Optional Interview with 4 Time US Memory Champion Nelson Dellis
The real problem is I'm just not a quick thinker so by the time I come up with some kind of memorable gimmick, I've already missed the other couple of names. >> Right so you know let me first say that in competitions we memorize specific things cards, numbers, names because there, there has to be a way that we can uniformly test everybody on the same level every year, right? That we can all have healthy brains in the future and I work with this company Dart NeuroScience and they have this awesome kind of research program where you can login and take a little memory test.
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Nelson Dellis is one of the most intriguing people, I know. He was inspired to improve his memory, after watching his grandmother’s sad decline, due to Alzheimer’s. He now holds a number of memory records, including the US International record for memorizing a deck of shuffled cards, in 40.65 seconds. The US International record for memorizing, the most digits in five minutes, with 339 digits memorized. As well as, the most names memorized, in 15 minutes. 201 names. He’s the fourth time USA Memory Champion, and currently ranks 26th in the world, as a Memory Athlete. He’s also a superb mountain climber, with two attempts on Everest, and summits on Alaska’s Mount McKinley. Amongst, many other big mountains around the world. Nelson grew up in England, France, and the United States. He speaks both French, and English as native languages. He attended high school in Florida, and went on to Major in Physics, and Minor in Mathematics, at the University of Miami. He worked as a Veterinary Technician, and then, after earning a master’s degree in Computer Science, he worked as a software developer. But now, with the shift into memory expertise, he’s busy staying in mental shape for competition, and teaching people around the world, how they can improve their own memories. In fact, there is evidence, that there are people out there, with exceptional memory abilities, who are not trained. You can take part in the test that scientists in neuroscience had developed, to see how you stack up against Nelson, and all the others, who’ve taken the test so far. More about that later. Its such a pleasure to be interviewing you, here, today, Nelson. I have to say, I have a ton of questions, I’ve always wanted to ask the memory ex, expert. But first, I wanna show our viewers, just a little bit of your memory prowess. I’m gonna read a list of 25 single digit numbers, and let’s see, if you can remember them.
Okay, just make sure to read them out at like, one per second.
Eight. Seven. Eight. Four. Two. One. All righty, we’ve got them.
Let me just review, in my mind. Okay. All right. So, starting from the beginning. It was, eight, seven, eight, three, seven, one, three, eight, four, four, six, zero, four, eight, eight, six, eight, seven, three, nine, six, two, four two, one.
How did you do that? [INAUDIBLE]
This is, this is also as impressive. I can do it backwards, if you want. So, one two, four, two, six, nine, three seven, eight six, eights, eight, four, zero, six, four, four, eight, three, one, seven, three, eight, seven, eight.
Oh, my word. I, I’m, I’m really impressed. I wish, I could do that. That, that’s pretty amazing. Now, I understand that you develop this kind of expertise, by using a memory system. That, that your not a natural memory expert, is that right?
[INAUDIBLE] That’s right. This is something that I taught myself many many years ago. Before that I just have an average memory. And I you know, I, I trained it using memory techniques, and a lot of practice. And it’s interesting you know, a lot of people just assume that I have a natural memory, or I was born with it. So, they are always surprised to hear, that its actually, something trained. Were actually looking for, other people looking for a people, who have those natural skills. And, the, it’s, it’s, it’s a point of interest to, to see if that exists out there.
Well, can you tell us a little bit about the system, that you use to remember numbers? How much practice do you have to put in every day, to keep up with this kind of system? And it is, is it the kind of thing that’s useful, or worthwhile for an ordinary person to do?
Yeah. So, keep in mind that I’m training for a competition, so, I take it to the next level of you know, I’m, I’m, it’s my profession, it’s my work. So I, I take it very seriously, and spend hours a day, in training. But when I started, you know, it was just a hobby. And I think, for the, everyday a person, who maybe struggles with memory, you know, they’d wanna hear that, it’s takes very limited, not it takes a very short amount of time to get as good at these techniques. You don’t have to spend hours, is what I’m saying. But there are some things that are harder than others. For example, numbers requires a bit of prep. Basically, the way I do it, is I’ll come up with pictures for all these different numbers, so that every time I see a number, I think of something else, that’s more familiar to my brain. So, if you were gonna learn the number system, and you wanted to get very good at numbers, you would have to put in a bit of prep time. But for the most part it’s, it’s pretty easy to do these techniques.
