If you're one ofthose people who has trouble locating your car keys or routinely forgets to putout the cat, recalling a long string of random numbers might seem an impossibletask. But give Joshua Foer an arbitrary sequence of figures, and he'll takethem to the memory bank.
The 23-year-oldfreelance science writer from Washington, D.C., was one of 22 men and 15 womendemonstrating their anamnestic prowess last Saturday at the ninth annual USANational Memory Championships in Manhattan. Contestants from ages 12 to51--anyone who paid the $25 entry fee could compete--flexed their mentalmuscles in six disciplines, including memorizing decks of playing cards and thenames and faces of strangers printed on sheets of paper.
Erin Luley, 17, ahigh school senior from Mechanicsburg, Pa., made the final six by winning thepoetry game. She had 15 minutes to memorize 53 lines of unmemorable verse, thentranscribe it exactly as written. "My memory isn't that great," saidLuley, who, fearful of forgetting her daily to-do list, festoons her bedroomwith Post-It notes listing her chores. On Saturday she was eliminated in therandom words event when she failed to conjure up "numb," the 27th ofthe 300 terms she had been given.
The finalistswere a diverse group: a cosmetics importer, a business analyst, a softwareengineer, a memory instructor, Luley and Foer, who is writing a book on memory.He prepared by consulting 2004 world champ Ben Pridmore, a British accountantwhose idea of fun is learning the first 50,000 digits of pi by heart. Pridmorenurtured Foer's memory by helping him with the loci method, a visualizationtechnique known since the days of ancient Greece.
To loci-ites,memories are made of this: Data is linked to familiar mental images. Familiarto the memorizer, anyway. "The jack of clubs, two of clubs and three ofdiamonds become a friend peeing on Albert Einstein," says Foer. "Thejack of diamonds, five of spades and six of diamonds is another friend karatekicking the Pope."
On Saturday, Foerreeled off the precise order of a shuffled deck of cards after studying it foronly one minute and 40 seconds, a U.S. record. In the double-deck final, heoutlasted defending U.S. champ Ram Kolli, who went blank on Card 5.
No cash prize wasawarded to the national memory king, just a trip to Malaysia for the worldgames in September. "I don't have a chance there," said Foer with ashrug. "Pridmore can memorize a deck of cards in 32 seconds. He's anextraterrestrial."