Ask a memory champion [2]

Hi, everyone! Remember when I used to have a regular question-answering thread on this forum? Let’s do it again!

If you don’t remember that, it’s understandable. If you don’t know who I am, I can quite understand that too - the days when I was a ‘memory champion’ are long gone now. But I’m Ben Pridmore, I was the World Memory Champion three times (2004, 2008 and 2009), world number one for ages until all these new young people came along and started getting scores far and away better than anything I ever did, and I’d love to answer your questions about anything related to memory competitions!

I do still send my so-called “book” (in the form of a Word document) to anybody who wants it - please do tell me your email address in a private message here, and I’ll send it over to you. If you’ve asked me before and I haven’t sent it, please ask again! I’ve had a lot of messages in the last couple of years that I haven’t read…


What is your strategy for the hour cards and hour numbers event? Specifically how many times do you review each number/card. I’ve read that some people break it up into 15 minute segments and try to visualize each card/number 3 times in that 15 minute period before moving on to the next 15 minute segment.

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Sad to say, it’s so long since I actually did hour cards and numbers, I can barely recall how I used to go about it…

But my basic strategy was to do one journey (which for me covers three packs of cards, or 234 digits), then revise it, then move onto the next journey. At about the 40-minute mark I would then go back and revise everything I’d looked at, reading it over again as many times as I could, with the idea being to have looked at everything four or five times in total.

I can’t claim that this is a scientifically-researched best way to do it, it’s just the way I’ve always done it since I first started out (although with my old system a journey didn’t cover as much data). It’s probably worth repeating my ‘golden rule’ here - everyone’s brain works differently, you should always see what feels right to you, and do it that way!

Great things this topic is on because I have some questions. I will write after I finish reading forum until end (around 30% left) because I do not want to ask repetative or obvious questions.


Thank you so much for all you’ve done for memory sports. You were quite busy in 2016, with all of those events you organized, on top of a full-time job.

When you do the Words discipline as it is presented in the Memory League, with 60 seconds to memorize as many words as possible, how many images are you using per locus? Also, do you tend to try to create an image that represents the true meaning of the word (for instance, maybe imagining a frowning or crying man for the word “sad”), or do you tend to use other tricks (like maybe imagining a newspaper ad being caught in a vise for “advice”)? Are you using any mnemonic “markers” to differentiate the varying forms of words (run, running, ran, etc)? Lastly, are you trying to memorize a goal number of words in a certain number of seconds, leaving a certain amount of time to perform a quick review, or do you not do a review at all at this short discipline?

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In old-fashioned, longer-time-limit words disciplines, I never used to use journeys or locations, I just ran everything together into a long story. With Memory League I changed my habits so that I now use a journey and put three words on each location, and I’ve applied that to the longer disciplines a couple of times too, with mixed results - but I think it would probably be a good thing if I did it regularly.

In one minute my strategy is to look at twelve locations (36 words), then go back and review them. Then, if I have time (say, ten seconds left of the sixty), two more locations for another six words and review them. In the last closing second or two I glance at the next six words and repeat them to myself in the ten blank-screen seconds between memory and recall time, then write them down first when recall starts. Sometimes I notice and remember the final two words too, to take me up to the complete 50, but I have to be just a fraction faster than usual for that to work.

Generally speaking, I always feel I have to review words, or they won’t stick in my brain quite right. I don’t tend to apply ‘tricks’ to them - a lot of the time, in fact, I’m really not picturing a very clear image at all, just a vague ‘idea’ of what the word conveys, and using my more basic memory of saying the word to myself as I read it as an aid to getting the right synonym.

If I encounter a word like ‘sad’, I’ll normally apply it as an adjective to the next or previous noun on the list (whatever seems to me like it makes the most sense). I’d never turn ‘advice’ into a picture of something else - there are perhaps a few abstract nouns I might do that kind of thing for on the spur of the moment, but it’d be unusual. In this case it would be an image of the previous noun giving advice to the next one - when we’re only taking a minute to memorise and recalling immediately, I can generally remember that it’s “advice” rather than “instruction” or something like that. Generally, anyway, though it’s not 100% reliable.

