Think some people are born with good memories?
Think exponential gains in memory capacity, if even possible at all, would take years to develop?
Perhaps no domain better illustrates the latent potential inside each brain, or challenges conventional ideas about innate intelligence, better than that of the world of competitive memory.
In this episode, we explore this topic with 4 time US Memory Champion Nelson Dellis.
“Remember It,” by Nelson Dellis
Nelson’s YouTube Channel
“Memory Games,” documentary available on Netflix
“How To Live Well In A High Tech World,” Cal Newport’s interview on the Nourish Balance Thrive podcast
Related Models: “Paradoxical Gains“
How To Unshackle Your Memory (interview with Nelson Dellis, 4 time US memory champion).mp3 transcript powered by Sonix—the best audio to text transcription service
How To Unshackle Your Memory (interview with Nelson Dellis, 4 time US memory champion).mp3 was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the latest audio-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors. Sonix is the best way to convert your audio to text in 2019.
Hi, I’m Dr. Josh Turknett, founder of Brainjo and the Brainjo Center for Neurology and Cognitive Enhancement, and this is the Intelligence Unshackled podcast.
Join me as we take a tour through the human brain to explore and understand the true nature and scope of human intelligence and to unlock the secrets of optimizing brain health and function.
All right. Welcome again to the Intelligence Unshackled podcast. I am delighted to be bringing you today another outstanding guest interview, Nelson Dellis, who is the four time U.S. memory champion, among other things. And if you don’t know what it means to be a memory champion or what a memory athlete is, then you’re in for a treat. And I wanted to bring someone on the podcast from this particular domain, because I think there’s so much that’s relevant to our mission here, both in terms of how we understand the nature and scope of human intelligence, in addition to just practical ways that we can get more out of our brain and specifically out of our memory.
Nelson is also the author of the book Remember it, the names of people you meet, all of your passwords, where you left your keys and everything else you tend to forget. And I’ve read several books on this particular subject, and this one is my favorite, which was one of the main reasons I wanted to have Nelson on to explore this particular topic. And in addition to being a champion memory athlete, he is also a gifted communicator, which is evident in the book and in his interview. And remember that the links that are mentioned in this interview, including the documentary that Nelson refers to that he was recently featured in, will be in the show, notes that you can find at elitecognition.com and clicking on the podcast TAB. As usual, after the interview, I’ll share a couple of my own key takeaways. Before we get to the interview, I’d just like to say a quick thank you to those of you who have recently left a rating and review and I tunes for the podcast, I read each of those and I really appreciate the support and the kind words. And if you are listening and you enjoy the podcast and would like to help spread the word about it to others, I’d love it if you’ve left a rating interview as well. All right. So now I bring you my interview with Nelson Dellis.
I am thrilled to have another incredible guest on the podcast today. Nelson, Dellis, hello, Nelson. Hey, Josh, how are you?
Good. Great. Thanks so much for joining me today. I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation. Nelson has a number of different skills and interests and one of those is that he is a highly decorated memory athlete, including having won the U.S. memory championships. I believe it’s four times. That’s right. And if you don’t know what a memory championship is, we’ll get into that as well. He’s also the author of a great book on this topic of how to remember better. And that’s what I’ve read and I highly recommend is called Remember It. And as I think you will soon learn, the topic of memory is filled with all kinds of misconceptions. And we all have the ability to exponentially increase our memory capacity, which of course, is directly relevant to anyone. And the methods for doing so, I think have really important implications for how we think about our own intelligence, including the scope of what’s possible both in the realm of memory and beyond. So, Nelson, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in becoming a memory athlete?
Definitely. So I started learning about the world of memory about 10 or so years ago now. And a lot of people think that I was born with this skill. That’s not the case at all. It’s something that I learned about, heard about and put to practice. And this is the result of many hours of dedication. And I started getting into it because my grandmother was struggling with her memory. She had Alzheimer’s and ultimately it took her from us. And that was kind of a source of inspiration to get me really into this and devoted to it with so much passion that I had never felt before in any other kind of realm. So it was what I needed to kind of get on the podium at these championships.
So can you give us an idea of kind of what happens at a memory championship?
Sure. It’s a day long event. The U.S. championship at least is a day long event where you have to memorize different things in certain amount of time and obviously recall it as correctly as possible. And so things like homes, names and faces, playing cards, numbers, words, just to name a few. And the whole day is kind of devoted to different events like that. And you’re up against other people and kind of the last person standing there, there’s like a playoff round. And at the end of the day, that person becomes the champion.
So is it organized like a draw, like you’re going head to head against the person in the advanced to the next round? Or is it kind of a mix of different ways of not quite the traditional U.S. championship?