[INAUDIBLE] I like that. That sounds like, it’s something that’s doable by normal human beings.
But I’d like to shift now, to something that I’ve always had a little bit of trouble with, and that’s remembering names. What kind of techniques do you have, for memorizing names?
Yep, so that’s probably, the most common question I get. Cuz that’s probably, the most useful every day thing is, how do I remember the name of someone I met or meet. So, the idea is, well, basically, any memory technique involves two things, in my opinion. One is visualization. So turning, anything, you’re trying to memorize into a picture, a mental picture. That’s filled with associations, that mean something to you. Right? To yourself. The second thing is to attach that image, to some location. There are different ways you can do that. The most common is, is this thing called the memory palace, where you use a familiar place like your house, and you attach these images to a, a bunch of different locations around a path in this place, your house. And the idea [INAUDIBLE] is you remember your house. So, it’s easy to pick up, where you left all these things, and you can remember things in order, easier. For names it’s a bit different because people come in, and out of your life. So, you don’t know, where, or how, or if you should store, a certain person. You may not ever seem them again. So, what happens is you use some distinguishing feature about them, as the location to store the image for their name. So when I meet someone I always ask you know, well, first I pay attention. That’s kind of the first thing. Then, I’m focusing in on something about their face, or body, or their composure, and whatever sticks out, I go with it. That’s my location. That’s my anchor. And then, I ask for their name, and I turn that name into, whatever it reminds me of. It sometimes could be a friend who has the same name, a celebrity, a cartoon character. It could maybe be [INAUDIBLE] a name that sounds like an objects or it just could be something It feels like, or I break it down into smaller pieces, and that reminds me of something. It’s it’s, it’s all a bit of practice. But once you have that picture, you can attach or imagine it on that person’s distinguishing feature. So that when you see them again, they come to you, bringing that location, and the image for their name along with them.
This is really helpful for me, but I, I have to admit my special difficulty is in memorizing things rapidly. For example, if I’m introduced to five people consecutively, I might get the name Mary, and the name Miguel. But by the time I’ve gotten through, they’ve gotten through all five names, I’ve forgotten the other three names. The real problem is I’m just not a quick thinker so by the time I come up with some kind of memorable gimmick, I’ve already missed the other couple of names.
So, any advice for people like me?
Yeah, and that’s common. I mean, it’s not easy to do that, what I just said, very quickly. I’m not even amazing at it. If you rapid fire five to ten names at me, I may not get all of them. I need to take time and, and make those images memorable. So what I recommend in situations like that, because that happens a lot at parties where someone’s like, hey Joe, this is Bob, Steve, Agnes, whatever, right? And it’s just this quick introduction and you’re flustered and you barely remember anything. So, what you do is, go and talk to these people one by one, and don’t be afraid to ask for their name again. I mean, if they expect you to have recall, to retain all of those names really fast, I mean, who, who can do that? So, the, the key to remembering names is also not to be embarrassed to ask, from the beginning, though. That’s the key. You don’t want to ask for their name, you know, after two or three times having met them, right, and you just keep avoiding and saying hey, guy, or hey, madam, you know? So it’s, it’s one of these things where say you didn’t catch all those names, I would go reintroduce myself and say like, hi I, I, I’m sorry I didn’t, catch your name. What is it? And then as you kind of have a back and forth conversation, you can in your mind be then taking your time to come up with this picture at your own pace.
I see that’s very helpful. Now sometimes there, there are people like Bill Clinton and I mean Bill Clinton is uncanny in his ability to remember people’s names. Even people he hasn’t seen in like ten years, he can instantly seem to recall their names. But for me, if I haven’t seen a person after say, three years, I, I have real problems, I just can’t recall their name very quickly. And I can’t be practicing, I’ve got a lot of other things to do, and I never know who I might encounter. So any advice for this kind of situation?