My scores on Memory League words can fluctuate quite a lot, depending on whether I get the kind of words that suit me - perhaps if I took a more scientific approach I could stabilise it more, but with such a tight time limit I don’t really want to do anything that would take up more ‘thinking time’…

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Related to that - does it ever happen that competitor gets 2 or 3 abstract words in a row so it makes it harder to connect it with previous noun , and if that’s the case, what would you do then?

It really depends what the words are - I would normally string them together in some way so that they all apply to the previous noun, or else transform one of the abstract words into something more concrete, somehow… a lot of my technique for words is made up on the spot. :slight_smile:

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Hi Ben,

I got back into memory practicing after a long break, you sent me your book a while ago, it was a very interesting reading! Glad to see you’re still here!

I was wondering about a few things so I’m happy you are offering your help.

I’m using a 2 digits PAO system and I noticed that it takes me quite some time to “translate” the cards to their corresponding images. I’m still a beginner so I’m at around 5min memo, and I noticed that it takes me 1min35 only to translate the cards. After about 20 deck runs where I only translated without memorizing (paying attention to the ones I was slower to translate), it went down to 1 minute (I had memos of around 4 minutes since then). Do you think it’s good to practice cards/numbers translations separately, or is it not worth spending time on that specifically (because it will come by practicing memorization as a whole)?

Something that annoys me with cards is that I have to reorder them after I’m finished to put them back in order (to put the card at the top to the bottom of the deck) because I memorize starting from the top of the deck and put the cards front up on the table. I noticed that you memorised your cards starting from the back of your deck towards the front (pulling the cards from behind instead of from the front with your thumb). Is this to avoid the need to do this?
I think I saw Simon Reinhard do it the same way that I do. Does he have to reorder them everytime too (cutting on the 5min recall time), or is there a trick that I’m not aware of?

One last thing if I may: I was wondering about the kind of locis that you use. I often feel like I need locis to be pretty unique for them to work very well (things like stairs or doors that appear often and in different palaces seem to stuck less). Is it the same for you? Are you trying to have something unique on each loci or does it just work because it’s in a different place? Could I maybe see a small sample of locis that you use in one of your palaces to get an idea of the uniqueness and to see how you split your rooms?

Thanks a lot! You’re awesome!

Personally, I’ve always thought it will come by practicing memorisation as a whole, but that’s really only because that’s the way I always did it. I know a lot of people who do ‘drills’ where they’re just translating the cards into images and it certainly helps them - this probably comes under the ‘do what feels right for you’ rule. But myself, I think that if you keep the whole thing integrated into practicing memorising a pack of cards, over and over, it’s the quickest way to improve.

I’ve never even thought of that as being a problem. I start from what you call the back of the deck just because that’s what I consider to be the ‘top’, and I would never have thought of starting from the ‘bottom’, like some people do. Before I switched to sliding the cards between my fingers like that, I used to deal them two at a time onto the table, starting from the top face-down card, as if I was playing a card game. I don’t know what Simon does, exactly - I think there are videos of him rearranging a pack out there, we should both watch it and learn! I think it’s acceptable in competition to have a face-up memorising deck and a face-down recall deck in the reverse order, if you tell the arbiter that’s how you did it.

