Ask a memory champion

Hi everyone - for people who don’t know me, I’m Ben Pridmore, I won the World Memory Championship three times in the dark ages, and I’ve been asked to contribute to this forum with the benefit of my wisdom, if any, and experience of all things memory-related.

I’m planning to write a series of long posts about different things - a guide or suggestions for how to prepare for memory competitions, an account of what the world championship was like ten years ago and an example of how I’d go about memorising some non-competition information. All coming soon, and may or may not be of interest to you, so keep your eyes peeled!

Is there anything anyone would like to ask? I’ll dip into all the forums and stick my oar in to any conversation that I think I can add something stimulating or provoking to, but please do post here if there’s anything you’ve always wanted to know, and that I can try to answer!

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Hello Ben, I just wanted to said thenx for coming to this forum and sharing your wisdom with us. I’m really apprecite your efforts.
I kind of wanted just to thenk you, but if I already posted in this question theread I’ll ask one question. What is usually your daily/weekly practice routine? I just want to know how much time and in which tasks you spend it as a memory athlte and a phenomenal one…

Again thenx, really apprecite it.

Hi Ben:

First, thanks for your generosity.

I am a beginner to memory technique learning, and am grappling with how to learn and navigate this field for the type of learning I want to do.

Here’s something I recently came across in med school, and was thinking about the best way to memorize:

Differential diagnosis for chest pain: unstable angina; variant angina; aortic dissection; MI; pulmonary embolus; pericarditis; pneumonia; pneumothorax; pleuritis; pericarditis; costochondritis; peptic ulcer disease; GERD; diffuse esophogeal spasm.

What is the best way to remember such a list? Keep in mind that I would like to retain thousands of similar style lists/associations for rapid, long-term recall to help my future patients.

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Wow this is a great idea thanks for sharing some of your knowledge about memory training and competitions!

I would consider myself more advanced than a beginner but not quite an intermediate memorizer, and I have always wondered whether experts like yourself subvocalize when memorizing cards or numbers, and if so to what extent. I have been trying to give all of my images one-syllable nicknames to say them more quickly in my mind, and I just wondered what you do and if you have any advice regarding subvocalization in memory events.

Thanks again!

Hello Zoomy,

There are many topics I would love to hear a master chime in on, memorizing texts to be recited is something I am looking into these past few weeks, I don’t need to do this in any given period of time but a few pages in an evening would be nice.

I think I am “okay” with the basic outline of a speech but methods for verbatim if you have any you can share would be helpful.

I am also interested in techniques that you don’t feel work well, and why you feel they don’t work well.

thanks.

Sometimes it can be difficult to pick these events and find the specific elements to drill independently. We could all benefit from knowing your favorite drills. Maybe you’ve spent some time on one or more of these; but even if you haven’t, I’d love to hear your first impression about their usefulness. Still, the former question is more important. A few I have thought of that may be useful are:

For 2-card systems, or other systems requiring improvisation (random words?) to link multiple objects quickly and in novel ways, abandon loci and memorize an entire deck (maybe more!) by visualizing the objects that arise in one long chain. Time yourself. If the images connect well and the events progress logically, recall won’t be hard, but making such a chain of events is hard, so this might be a good drill. Have you tried it?

For anything requiring loci: do not let the most recent images vanish if they would truly be in your line of sight (such as if your freezer is one loci and your fridge is the next. If necessary, back up enough to see multiple loci. If your path snakes around, retain a visual impression of prior loci that are now in the background.

Memorize the same deck twice, linking each object in a completely different way in order to enhance creative associations.

Memorize through loci paths backward to gain a new perspective on the loci.

Within-memorization review: place the past five loci so well that you can run back through them (if they are one or two objects each, especially) without wasting more than, say, 2 seconds. The goal is to increase speed of recall here, so that for instance in long events, one could review by covering up digits, words, or concealing cards, until he has attempted to recall them, cobsidering a loci “forgotten” and worthy of review if it is not recalled almost immediately.

