Most of us wish we had better memories.
But Braden Adams has taken concrete steps to improve his memory. And it turns out, he’s a champion at it. He is one of very few Canadians that take part in memory championships throughout the year, quietly training at home. Many of these memory athletes use a centuries-old technique called the Memory Palace, something he learned about while reading the popular non-fiction novel Moonwalking With Einstein.
He invited The Progress into his home to show how it all works — which will get to later in this story. But first, the good news.
Adams recently brought home the second place medal for his efforts at the Canadian Memory Championships, held in Edmonton Labour Day weekend.
The championships have several ways of testing the mettle of these memory masters. The first test of the day was faces and names. Yes, that old faces to names problem. It’s usually one or the other, for most of us. But memory champs are a cut above, and so they are given 108 faces with names below them. Then, after time enough to look through them all and commit them to memory, they are given the faces, and have to fill in the names.
There are no hints. They are as random as random can be.
“That’s right off the bat,” Adams says. “It’s not easy.”
He recalled 32 names, winning the competition in Edmoton, while another contestant in Montreal set a Canadian record with 36 names.
On to round two. Each contestant is given a list of 400 random words, in columns of 20. They have 15 minutes to remember them. Adams placed second in that round, with 116 words remembered. The winner recalled 121. Once a word is missed, the contestant’s scoring stops.
Then there is the numbers round, in which Adams came third overall. The goal in that competition is to remember as many random digits as possible. Adams came in third with 132.
Finally, the party trick of the bunch. The card memorization. Now, it’s worth noting that Adams was last year’s champion. It’s also worth noting that the drive from Chilliwack to Edmonton is a good 14 hours, and not one that Adams is used to. He arrived the night before the competition.
By the time the card component came around, he admits he was mentally exhausted.
“I underestimated how much the drive would take out of me,” he says.
But he pulled through, and tied for first overall. After a tie-breaking round, Adams lost and placed second. His prize? A book, $50, a medal and bragging rights.
Memory used to be so important to humans. Then we learned how to write, and how to mass produce that writing. Then we connected it all to the internet and nobody even knows their own home number anymore.
But just like the brains of our predecessors, our minds are malleable. They can be trained, even to an elite level. The most common method is the Memory Palace. The athlete envisions a familiar place, whether it’s an actual room or a familiar drive. He places items to be remembered in that home, as they arise, and visualizes them in certain places.
Recalling the items is as easy as mentally walking through that palace again.
“Everyone has our own way of doing it, ideally whatever works best for you,” Adams says. “I’m going to start reworking my system.”
There is also the PAO, or Person, Action, Object device. This is a trick when combined with the palace makes remembering a breeze — for those who practice. Adams practises about five hours a week, quietly developing his memory at home after work with a set of headphones on.
He remembers a shuffled deck of cards in sets of three; one represents a person, one a memorized action, the next an object.
Pulled out of the deck in sequence, each three-card combo takes on its own temporary meaning.
So, while for Adams the Ace of Spades represents Lemmy from Motorhead , in some combinations that card may translate simply to a guitar. For example, if the next card in the deck to remember was a two of hearts, that would be Pam from the hit show, The Office. And if the next card was the six of diamonds, that would represent the character Number Six from Battlestar Galactica.
For that trio, Adams may envision Six and Pam playing guitar on the Battlestar.
And so on, and so on, for each three cards he turns over. He has five minutes to remember 52 cards. That’s 17 combinations, plus one spare card.
“You get good at creating things,” he says, and the more bizarre the better. Sometimes the images jump out at him, even making him laugh. Other times he has to dig deeper. But generally, it all comes together.
Then it’s time for recall.
He takes a second deck, placed in standard order, and starts recreating the shuffled deck.
He has five minutes for this, and in competition could earn extra points for completing the task quicker. It’s not a thrilling sport to watch, as the competitors focus in on their decks, mumble to themselves, and are mostly isolated with their headphones on. But it’s an amazing skill, that Adams will continue hone, preparing for provincials next spring.