There are a few of my journeys that I do always find a little bit confusing because the locations are quite similar - the one that comes to mind is the one I was using just yesterday, my old school. It starts in three rooms upstairs, and then a little bit later on moves on to the three identical rooms on the ground floor underneath them, in the same order. I do sometimes get mixed up between what was in rooms 6, 5 and 4, and 3, 2 and 1. Bad planning, really, but when I’ve created a journey I practically never want to change it…

Generally, though, my locations are only used as vague backgrounds, and it doesn’t matter if they’re not particularly unique. I do like my journeys to have stairs in them, though - I think it makes them more interesting if the locations are on different levels. My journeys mostly tend to be buildings I’ve known, with one location in each room, plus usually the top of the stairs, halfway down, and the bottom as three consecutive locations. Some of them are around towns, with locations on corners and in shops. They all tend to change and transform a little bit in my mind after a while, evening out the real-life distance between locations and generally becoming a bit more stylized…

Hi Ben,

I’m a beginner in mnemonics, but I have read quite a bit about it in “The Memory Book” by Harry Lorayne, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” and “A Sheep Fell Out of the Tree.” I’ve also read some threads on this site as well as Master of Memory and The Magnetic Memory Method. It’s found it really amazing that you could memorize cards that quickly. I have some questions though: What kinds of mnemonics can you use for reading comprehension improvement? I noticed that there was a thread opened up about it 4 years ago, but it only got one comment. There does not seem to be that much information out there on memorizing information from a book. There was a video from Ron White’s YouTube channel, an article on Anthony Metivier’s website on how to memorize a textbook, and a small chapter in “The Memory Book” that proposed the use of the link method which does not work for all kinds of reading. The memory palace technique does not seem to work very well when reading because not all of the information is sequential and it is difficult (at least for me) to relate the information to the story to the loci. I have tried mind mapping, but it takes way too long and it seems to work best only for getting the main points. How do I memorize a dynamic novel for example that involves a lot of nonsequential information while actually reading? Also, how do I best absorb the information so that I get the trivial details as well as the main points without memorizing too much?

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This isn’t really an area that I know anything about - I’ve never tried memorising a textbook or a novel. I instinctively, so to speak, dislike the idea of applying the techniques useful for memorising cards and numbers to everything else; I don’t think it’s automatically a good idea, so I don’t want to do it myself.

So with the very big proviso that I don’t really know anything about the subject, I would have thought that every novel has some kind of sequential aspect to it, so you can still put a summary of each chapter in each location of a journey… but it really depends what kind of thing you’re trying to remember, and in how much detail. Can you give us a specific example?

Right now, I am reading a novel called “I Am Malala.” It’s about a Muslim girl named Malala who got shot by the Taliban for defending girls’ right to education in Pakistan. I agree that a novel does have a sequence, but this particular one involves a lot of detail. In cases where she is explaining life in Pakistan or about the history, it seems to be almost textbook-dense and it is very slow reading. It feels like I’m not absorbing much of the information and that is why I would like to use mnemonics, especially for the foreign names and places.

In chapter 1, there is a lot of information that is given and it is 10 pages in length In my book. You can read it for free if you want on the Google Books Preview feature. The title of chapter 1 is called “A Daughter is Born.” Ironically, chapter 1 is one of the hardest chapters in the book and although when I read it, I got the main idea, I missed a lot of really important details. There are foreign nicknames, dates, places, family names/people groups, and more.

I’m very surprised that the mnemonics community has not written very much on how to implement mnemonics in the actual reading process. I can definitely see using the link for names to what the person did, but I have no idea how to put this in a memory palace as I am reading it or what kind of memory palace to build. Currently, the only thing I have used the memory palace for is to memorize a list or foreign language vocabulary.

I have a crazy idea. Maybe if a mnemonist would work with a cognitive psychologist whose major is in reading so that a comprehensive guide on how to memorize all kinds of writing from literature to history to textbooks would be published, the field of memory techniques may eventually make it into the public school system being that reading comprehension/retention is a problem for many. Even better, a game could be made on this website that would flash a reading passage on the screen and then people would get tested on their comprehension of every point in the passage while getting their speed measured. Hopefully, if such a guide or game were made, we would not have to re-read something over and over again in college in order to know everything for an exam; reading it once would be necessary.

What are thoughts on this idea and strategies for chapter 1 of “I Am Malala”?

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Thanks a lot for doing this Ben, happy new year.

My question is: Have you seen any improvements in your cognition, or even just general well-being, as a result of practising memory techniques?