Attempting to match scores of speed numbers that you can do with review by setting a metronome allotting time to achieve that score by placing exactly as many digits, but spending longer on each loci.

Or similarly, taking twice or three times as much as you would need to memorize anything, so recall occurs much later than if you had memorized quickly. This is to ensure that you can in fact make good use of time spent by embellishing images.

Even with large object lists, spending much time, maybe minutes, on examining each object individually.

Resolving not to move on from any image or loci until at least 3 senses have been used to examine it (during memorization).

Memorizing a deck at regular speed, but distracting yourself for five or ten minutes before attempting to recall it.

And to ask a specific variation of Nick’s important question, have you found it most useful to practice multiple disciplines in a single day, or to focus on one per day, or does there seem to be little difference? If MA’s stop practicing weeks before a championship, shouldn’t a stint in the middle of the year be useful too?

Which globally competitive MA is the most despicable as a person?

xD!

Thanks,

Sorry if I trampled you for being generous; you understand that this is an exciting opportunity for the neophytes.

Thanks Zoomey for your time.

Something I’m struggling with is choking. By this I mean, I’m memorizing material and I seem to plateau out . . .just run out of gas. Now I understand about the plateau effect and pushing your limits. It occurs to me that whether you’re a champion or a beginner we all reach some point where we stretch out to make an association and we got . . . .zippo.

So, we come back next day or in a couple of hours try again and then . . . .we got it, or maybe not.

Any tips on how you go about this? More training? How often in a day? Maybe mornings versus evenings?

I understand what works for you, probably won’t for me. But it might work for someone else. Or parts of what you do might.

When I’m seriously training (which I’m not at the moment), my ideal practice routine is to do about an hour on weekday evenings, practicing speed cards, 5-minute numbers, 5-minute binary and/or spoken numbers. Then at the weekend, if I’m not busy with anything else, a practice session of 30-minute binary, 60-minute numbers and 60-minute cards.

When I first started out, my training was almost entirely in the marathon disciplines and the speed cards - I can’t claim to have thought about it carefully and analysed which disciplines it was best to train, it was just what I had the most fun doing. I’m weird, I know. But it is important if you’re planning to compete in the world memory championships to get in the habit of hour-long concentration as much as possible; I think it prepares you not just for the longer disciplines but for the whole three-day competition experience - it’s very draining, and a lot of stamina practice really does help. I’ve known plenty of people who come to competitions saying they’ve never trained on the hour-long disciplines, and these competitors never seem to reach the very highest level.

(Of course, everything I say, here and elsewhere, comes with the VERY IMPORTANT proviso that everyone’s brain works differently; what’s good for me might be really terrible advice for you, and vice versa)

I’ve never regularly practiced names & faces, words or dates, and only half-heartedly trained for abstract images, mainly because I don’t like them. This isn’t really to be recommended.

That’s a tricky one. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know what half of those things mean, so my approach would be to create mental images of something that sounds a bit like the words, and associate them together, but I would think that with your medical training, the images you’d create would be informed by your knowledge of heart-related stuff, and would be more medically-themed. Incidentally, you said ‘pericarditis’ twice.

But the basic principle, like with any other memory task, would be to group them all together. Your key image would be based on the concept of “differential diagnosis for chest pain” - this might be a room (with throbbing, ribcage-shaped walls, maybe) or a person/object that dominates the scene somehow. The key is that when someone says ‘chest pain’, you’ll automatically think of this room or object, and remember all the other things that were associated with it.

Let’s say it’s a room (that’s how I’d do it, anyway). In this room are thirteen images representing the thirteen nasty-sounding things on the list. It’s important not to forget one, so the usual way to do this would be to make them into a visual story in which each image is interacting with the next. That way, in theory at least, if you remember one, you’ll remember all the others.

So for example, inside the room and being bounced off the ribcage walls is something that reminds you of unstable angina (I’d think of a Hun with a handkerchief, but that’s not a very good image), and it’s doing something to an image that reminds you of variant angina, which in turn is doing something to aortic dissection. And so forth, until you get to the last image, which is interacting with the room again, just to bring it all full circle and let you know you’ve reached the end.