The first part of the day is kind of you against yourself in a way. You’re sitting there memorizing something against the clock and then you’ve got to recall it and the person with the best for your rings basically based on that score. And then across the different events after that, your totals average out and you have some kind of placing. And then at the end of the afternoon, there’s some kind of playoff rounds, but it’s not quite head to head, it’s elimination. So it starts with eight others that are qualified. Then that’s down to five and then three. And then finally on what’s kind of an example of one task you might be asked to do and one of those competitions, one fun one, for example, in the afternoon is called the Tea Party event, where they get some audience members to come on stage and they have to say eight facts about themselves, this specific structure. So they say their first middle, last name. That’s one that means they’re their birthdates, month, date, day and year. That’s another. Then they’re their address and they can make it up, too. So it does. It can sometimes be way out there, really more complicated than it would ever be. But they say their hobbies, favorite foods, hats, car make, all that kind of stuff. And we have to remember that for all the people that show up.
When did you do this? For the first time what you said was about 10 years ago.
Yeah. I mean, 10 years ago is when I started hearing about it, adding it. I didn’t compete until maybe a year or so later because I didn’t feel like I was ready and I wanted to be well prepared before I dove in. So two thousand and was my real first big competition where I wanted to try to do well.
Gotcha. And how did you do in that one?
You know, I was in the final event, there were three of us left and I really felt I had a chance of winning it. But I I messed up. We had to memorize two decks of cards and I memorize them in the wrong order. How dumb. But there is a small technicality of which we’re memorizing all three of us and memorizing the same decks. But what order you thumb through them matters, right? You can imagine picking up a deck and then looking at the bottom card first raw, picking up the deck and starting with the back card for us. Both acceptable ways of going through deck. But I tell we went the way that I was comfortable with and. What the judges have explained to us beforehand. So I sent the first card, which was correct, except that was the last part. It was first in my head, but last for the of June. So I was immediately knocked out and kind of devastated. But I don’t know without that moment. I don’t know if I would have come back and did even better and then won. From that point on.
Well, looking at your biography, it seems clear that you have improved over time in sort of the competition aspect and in your memory capacity. What would you attribute that improvement to? Is it just by virtue of practicing the techniques over time, or do you feel like it’s improving how you’ve used the techniques? So what kind of things do you think are the most flexible areas of growth in this domain?
So few of those things. If I was trapped in a room, separated from the universe and I would just practice, practice, practicing, I’d get better.
Yeah, but I think over time, not knowing what other people are doing and how they’re pushing the sport, you’d ultimately reach some point and then kind of think that that’s the limit. Maybe, maybe you’d still get faster, but incrementally. But knowing how the sport is evolving, there’s other competitors who are coming up with different strategies that are slightly better or having different approaches to how to go faster. You take all that in as you go and you try to incorporate that into your strategies to go faster and memorize more and then experience, you know, just being able to do it better under pressure. And these competitions kind of all those things together is really what help you improve dramatically. So at some point you’re going to hit a plateau and then it’s trying to figure out, well, first, recognizing that it’s plateau and then figuring out how to break that.
So I know a lot of the a lot of the techniques people use are kind of widely available and known, do something, kind of develop their own secret strategies that they keep to themselves. Not really.
That’s the kind of crazy thing about this sport. Everything’s basically known. And the reason for that being that that information is so public is because most of the complex strategies that will get you very far are time consuming to learn. And they’re practice heavy, which for a lot of people at that isn’t feasible, that all the time they don’t have the determination. So it really weeds out the people that are actually going to go through with it. But yeah, it’s all about how you spend time with your systems. And the more advanced you get into this world, the more those require a bit of track time.
Yes. Like the old adage, it’s all about execution, right. Knowing what to do is not the challenge. It’s actually got a practice routine for this sort of thing. And what does that look like?
Depending on which competition I’m competing in the U.S. championship, as I explained, or has that certain structure. But then there’s also other international championships which are more events and longer days or spend more days. And so the strategy for that is different in terms of our practice. So depending on what is ahead of me, I’ll train accordingly.
But it basically revolves around me mimicking those events over and over again in the solitude of my home or in places that recreate some kind of stressful competition like environment and trying to execute and as best as possible and analyze any details or feedback that I give myself.
And you are still competing, right?
