Remembering, as an extreme sport

A fast-paced, digitally enhanced memory tournament was an unusual collaboration between industry, academic scientists and science, to develop drugs for cognition.

By: New York Times | Published: May 25, 2014 1:13:25 am

The last match of the tournament had all the elements of a classic showdown, pitting style versus stealth, quickness versus deliberation, and the world’s foremost card virtuoso against its premier numbers wizard.

If not quite Williams-Sharapova, the duel was all the audience of about 100 could ask for. They had come to the first Extreme Memory Tournament, or XMT, to see a fast-paced, digitally enhanced memory contest.

The contest, an unusual collaboration between industry and academic scientists, featured one-minute matches between 16 world-class “memory athletes” as they met in a World Cup-like elimination format. The grand prize was $20,000; the potential scientific payoff was large, too.

One of the tournament’s sponsors, Dart NeuroScience, is working to develop drugs for improved cognition. The other, Washington University in St Louis, sent a research team with a battery of cognitive tests to determine what, if anything, sets memory athletes apart. Previous research was sparse and inconclusive.

Yet as the two finalists, both Germans, prepared to face off —Simon Reinhard, 35, a lawyer who holds the world record in card memorisation (a deck in 21.19 seconds), and Johannes Mallow, 32, a teacher with the record for memorising digits (501 in five minutes) — the Washington group had one preliminary finding that wasn’t obvious.
“We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us,” said Henry L Roediger III, the psychologist who led the research team, “is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention.”

The technique the competitors use is no mystery.

People have been performing feats of memory for ages. Most store the studied material in a so-called memory palace, associating the numbers or words with images they have memorised; then they mentally place the associated pairs in a familiar location, like the rooms of a childhood home or the stops on a subway line. The Greek poet Simonides is credited with first describing the method, in the fifth century BC.

As these images accumulate during memorisation, they tell an increasingly bizarre but memorable story. “I often use movie scenes as locations,” said James Paterson, 32, a high school psychology teacher in Ascot, near London, who competes in world events. “In the movie Gladiator, which I use, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe is in a field, passing soldiers, inspecting weapons.”

Paterson uses superheroes to represent combinations of letters or numbers: “I might have Batman — one of my images — playing Russell Crowe, and so on.”
Yet this finding raises another question: Why don’t the competitors’ memory palaces ever fill up? Players usually use and reuse the same blueprints hundreds of times, and the new images seem to overwrite the old ones — virtually without error.

“Once you’ve remembered the words or cards or whatever it is, and reported them, they’re just gone,” Paterson said.

Yet to install a fresh image-laden “story” in any given memory palace, the athlete must clear away the old one entirely. The same process occurs when we change a password: The old one must be suppressed, so it doesn’t interfere with the new one.

One term for that skill is “attentional control,” and psychologists have been measuring it for years with standardised tests.
In short, memory champions are not only exceptional at remembering. They’re also experts at forgetting.     NYT

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