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That’s a very good question, and a lot of people say they don’t subvocalise, they just see the images. But for me, I always, without exception, say the ‘name’ of the image to myself as I’m memorising. Sometimes, my mental picture isn’t very clear at all, and some of my images, especially people, basically look identical in my head, but because I’ve said the name, that’s how I remember that it was [Richard] Gere instead of [Sylvester] Stallone.

I don’t actually know what either of those actors look like, if you were wondering how I could possibly get them confused. They just had convenient names when I was creating my system. I tend to picture Stallone in a cowboy hat, but I’m not always consistent about that. And I have a couple of other cowboy-hatted people among my 2704 images, too.

And yes, one-syllable nicknames really help. The idea behind the “Ben system” was to give all my images a one-syllable name wherever possible. Some of my images have a name that’s three or four syllables, and my memorisation of those is still a fraction slower even after ten years of familiarity with them, just because it takes that little bit longer to say the name in my head. Secretly, my best speed cards times come about when there aren’t many card-pairs that start with spades, because that suit has a disproportionately high number of multi-syllable image names.

My training doesn’t really focus on drills like that. I try to make my training as close as possible to an actual memory championship - do the disciplines as they’re presented to you on the day. But then, I’ve had my images in my head for ten years now, and I don’t need to sharpen them up.

The one non-competition-style thing I do is try to memorise 468 numbers as quickly as possible, or 1500 binary digits. I think it’s useful to see how my time improves, and whether I can keep the number of errors from increasing as I go faster.

A lot of your ideas are excellent, though, and might well benefit you if you try them out!

I don’t like to spend a whole day doing just one thing. My training is mostly focused on being as similar as possible to a real memory competition, so ideally I like to do a range of different disciplines in one day. I don’t do more than three speed cards trials at a time, for example, even if I make a mess of things three times in a row and really want to try it again. That way lies madness.

How long before a championship to stop training is another interesting question. Some top competitors used to stop a month before the WMC - nowadays there are so many little championships around the world that the dedicated memory athlete can compete in, there isn’t that opportunity, and I’m sure the younger generation of memorisers are still training a couple of days before the event.

It’s a balancing act between staying sharp and not burning out, and I think it varies quite a lot from one person to another. Around 2008, I settled into a routine of stopping a week before the big events, and not using my favourite journeys for another week before that. But I always liked to do just one or two runs of speed cards, because I found my top speed came down just a little if I hadn’t done it for a day or two.

Back in 2004, at the Memory World Cup, I remember startling Andi one evening by asking if he had a sheet of numbers I could borrow, when we were doing numbers disciplines the first thing the next day’s morning. I just had a feeling that I needed a practice session, because I’d left it too long since I’d last trained with numbers. Maybe some kind of instinct, but more likely just panic because I knew I was up against Jan Formann, who was the best in the world at numbers back then, and I didn’t want to lose too many points to him.

Well, the great thing about memory competitions is that we don’t really have despicable competitors. Everyone’s very friendly and we get along well with each other. Okay, I don’t think anyone really liked Clemens Mayer, and Andi Bell can be difficult to get along with, but these are very minor things and don’t come close to ‘despicable’. We tend to all join together and despise the people in charge of the WMSC. Solidarity!

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I’m going to offer two entirely contradictory pieces of advice here - have a regular time and place when you do your memory training; and vary your routine now and then.

It is definitely a good thing to get into a routine - for me, it’s the desk in my bedroom, evenings at around the same time, or weekends. It helps get into the memory mood. But I do sometimes feel stuck in a rut there, and also worried that I might get too used to that, and be distracted by the little differences in the competition room when I get to the next championship. So I sometimes like to do something different just to wake myself up a bit - practice on the computer instead of with pen and paper, in the living room instead of the bedroom, and so on.