Yeah, less and less so this goes on. And this is also my business. And it’s kind of a balance. You know, like if you’re a professional, it’s hard to be a professional competitor because there’s no money in that right. Yet at least the money and how I make my living comes from the results of my competitions, and that is being able to call myself a champion and people recognizing that and wanting to hire me to share my knowledge. The employees, let’s say I don’t beat as much as the rewards at this point are really as big. And I would love to do it just for myself. I got to be on the table. So it’s not quite the same. But yeah, I’m still the U.S. championship is one that’s close to me, like emotionally and strictly. It feels like the most important who I am in terms of when I’m trying to place myself. So that one is always going to kind of be there for me. And then the other ones, I don’t know, I’m thinking about whether I want to this year or maybe next year. We’ll see.
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Do you have any personal goals that you’re still aspiring to, whether it’s a competition or a feat of memory that you would like to attain?
Yeah, I would like to win a fifth title then on the docket for a few years now and this year I came very close again. I got second place. It was a tough final. Few events there, so some close.
I’d like to close that out because that would make me the most winningest U.S. champion of all time. So that was a big win for me.
Has the sport grown over the decade that you’ve been involved in? Yeah, definitely.
The U.S. championship, for example, started in 1990. Three or four, something like that. And they had one classroom filled with twelve people or something like that. And in recent years, it fluctuates a little bit, but more or less, you were close to 100 or so people, competitors and some of the world championships. Now they’ve gotten China really big into Mongolia. India may sometimes grant hundreds of competitors and they have schools that now teach this stuff, huh?
Yeah, it’s definitely growing. There’s books that come out, including mine is Netflix special documentary that I’m a part of that just came out and it’s growing. There’s more opportunity for people to stumble upon it and learn about it. So that’s always been the dream. And I think it’s slowly but surely coming alive.
I know you talked about when you discovered this. It really kind of turned on a light for you and it’s that you’ve been hooked ever since. What do you enjoy most about this whole field?
Ultimate question. I think the biggest thing I enjoy is kind of the I don’t know, the moments I spend with myself in my own head.
I really like that. It’s always been a to memorize the way I do it and where many of us do it allows me to kind of go away and retreat into my own mind and explore places that haven’t been used in a long time war or memories that have meant a lot to me. I get to access them. And it’s kind of a weird meditation, let’s say, to find that kind of peacefulness within myself. And it’s a great escape, cozy feeling like going home and sitting on your couch.
What it feels like when I go into my mind and memorize, which I think for most people is an entirely different type of relationship to memorizing stuff. Right. I think I think you typically feel it’s like this horribly painful process. And what’s so great about it is not only does it sort of change it completely, the tone of it, but you get so much better at it.
So the payoff is so much greater. And I think anybody who kind of explores these techniques for the first time will appreciate, like how is sounding, what their capacity is and what they’re capable of that they’d never even realize. So it totally transforms your whole relationship to memory and to memorizing things, I think.
Yeah, nobody likes to memorize. It’s one of those things that you were told to do as a kid when you were learning stuff and use spent hours at home staring at the newspaper, repeating it over and over again, having your parents praise you and never fun.
But here I am talking about how it’s as comfortable as going on and chewing on my couch. I truly mean that I don’t come from the background where memorizing is always felt that way. I hated to memorize anything, but with the right strategies, the way that we do these things, it just lends itself to being such a pleasant and fun experience. And it’s an addicting kind of feeling to be able to be confident in your memory and memorize things that seem totally impossible before.
So yeah, I think probably one of the misconceptions about this area is that it’s like terribly painful. The types of things you’re subjecting yourself to, what do you think are some of the other common misconceptions about memory and about what it takes to have a really good memory?
Yeah, a big one I’d say is that people think that your memory is or what you have is your own memory is kind of fixed. Now I have a bad memory, not going to be able to change that. That’s a common thing that people tell me about themselves. And it’s totally wrong. It’s everybody has the capabilities that I do and it’s kind of a dormant thing that lives within all of us. And it’s a matter of learning how to think about memory correctly and applying the correct strategies and techniques that allow our brains to become absolute sponges. That’s one of the biggest ones, that thing.
You also talk a lot about. Book about the role of attention in the memory process, which I was really happy to see as a neurologist.
I naturally get a lot of people coming to me who are worried about their memory. And the majority of those people are usually not an age where they’re at a high risk of a neurodegenerative disease. And in almost all cases, the problem is not memory, but attention. And I definitely saw an uptick in the number of people coming in with those types of complaints with the advent of the smartphone era. So can you talk a little bit about how you see the role of attention in memory?