When I was younger I practised the method of loci from Dominic O’Brien’s book a little. It helped me memorise information for school essays I was otherwise uninterested in. However, in daily life outside school I just saw no real opportunity to apply any of the methods. For topics I’m interested in, or even in mathematics and science for example, I find that practice through solving problems is often a better way to learn.

But I don’t know, maybe there are other benefits to training your memory, such as increased attention, or better memory even if you don’t use the techniques?


Brandon, I’ll have a look at the book when I get a little more time, and see if I can think of anything specific that might be useful.

Wheresmymind, I’ve always said that the one benefit I got from memory training was a general increased concentration span; I’m pretty sure I can focus on a task now for longer than I could before I started training for marathon memory disciplines. I don’t really think that memory techniques are a magic thing that can be applied to absolutely everything you might want to do, so I agree that practice through solving problems is generally a better way…

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Ben, lets say you travel through time and see yourself who is beggining to learn about memory. What advice would you give yourself to progress faster or to skip mistakes you made? Of course making mistakes is part of progress as well, but hehe, I am very interested in answer.

Well, I think I would be depriving my younger self of a lot of fun if I stopped him making the mistakes for himself! Young Me would probably get bored with memory quickly and give it all up! So my only advice to 23-year-old Ben (because that’s the age I first learned about memory techniques) would actually be "Grow a beard - they look really cool, and when they come back into fashion you’ll be even cooler saying ‘I’ve had a beard since 2000’ than you do when I say ‘I’ve had a beard since 2002’.

But if I did want to give him some advice, the best thing would be to let him know the current world records - knowing what’s possible is a big advantage. I might advise him to create his journeys a bit more logically, because some of my early ones jump madly from place to place. I’m used to them by now, but I might have got used to them more quickly if I’d been more sensible at the start. Apart from that, I can’t honestly think of a single piece of advice I might give - everything about my systems came about through trial and error, and in the process of making those errors, I figured out how to do it right. If I gave my younger self a textbook, he wouldn’t be able to follow it. I’m not very good at following other people’s instructions, even if they come from a crazy old man who claims to be me…


Zoomy I’m going to hit you hard with questions from my memory training experience.
First, when i started out memory training having only read moon walking with einstein I really only knew the memory palace, but i was so motivated using only that i went and memorized a deck of cards in about 40 minutes as my first training, the mental fatigue was intense after that. Since then I have been training a few times a week for about 15 minutes and I still get mental fatigue from it, my scores are all going up but it wears me out so fast. any tips?

Second when it comes to memorizing numbers i have made a pao system but i have done numbers so many times with out it i havn’t memorized my pao system or even tried to use it, i am doing about 40 numbers a minute just chunking them and storing them in different loci. how can i break my habits and use a pao system and will it really help improve my numbers speed?

and more to come when i can think of them. Thanks :slight_smile:

Mental fatigue is always a thing, I think. You’ll get used to it the more you practice, but I always feel seriously physically tired after a lot of memorising. I always liked to spend a whole day in bed after a world memory championship, and I think that’s entirely healthy! But I think the more you train, the longer you’ll be able to concentrate without getting worn out.

Changing a system can be tricky - I remember when I switched to my current system back in 2003, it was tempting to go back to the previous one in speed cards at least, since I knew I could go faster with the old one-card system at that time. But I also knew it would be generally confusing to do that, so I stuck with it and before too long I got faster than I ever had been before. I’m pretty sure it will improve your numbers speed to use a proper system, after a bit of practice, so all I can suggest is just to be strict with yourself and make sure you always use it! :slight_smile:

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Ben I read that you actually started memorising cards using your natural memory and did a fair job at it…that is incredible! Your natural memory is clearly very strong as it is. In your day to day life for things such as your job (I understand you’re an accountant) or even things like appointments, do you use any other memory tools…or just your natural memory?

Also how many journeys do you have in your head currently that you will use in competitions and how many loci do they have? In one of Dominic O’Brien’s latest books he says he has around 100…