tony Dottino, a former IBM executive and founder of the USA Memory Championship. "Anyone can do this if they have the desire to exercise the brain with the right methods and the willingness to practice."
Practicing doesn't always come easy.
"We've externalized our memories with phones and computers," Sundstrom said. "We write everything down, so we aren't used to making stories and remembering things. Memory takes a little effort at first."
Despite all the stimulation surrounding them, people have greater memory capability than they think, said Robert Bjork, a psychology professor at UCLA who specializes in memory and learning. They just have to work to access it. He said people do things to limit their memory retrieval and working power every day, such as looking something up online instead of trying to remember.
"A fundamental part of human memory is the act of retrieval," said Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab. "If you hear something you want to remember, it's crucial to retrieve it. Each time you recall it, it becomes more potent."
For memory athletes, the idea is using creativity to associate things that might be hard to remember with pictures or stories. Brad Zupp, a competitor since 2007, was a circus clown turned memory consultant who incorporates humor into memory training. He said he uses celebrities doing crazy things to remember things such as the order of three cards. For example, he thinks of Donald Trump climbing a ladder to collect balloons, and each action accounts for a card. Zupp said people don't have to memorize a deck of cards. They can focus on improving memory in everyday things such as what a spouse said the night before or a grocery list.
"The more you put into training your memory, the more you get out of it," Zupp said. "It's like training for a marathon, you start with a jog and work your way up."
Tips from Bjork on everyday memory training:
•When you learn someone's name, it doesn't matter if you repeat it 30 times, you will most likely forget. Bjork said the key is to create an association or story, something quirky to remember the person. The more obscene or funny, the more likely it will stick.
•Make your brain work on memory recall. Bjork said many times when people know they can look up information online, or even ask a friend if they forget someone's name, they are less likely to work to remember.
•Missing keys? This issue can plague people from the time they start driving to when they stop. Bjork said in this case, being a creature of habit is not a bad thing. Have a place where you put things and always leave them there.
•Being overwhelmed can add to issues with memory. Getting enough sleep and working on stress-relieving tactics can help.