Memory, I think, starts with processing information that you’re attentive to. If you’re not, then it’s not going to be recorded. How could it be? I mean, that’s how our brain works. We have eyes, ears. Other forms of senses not processing the information. If we’re not using those senses directed at something, then it’s not going to be a process or a process. Incorrect. It will be processed and corrected. So everything starts with paying attention and focusing on the thing you want to memorize. And sometimes I tell people like if you want a quick tip on how to improve your memory. It’s not just data and it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever. And somebody might be like, wow, that’s not very helpful at all things, but it’s true if you want to remember something. So you’re looking at a grocery list. If you just tell yourself, I’m going to commit this to memory. This is all I want to do. It is just remember this list. You mean I got it perfect. I’m not saying that that’s the ultimate answer, but it will improve your memory. And that’s a fact. So basically, all the strategies that we do at these competitions, it’s just an elaborate way of paying attention to things. We’re coming up with pictures, associations, storing them in some special way in our mind. It’s just we’re thinking a lot about that thing that we’re staring at and that is essentially paying attention.
Yeah, I think in the book you talk about war and sort of the best ways to improve is making this kind of just a way of life. It’s sort of like a way of changing how you approach the world and having these kind of things top of mind will really focus your attention in the places you care about.
I know that most of the techniques that are used have been around for a very long time and many people be surprised to hear that because they’re not taught in school. Can you talk a little bit about the history kind of of the memory techniques and how they evolved?
We’ve had our memories for ever since the existence of our brains, the modern brain, but the actual strategies and awareness of these strategies dates back to maybe around the Greeks, the time of the Greeks, the ancient Greeks. And I don’t know how true the stories are, but the story goes that there’s a famous order that discovered this one technique that is kind of the foundation for a lot of what memory athletes do. And it’s the thing that allows us to memorize thousands of digits and hundreds and hundreds of names and things like that. And that’s basically a method to organize all the things you’re trying to memorize in your mind so that they’re easy to retrieve. That techniques called the Memory Palace, which basically allows you to take information that you’re imagining and place it in a physical space that you are mentally navigating, obviously, in your mind. And the way it works is when you want to retrieve it and you just think of the place and mentally walk or navigate through it again to pick up the pieces that you left there.
And you can recall things that are extremely long forwards, backwards. It’s all laid out there in your memory palace and you can just access it as you move it.
It sounds like, oh, that’s interesting. But I think if you actually use it for the first time, it is pretty astounding what you’re able to remember by doing that sort of thing. And really, like so many, these techniques are leveraging things. Our brain is really good at remembering to remember things that it’s not very good at remembering. Right? Yeah.
And I’d say even the first reaction people have as well, that sounds a way more complicated than just rote memorization. And while it may sound like that, as you said, when you try it, you see how incredibly effective it is actually easier than you think it is to employ. And it’s just a matter of one of those things. You’ve got to try it, believe it.
There are a few different techniques that are commonly used. And I’m still kind of early days exploring this whole area. But one thing I find myself a little uncertain sometimes about which one is best to use for particularly applications. Do you have any kind of framework for deciding which technique will work best according to the context?
Yeah. So the memory palace, for example, it’s not the end all be all. There are other strategies, but when you’re typically trying to learn a large amount of information, usually the information is in some form of a list or you can turn it into something of a list just for the sake of it being useful in the terms of memory cause. In short, I’m saying it’s a memory policies good for less. Right. So if you all learn the grocery list, all the elements on the periodic table, a bunch of numbers and order all those kinds of things, which is most of what we have to. No. That’s the thing to go to. But you have other stuff like, OK, vocabulary or foreign language or names. Does it really make sense to use these policies? And sometimes the answer is no. At the basis of the Memory Palace technique, it’s basically asking you to attach an association for something you’re trying to learn to. A thing in your mind that you already know indicates the memory policies using physical locations and the points along a path through there. Those are the things you’re attaching images to. On other stuff like foreign word, for example, that you’re learning in another language, you may not want to put it a memory palace because you don’t have to access it in order to be able to hear the word and know the meaning or think what word you want to say and then remember what the word is. So you need some kind of association. And what you do is you’re gonna be anchoring an image for that word to its meaning that you understand it in your own head already. So there’s just different ways to go about it. But essentially it’s all the same. It’s come up with a picture, attach it to something, and then make it as memorable as possible in your mind. Whether you use the memory palace technique, the peg system, linking system or just simple association, like I just said, basically different way, some more complicated than others of using the same attachment method that makes sense.
So one scenario where I’ve used this technique is for public speaking, and I imagine that’s a practical use that many people in our audience might have, whether it’s giving a presentation for work or speaking engagement of some kind. And I think it’s always more effective if you can deliver those without notes or without reading from slides, but you’re probably feels daunting if it’s a talk that’s longer than a couple of minutes for most folks. Do you personally use. I know you do some public speaking as well. Do you use these techniques for that purpose? And if so, is that where you’d use a memory palace? Yeah, that’s a great example.