Yeah, you know, a person like Bill Clinton, you know some people just have a knack for certain things and I think he has a knack for that. Obviously, it’s very important for him too. I mean, it’s important for everybody but I think especially, more so, for him. And he’s just a people person, you know, and that, I think that helps when you. He’s the kind of person who will, like, get to know everybody who he meets no matter how important or not. And that helps that’s, memory is all about paying attention and if you spend a lot of time on one thing you’re gonna remember it better. Now that’s not to say that you’re, you don’t give a, anything about the person you meet, you know. That you care, obviously so I do. But we all work differently. And what I would recommend in those situations, and I do this, because I’m not the best. I have to try and make the effort. So what I’ll do is, usually, for example, when I get business cards, you know, I’ll do the thing where I’m memorizing everybody’s name. But, then, afterwards, I make sure to take their business cards, review, even write little notes on the cards themselves, just stuff that stuck out about this person. You know, oh, we had this conversation about Mount Everest. You know they were tall, had short hair. I really like the way that he smelled, you know, stuff that was important to you and that comes out when you write it down, what you remember. And I keep a file of those and I’ll go through them every once in a while. It’s actually a fun game to me because it reminds me of how many people I meet, and how well I can remember them. And it becomes this game and, and, and that makes it a lot more fun, and easier to remember names.
Memory is a key aspect of learning. But if often seems that becoming a memory expert involves learning a number of different kinds of systems. And all of these systems take a lot of practice. And they’re only useful for specific types of memory. For example, cards, or numbers, or faces. Many of the learners in our course, however, they wanna do things like memorize complex equations, or problem solving techniques. They want to know, they wanna remember the meaning of complex philosophical terms or monstrously convoluted verb conjugations. I mean, in Russian we used to say that for every, for every rule there was an exception, and for every exception there was a rule. So what kind of advice do you have for memorizing difficult theoretical concepts that are outside the boundaries of the kinds of things that are ordinarily memorized?
Right so you know let me first say that in competitions we memorize specific things cards, numbers, names because there, there has to be a way that we can uniformly test everybody on the same level every year, right? But you can’t at the same time have an event, or have a competition that figures out a way to test you on every possible way to memorize every possible thing. So the way I look at it, the way I tell people is, you know, we go into these competitions having trained specifically cards, names, numbers, and it’s almost like when you go to the gym, right? You’re training to be healthy and fit overall. But you go in and you, you, you do specific exercises that do work on a specific muscle set, right? Like your biceps then your quads or whatever and the goal is that, all around, it’ll prepare you to be able to be active in any way in real life. So, the same thing with memory is we do all these things but it, it helps us kind of round out our memory and allow it to be able to memorize something like complicated equations or, or philosophical terms or whatever. So for those types of things, you know, it, it, the memorizing process is really the same. I know there are complex systems, but that’s if you want to get to a really high level, and most people don’t need to. But basics are this, it’s one, come up with a picture. So if you’re looking at equations, or philosophical, terms. You’re gonna approach it the same. How do I turn that complicated thing into a picture? And by picture, you know, like I was saying with the names it can be anything it doesn’t even have to do with anything with what it actually is. I mean, you could be looking at an equation and the symbols look like you know a seahorse and a shovel, you know. Doesn’t matter. The, the point is you want to turn what is abstract and complicated Into something that you know, and your brain already has hard-wired in its brain. Then afterwards you can insert meaning, and, and understanding, and all these things, and comprehension. But the goal is come up with a picture. The second thing is, is to store it somewhere. Use, like I was saying, a memory palace, somewhere where you can access this information at will. But I think the, the, the tricky part, especially for this complicated, things that you’re mention, mentioning, is, is coming up with a picture. And that takes a bit of practice, but we’re all capable of it. We’re very imaginative beings. I think we can all come up with things, on the fly, if we, if we really let ourselves.
Well, let’s switch focus a little bit now from equations to text. Let’s say that you have a complex, or, or simply a very long section of text that you want to memorize. For example, the lengthy test, text that’s involved in questions on interviews. So, I should point out that this kind of thing is, is especially difficult for me when I’m a little bit nervous on camera.