There are people out there who memorise underwater, or in as noisy a place as they can find. Not really my thing, but hey, it might work! What I’d suggest for you - and you’re right, it might not work at all for you - is that when you feel like you’ve hit a plateau, go and do something just slightly different. Be creative! Try memorising in front of someone you know - that has the double advantage of being fun, and being a bit more of a stretch on your brain, because you’re sure to forget something you wouldn’t normally

I don’t think pushing your limits is always a good thing. Better to skirt around them and try a different approach. I’ve always thought that the most important principle of memory is to have fun doing it - if it’s a chore, do something else!

I find that you can’t beat simple repetition when it comes to verbatim speech memory. Memorising the outline by means of connected mental images is great, but practicing reciting the speech out loud is very important too.

I did a little memory-performance recently, and found that I could reel off the list just fine in my head, but when I tried a rehearsal out loud, I did really terribly. It took three or four tries before I could say the really quite simple list without getting stuck.

My best advice for verbatim memory is to break the speech down into manageable chunks, become familiar with those, and then link an image for each chunk with the next one, so that you get them in the right order.

Techniques that don’t work well for some people often work really really well for others, so it’s all subjective, but I’ve never liked category-based systems for creating images. It seems a lot slower than alphabetic approaches like the Major system, because you have to recall them in multiple stages, working through the category, the sub-category and so on.

Thank you, the part about reciting being different from knowing or recalling. Suggesting saying it out loud etc… was helpful, as was the rest. One term I am not familiar with is “category system” .

I divide my cards into suits “categories” to remember a person for each, this gives me a rank in order of age for members of my family, and puts Batman next to Robin. Superman next to Lois Lane, and so on. I did this to help myself remember the cards when I first started learning/naming them, would that be an example of a category ? Or would different types of things, listed in a certain group of locations ?

Thanks again,
B

Hi Ben,

Some great advice here, thanks.

I also subvocalise and it is nice to hear that it is okay to do this. I particularly like the idea of having one syllable names for images that will really spped things up for me I think.

Thanks again for your input, it has really livened up the board,

regards,

Sea

Ben,

If it wasn’t from my fear of making your blush, I would say that
you are the nicest of all memory champions for doing this.

My questions are,

  1. When you built your images, were you quick to replace images if they didn’t work for you or would you consider yourself patient with new images.
  2. I’ve heard that you use outdoor journeys around your schools, etc. How do you compare indoor and outdoor journeys. Are they equally effective?
  3. How do you know that the fun is no longer there and it is time to stop?
  4. When you memorized your thousands of images for your system, did you lined them up on some kind of a journey and if you did, do you still remember where everyone of your images were on that journey today?

Thanks and thanks to whomever suggested to you that you should do this.

Simon

Full credit to Josh Cohen for the idea! As for the questions…

  1. Creating my images I mostly tried to think of the first thing that came into my head at the time, and then stick with it forever. They’ve all sort of evolved over the years, so a few of them are really nothing like they were when I first dreamed them up, but it’s been a gradual process rather than a deliberate decision. I think patience is a good thing!

  2. Good question, and I think journeys that go from room to room around a building work a bit better for me than the ones that are outdoors. I’m familiar enough with my oldest journeys now that there’s not much difference, but I think it’s easier to accidentally skip a location if you’re outdoors.

  3. I have a simple philosophy in life - do what you feel like doing. If you’re in the mood to work on memory skills, go for it - if not, don’t. That’s about as far as I’ve ever analysed it… :slight_smile:

  4. No, I didn’t use a journey. The system assigns a one-syllable sound to each combination of cards, I worked through all the combinations in a logical order and tried to remember which image I’d created for each one. I ran through the list in my head on the train to and from work each morning - I had a big list on several sheets of paper in my suit pocket to check when I really couldn’t remember an image to go with the one syllable. To go through the whole list took hours at first, but once I’d got familiar with it, I got much quicker and could think of all 2704 in about 25 minutes.

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Have you found that working on your conscious memory has improved your subconscious memory?