And I do do that. I have done that. I mean, I’ve done my speech. I’ve different versions of it. But I have essentially it’s so ingrained in me that I can’t just now.
Yeah, exactly. But when I first was doing, I definitely used these techniques. And the question is, you know, some people use the do TED talks, for example. It’s clear that they’ve memorized everything word for word. It’s like a show. Foreman’s sometimes that’s great. And other times, people it feels more ways. Right. Right. They just want it to be buying it.
Even for that, I would still use memory. Policy does not have to memorize words for words and just memorize the topics or the flow of the general ideas that you want to get across. That’s a list. Right. OK. I want to write this. The mess, the mess. The mess in that order. And yeah, so that’s definitely something I know a lot of speakers who are familiar with our techniques used. And that’s actually where the in terms of memory policies, that’s what they were essentially designed for at the very beginning was or these orders give long speeches by memory, they would use memory policies.
Yeah, makes perfect sense. And it really works. And it’s amazing the amount of increase in what you can be able to remember in that scenario. Are there other practical uses that you deploy commonly? There’s so one technique that does in your book that I haven’t seen elsewhere, that was your throw the pen technique, which I love, is that one you use a lot.
Is there any any others that you feel are really practical?
Yeah, that’s a good one. A lot of the stuff in my book, I try to also touch on stuff that’s for everyday kind of flubs, memory flubs, you know, like when you’re on the go and you kind of need to remember something or you easily forget. That’s one of them is like I get in bed or I get in the shower and suddenly I remember something I need to do immediately. I can’t quite get out of the sharks and my wet or I can. I can, but I don’t want to get on the bed some tired. So I do something easy, which is just grab something nearby and throw it off in the distance. But in a place where I know that I’ll come across it in the future, you know, whether it’s the next morning or 10 minutes from now when I get out of the shower. And on that item, whether it’s a pen case and the name of the method, throw the pen, you can throw a bar so you can throw a piece of garbage, whatever anything that’s nearby. And you imagine some kind of image to represent the thing you need to do. Attached to that item. So let’s say you need to send an email to someone important. And then the next morning you’re in bed. You throw a pad on the floor. You’re going to imagine some image related to that email interacting with the pen. And so when in the morning you wake up, you’ve had dreams, you’ve slept, you’ve forgotten about everything. You wake up, you see a pen on the floor. You’re like, oh, yeah, that thing. The e-mail. OK. And then that will remind you to kind of externalize his memory for another time, which I really like.
Yeah. I love that. It’s a way of using your present self to help your future self. And that’s how you put that book. I’ve done this sort of thing like if I have a gig the next day and I like blessing, I want to forget my instrument, right?
So I would like put the instrument like right in front the door. So I trip over it if I walk out. So and this is flying is the exact same concept, but just in a different way that I’d never thought of before. But it’s brilliant because then it’s like it’s also a way of offloading the worry and anxiety that you’d have about it. Right. You say, I’m going to put it there and then it’s done. And then I think on some level that probably frees up some capacity in the brain that you’d otherwise spend, sort of having at the back of your mind. And it’s a great technique. I have one of the other practical areas for me was like you mentioned, is you typically always have something to try to capture, ideas that come to me or something you need to do or whatever. But there are times when you don’t have that, like when you’re in the shower or during a walk or you’re in Iran. And those happened to be scenarios where ideas commonly strike. So I’ll just use one of the memory techniques instead. And then usually whenever that activities over a dash to a notebook and start scribbling. Because the hardest thing to actually remember is that I had things that I wanted to remember. But once I know that, then I can get them all out. And it’s those techniques are really helpful for those scenarios. One of the things that you also talk about is sort of I know physical health is important to you. And I’d imagine that just like, you know, an athlete and other types of sports, you recognize and are mindful of the connection between your physical health and your memory performance here. You’re pushing the brain to the limits. And that point, those kind of factors start accounting for more and more of the variance in your performance. That’s something you pay close attention to. And do you notice a connection or a change in performance depending on your physical health and what kind of things are kind of highest priority for you?
Yeah, totally. And that’s a big part of how I train. You know, obviously there’s things I do specifically to improve my mind. But then like the bad mental exercises. But to realize that your body, your physical health also affects the mind is be short as well. So that’s kind of been a big part of my whole practice regimen is to treat my physical body with my mind in mind. So essentially, I’m trying to stay fit, of course, but also to keep my brain fit as well. And that’s a huge part of my life. And I’ve noticed that when I don’t keep it a priority, which happens from time to time, but not too often. I definitely notice a huge difference in my performance mentally.