Yeah, with text you know, it’s difficult because there are a lot of words, and a lot of little intricacies, and, and filler words, and you know, well, if you’re reading it and trying to remember it, just generally the, the idea of what’s being said, that’s okay. You can pick out keywords and memorize those or the general phrases or concepts. You know, if you’re memorizing a speech word for word or a poem word for word that’s when those little words obviously in between of, and, or, so, those are important too. But the two different kind of approaches, I mean if you’re just trying to memorize a text in general to remember the points, it just becomes what I was saying before. Find these, maybe underlining these key words, these key points, and now you just reduced this text to a list of words or groups of words. And then that just becomes turning those into pictures and storing them in a memory palace.
I see. So any advice for people who are getting a little bit older? How can they work to help to keep up their memory skills?
Yeah, there’s, there’s a few things. One, I, well, I really have tried to stick to four kind of key dimensions in brain health. So, at this point, when, what I like to promote is really brain health rather than memory techniques. Obviously, that’s a part of it but I just got into this because of my grandmother and Alzheimer’s and she had Alzheimer’s. And I wanted to improve my brain health for the rest of my life. So, what I do is one is keeping my brain active so, you know, not everybody wants to be a memory champion but you can try to memorize things. People give you numbers or you have groceries to get, try to memorize it. Don’t write it down. Learn a new skill. You know, there’s so many things out there and I’m sure so many people wanna try new things, and they say, oh, I can’t do it. But try, right? These are the things that activate our brain and, and really get the juices going, and will keep you brain healthy. Secondly, is be active, so physical activity. And you don’t have to be weightlifting crazy amounts or sprinting or anything, but just being active is very good for the brain. Third, is being social. So involving yourself with friends and family and your community is, has been shown to be very helpful for brain health. Not being in solitude and, and, and a recluse is, is helpful to be out with people. And then finally, and this is very important, especially as you, we age, is diet. The things we eat obviously impact our, our body and our brain. And one of the main things in this, I suggest this to anybody cuz I do it, every day I take about 1,000 milligrams of DHA omega three. And it’s you might be familiar, it’s what we might get if we ate salmon or fish certain fish, fatty fish, or fish oil pills, right? But that’s a very important part to my diet, and I believe that that’s, those are the keys to maintaining brain health. And that, that can be applied too at any age.
I think all of these kinds of ideas are right in line with the things that we’ve been talking about in this course. So do you have any last bit of suggestion of, for people to help help improve their ability to learn and remember?
Yeah. A few things is, you know, its, I think when we were younger, you know, there was always when were learning things as kids, we were playful. Always coming up with imaginative things. And, you know, we looked at life very joyfully and, and relaxed, right? And I think that’s, you lose that obviously as you age a bit because you have responsibilities and you get into a job and all these things. But that’s where memory really I think springs from is, is our kind of child inner child you know? And its, its nice to explore that at times and I think to have a good memory you need to kind of let go and, and explore that world a little more being more creative and, bit silly, a bit fun. And you’ll find your memory improves. That’s one thing. The other thing is, is, you know, part of my mission is to try and get, memory, and, and, and understanding of memory and brain health to be something of the past. That we can all have healthy brains in the future and I work with this company Dart NeuroScience and they have this awesome kind of research program where you can login and take a little memory test. It spans over two days but it’s very short. And we basically its a ga, a memory game that people take and, what we’re doing is trying to, to get as many people as possible to take it. Millions if we can. And the goal is to try and find people who have just naturally good memories. Because, you know, people look at me and I’ve, I’ve trained. That’s one thing, but we really wanna look at people who have this naturally, if that even exists. If they don’t, that’s also very enlightening. So, one thing is to be playful and childish and, and try to tap into your inner memory. The other thing is to please participate in this, we call it the Extreme Memory Challenge. And people can log in. It’s extremememorychallenge.com. And you’d be participating in a really, great cause to hopefully end Alz, Alzheimer’s or and cognitive impairments.
Well, I so appreciate you taking the time today to speak with us Nelson, and I strongly, strongly encourage all of our viewers to en, enroll in the, in the Extreme Memory Challenge. I think it could be a really an enhancement and help a lot of researchers who are working in a very, very important area. So again, my great thanks to you Nelson and best of luck in your future, future championships.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
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