Nelson Dellis is a great party date. He can memorize one deck of cards, randomly shuffled, in less than 34 seconds. Give him five minutes and he can memorize 86 names or 114 words or 358 numbers — and, yes, he can repeat them to you, in the correct order, without making a mistake. Dellis doesn’t think he’s anything special. In fact, he swears he used to be “absent-minded.” So how did he become the U.S. memory champion and one of the world’s top memory masters at age 27? He credits putting his rear to the chair. What’s more, he says you could do it too.
When I sat down to talk to Dellis, he was taking a break from training for the USA Memory Championship, which he won in 2011. That morning, he had memorized three decks of cards in less than 40 seconds. Using software online, he followed that up by memorizing 75 names in five minutes. “I don’t even think it’s impressive anymore,” he says, grinning and knowing I think him a freak of nature. He’s not. He swears. “I have always struggled with memory. I have a good grasp of numbers, but I forget the normal stuff in everyday life.” Five weeks later, in March 2012, he won the Memory Championship for a second time, racking up a new U.S. record in the Speed Numbers event: 303 digits in five minutes.
This obsession with memory started when Dellis was 24 and unemployed. He picked up a book by eight-time world memory champ Dominic O’Brien. The assignment: Memorize 10 weird images? and picture them in your own home. With that simple exercise, O’Brien’s readers could remember the 10 largest bodies of water in the world. The Pacific was a pacifier, the Atlantic was Atlantis, and, uh … . Alas, Dellis cannot remember the list today. Like he says, he’s a normal guy. “At the time, I couldn’t forget the list. It was so memorable. I was, like, ‘Wow, this is so easy.’ ” He started memorizing card decks as a “cool parlor trick.” When he got a job in 2008, he quit memory training.
Then his grandmother died in 2009 after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. “I started worrying, ‘Could this happen to me?’ I decided to see how far I could take the memory lessons to transform my own memory,” he says. “I treated it like working out.” He’d run on the treadmill and study numbers. He kept stats. With daily, vigorous training, he made it to the finals, coming in third at the USA Memory Championship in 2010. “It almost feels like there is no limit,” he says. When he climbed Mount Everest in 2011, he found his memory sharpening as he went higher. He nearly died near the top (his oxygen mask froze), but he credits his trained memory skills — using memories of home to recall numbers — for pulling him back to reality.
How does he do it? The brain is bad at remembering abstract things like numbers but good at pictures and spatial information. So Dellis first converts whatever he’s memorizing into a picture. “Once I have the picture, I store it in a familiar location in my mind — a journey around my childhood home, my apartment down the street, my drive to work.” The journey preserves the order of what he’s memorizing.
Ancient Roman orators like Cicero used similar techniques called “memory palaces” for speeches. They probably did not, however, use celebrities to remember cards, like Dellis does. Britney Spears is his two of spades. To remember the card, Dellis spent days with Spears, driving with her card on the car dash, eating with her, taking showers with her. “Sounds really stupid,” he admits, chuckling, but when he sees a two of spades now, it’s Spears.
The more outrageous the image, the better the memory. Consider the number 301139. To Dellis, that’s “Conan O’Brien playing tennis with a shoe.” He assigns each number a letter: 1 = A, 2 = B, etc. To him, 30 is Conan O’Brien (3 = C and zero = O). Each person also has a designated action and object. Andre Agassi, for instance, is 11 and his action is swinging a tennis racket. No. 39 Chuck Norris kicks and his object is a shoe. So for 301139, Dellis thinks: Conan O’Brien is 30, Agassi (11) is playing tennis, and Chuck Norris (39) is the shoe. “Chunking” digits into images like this — Conan O’Brien playing tennis with a shoe — is Dellis’ edge on the competition.
Though he nearly died on Everest, Dellis plans to go back in 2013 to raise awareness about Alz?heimer’s and the power of memorizing. His nonprofit, Climb for Memory, hopes to raise $293,500 — $10 for every foot of Everest. He’ll run numbers in his head as he climbs. Until then, he’s training to beat the world record of 500 numbers memorized in five minutes held by Wang Feng of China. ?Dellis’ personal best is 358. He will do it someday.