Are there certain things that you’re especially mindful of sort of in the days or weeks leading up to a competition from that standpoint?
Yeah, usually a month or two in advance actually are really strict enough by diets. All starts kind of training my mental exercises along with my physical. I do physical exercise every day. So I change it up by adding the mental aspect during those workouts as a lead up to competition sleep try to get a good amount consistently. That’s important.
And then trying to minimize stress. That’s a memory flaw right there. So that’s hard to minimize. But I just do my best to kind of streamline everything I’m doing and not take on too much as I’m trying to focus in on this one.
What are the dietary factors that you pay close attention to?
Yeah, I just try to cut out any alcohol, sugar, lower carbs, things like that. Try to reduce inflammation. Just something that seems so intangible when you talk about it. But when you’re doing it, you just feel amazing physically and mentally. So it’s just the clear kind of edge giver for me to do that.
Have you experimented at all with ketogenic diet?
Yeah, that’s actually my go to at the moment. What I’m trying to kind of shape up where competition. It just changes the where I see things through my mind. It just feels like it’s so streamlined, hyper focused. I don’t know how to describe it. It just feels like I’m right on the edge of a degree and notice the same effects.
Have you ever assessed yourself like different scenarios, ketogenic versus other ways of eating just to see how it impacts your performance?
I’ve played with a few other diets where a few other things and I’ve seen minor results here and there. But recently the past couple of years, Kito has been the thing that just shows me. I’m not saying it’s the only way, but it just seems to work for me. It’s hard to measure exactly what’s happening inside my head, but in terms of my practice, I have all the numbers to show that it actually is better when I’m on that diet.
I got I don’t know if that’s just the mental thing, you know, just because I think that I should feel better. So I do. But, you know, it works. So I’m just happy to be on it.
You mentioned that your one, your goals is to win a fifth U.S. championship. Is there anything in particular that you see kind of as the key to making that happen?
That’s a good question. Like I said before, balancing it with my work life has been as the competitions get more popular, so does the competition level. It gets more cramped. And I think what I have going for me is the experience. I know a lot of the ins and outs of these disciplines that not many newcomers would know. So I feel like I have the edge to get to the very end. And then I you know, it’s still the nerves anymore. Like, I feel very composed of competition. I don’t know. That’s something I’m trying to figure out.
Is there any element of luck involved?
Yeah, for sure. Because sometimes since it’s not a head to head kind of thing, it’s just kind of few of us on stage. Sometimes you are left having to answer something that somebody else did and maybe that person didn’t know it, you know? But it’s up to you. So they get a freebie in a sense. But that’s the nature of the game. So sometimes. And like I lost before because I misread the instructions or it was confusing.
You know, sometimes it can be luck or you memorize the cards in the wrong order. Yeah, I was like that. It’s still kind of a bad luck thing. Yeah.
So even though I feel a little bit like someone asking me for medical advice at a cocktail party, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if there was some kind of demonstration that you could give of your memory ability.
Yeah, we can do this. This is always an easy one for me at least. But if you want, you can come up with a 30 digit number or so. OK. Write it down somewhere. Put it in your phone. It could be. Think of three phone numbers, right, with the area code and then just say the numbers to me.
One, did you that in time and I’ll do my best to memorize it forwards and backwards. All right. I’ve got them. OK, how about let me think for a second. I’m going to place myself in a memory powers. OK, go ahead. 4. OK, Cadence. Yeah. Yeah. Go 200000.
Ok, 1 5 6 7 9 1 0 4 0 4 2 9 1 4 3 7 7 0 0 2 3 1 3 5 2 1 0 9.
Ok, let me just go through this in my head real quick.
Ok. OK, here we go.
4, 3 1 5 6 7 9 1 0 4 0 4 2 9 1 4 3 7 7 0 0 2 3 1 3 5 2 1 0 9.
Yeah. Thanks. Let me do it backwards and so go for it, right? Yes or no?
9 0 1 2 5 3 1 3 2 0 0 7 7 3 4 1 9 2 4 0 4 0 1 9 6 7 6 5 1 3 4.
He got it fast. That’s astounding. And believe it or not, what you just did.
It’s one of the world events, but it goes on for like 10 minutes. Yeah. One digit per second. Right. So when I’m on it, or even people who are better than me, we can get over 100 digits in a row. Some even get that 300, 400, which is insane because you hear the number once and it’s gone, right.
It is insane. But man, it’s just such an incredible illustration of how much more we’re capable of than we’ve realized.
Yeah. Because most people, if they were following along your listener there and even me at some point in my life before I knew this, though, you’d be done after three or four digits because you you’d be lost.
You feel like, oh, man, I’m going to I’m listening to these kind of digits, but forgetting the old ones. It’s tough for the person who’s not using any strategy.
Right. Well, as a neurologist, we do a test called digit span as part of our cognitive evaluation. And seven digits is considered kind of what we expect people to have. And here we are just exponentially increasing that capacity. So phenomenal. Where would you direct people to go to learn more about you and what you’re doing? I know you also have a YouTube channel and seen some. Your videos are great. What do you like people to find you? Yeah.
So start by going my website. Nelson Dellis dot com. You can contact me through there or you’ll see connect links to my social media. But yeah, my YouTube channel is kind of where I put most of my effort in. There’s a lot of videos on quick little memory tips and fun applications of these techniques and you can just search my name on YouTube. Also, my my book, remember, it is out you can find anywhere online and then on Netflix or film that just came out called Memory Games. OK. If you want to learn more about the stories behind me and a few other memory athletes, it’s a really cool documentary about that.
Well, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the podcast today. I’ll, of course, link to all those things in the show notes. There are so many great takeaways from this, I think, and ways that this can make an immediate and lasting impact on cognitive function. A few episodes ago, had Dr. Michael Merson gone. He’s one of the pioneers in neuroplasticity talking about all the benefits of cognitive benefits of doing things that challenge your brain. Yeah, that that not only improves your capacity, but also improves the health. And like you said, you got into this in the beginning because of your grandmother and suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. And this in and of itself is a strategy for protecting, not just because it improves your memory, but because it improves the health of the brain as well. So phenomenal. So another probably also people in the audience for whom this is entirely new and this whole area, I think is mind blowing for people the first time they learn about it, because you see these seemingly impossible feats that are achieved and that you can actually attain. So it just radically expands your ideas of what your own brain is capable of. Exactly. Yeah. Which, of course, is one of the central missions of this podcast. So and I think that yeah, I recommend everybody pick up a copy of the book. This is actually a book where I might suggest getting the physical copy. There are great illustrations in it and so forth. So I enjoy it even though I do most of my reading on the Kindle. Let’s enjoy having a physical copy of it.
So I designed it that way so that it’s as memorable as possible when you hold it in your hands.
Nice. Yeah. You kind of have the pressure on, right. You got to remember the book. Exactly. Because it’s very well done. Well, so thanks so much again for sharing your time and insight. Nelson Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ok. So thanks again to Nelson for coming on the podcast today and sharing his time. There are a couple of things that I wanted to make a finer point on here, and I’ll be expanding even further on some of these ideas in the next episode because again, I think there are many important implications. The first thing I think that must be highlighted here is the fact that, as Nelson says, he hasn’t always had some incredible gift of memory. He hasn’t been dazzling his friends and family since birth with staggering feats of memory. Nor did he really even consider his memory to be better than average until he began exploring this particular area. As he says, he was moved to learn more about how he could improve his own memory after witnessing his grandmother slowly lose hers to dementia. And in doing so, he ultimately became the four time U.S. memory champion. And he also referenced in the interview the book Moonwalking with Einstein, where the author, Joshua Foer. I think that’s how you pronounce it, decides to write a book about this world of memory competitions and ends up learning the techniques and winning a U.S. championship himself. But for someone who is new to this entire area, the kinds of feats of memory that are required to win a competition like this would seem unfathomable. So it seems like there must be something fundamentally different about the brains of people who are achieving these feats. And ordinary brains and memory is another domain where the fixed mindset tends to predominate, where we think of certain people as being born with really good memories.
And I don’t think most people think of it as a capacity that can be significantly approved, improved upon. And yet, as the typical story of a competitive memory athlete illustrates, that’s simply not the case. In the last episode I did on the mental model paradoxical gains, I talked about the evidence that indicates that our present capacities and abilities are only a reflection of what factions or neural networks are winning the battle for conscious access at any given moment, and how it’s very likely that we all possess capacities in our brain that we have never seen, expressed or never seen expressed for very long periods of time simply because they are actively suppressed. And sometimes those can shockingly emerge after a brain injury or insult, or they may emerge when dominant networks are taken off line by a drug like a psychedelic. And so there is likely much to be gained in the realm of expanding human intelligence by exploring how we can release those cognitive networks from suppression. And here in this domain of memory enhancement, we see a similar phenomenon. In this case, we are unleashing new new capacities, not by adding anything, but by accessing what already exists. And again, we have more to say on this topic in the next episode and beyond. But hopefully between this episode and the last one weaved demolished, any assurances you might have that any of us truly knows the capacity and potential inside any given human brain and that any claims of that kind of knowledge are incredibly premature? The other point I wanted to emphasize, which is one I was very happy to hear Nelson talk about in the interview and in his book is the crucial role of attention in memory formation.
It seems that many of us walk around with the idea that we should be able to remember pretty much everything we want to and that when we forget something, it’s a failure of our memory. But our brain is not designed to remember everything, nor would we want it to be. So making a memory requires making structural alterations in the brain to support its long term storage and making structural alterations in order to encode what we had for breakfast. Each day of our lives would be an incredible waste of resources, much less trying to encode every bite of sensory data that we perceived. And moreover, the more that we store, the more we have to retrieve. So just as the files on your computer become become harder to locate, the more you store, the same can be said of memory. The larger your database, the more challenging the search for any particular item becomes simply because there’s more stuff to search through. And so for several reasons, the brain is designed to be very selective about what it stores and to have gatekeeping functions for deciding what is worthy of the tradeoffs that are involved. And furthermore, our brains signature feature is not its capacity for storage, but rather its ability to understand and extract meaning from the world.
We can create computers with great memories that can store a ton of information, but not ones that extract meaning or that exhibit what we consider to be understanding. So while some of us may lament our inability to store information like a computer, the reality is that the tradeoff likely allows us to do something far more advanced. And this optimization for understanding has important implications for the architecture of memory, which is a topic we’ll explore in future episodes. So all that to say that I think many of us carry around unrealistic expectations about memory. Not only is our brain not supposed to remember everything, but we really don’t want it to. And that selectivity exists for important reasons. That being said, memory has become a more acute issue for folks in recent years. And I think the biggest challenge here is that in some ways we face an environmental mismatch when it comes to what we might want to remember these days. So the nature and availability of information in our modern world is entirely unlike what our hunter gatherer ancestors dealt with and what the information environment. Our brains evolved under was like. So there was no Internet, there was no podcast. Even writing is evolutionarily novel. And so remembering written text is an evolutionarily novel skill. We’re able to do it because we can leverage memory mechanisms that were designed for encoding spoken language. So the things that we’re innately designed to remember, which is to say the things that our brain considers to have some potential impact on our biological fitness and the things that we now want to remember are usually not one in the same things.
And in our daily lives now we are confronted with more information of that nature than ever before. So if we want to remember certain things amongst that growing sea of data, we have to make a systematic attempt to do so. We can’t just expect it to happen. And the way we do that is through focused attention. So we consolidate the events of our day into longer term memory during sleep and focused attention is the way we tag those events during the course of the day. And that tag is then used at night when we sleep. In particular, during certain stages of sleep to begin the consolidation process and the transfer to long term memory. So that means if we don’t pay close attention to any particular thing, if our attention is distributed amongst several things at once, then nothing gets tagged for long term storage. And ultimately, I consider there to really be two paths by which we can form a lasting memory of one of those paths is unconsciously mediated and the other is not. And the unconscious path is for events or episodes of high emotional valence, most commonly something that threatens our survival. And so kicks in our fight or flight response. And that response naturally focuses our spotlight of attention and tags the neural networks that are involved with encoding that event so that they’re consolidated into a long term storage during sleep. And this process happens entirely unconsciously and automatically as a part of our hardwired instincts.
So this type of memory is instinctual. It’s governed by subconscious networks. And it’s there to ensure that we store information of high value or significance. And then the. Other route to remembering anything. The one that’s more effortful is to consciously attend to it, to willfully direct your spotlight of attention so that whatever it is you are wanting to remember will be tagged for consolidation that night. So for someone who struggles to remember people’s names or important events or dates on their calendar, the issue is almost always one of attention. In other words, the breakdown is in the encoding of the memory, not in its retrieval. And this, of course, is a greater challenge today since our attention is more divided than ever. And on average, we’re spending less time with single minded focus on a single thing. And if you want to dig deeper into this particular topic, as well as how to mitigate this phenomenon in the digital age, I’d encourage you to check out the work of Cal Newport, including his recent interview on the Nourish Balance Thrive podcast, which I’ll try to remember to link in the show notes. So remember, if you feel like you’re having a problem with memory, it’s almost always a problem of attention. And I should also add that it can often be a sign that there are issues with sleep, either sweet sleep quality or quantity, which makes perfect sense since sleep is when we encode memories for long term storage. All right.
So those are my final thoughts. Once again, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Nelson’s book. Remember it. If this is your first introduction to this entire area, you are in for a treat. It is both a practical guide to how to get more out of your memory. And it’s also sure to provide you with a powerful illustration of how much more your brain is capable of than you realize. All right. Thanks so much for listening and I will see you in the next episode.
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