Memory Athletes: Total Recall

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The rise of memory athletes
Just inside the gate of the housing society that I live in, Jay Leno rides on a giant rat to a glass jar that has a phone in it. Nearby, at one of the doors of a flat, Aamir Khan is standing with soot on his face, and opposite him Don Corleone is taking an enema. This image makes up my credit card number and, because it is bizarre, I will not forget it. It is also not difficult to reconvert them to numerals. In the system that I used, consonants have numbers associated with them—L, for instance, stands for 5; N for 2. Leno is therefore 52 (vowels like e and o have no numbers). Likewise, because R is 4 and T is 1, ‘rat’ is 41. When I think of Jay Leno sitting on a rat, the numbers that the image brings to me is 5241, the first four digits of my card.

To encode the 16 digits of my card into images took me about 30 minutes because I am slow at it. Prateek Yadav, who is the memory champion of India, remembered 704 digits in 15 minutes. This was last November at the last Indian National Memory Championships held in Hyderabad. Yadav, who is from Rishikesh, holds eight national records, which includes looking at 90 words on a piece of paper for five minutes and then reproducing them in the exact order. And yet, astounding as it might be, such feats are far from impossible. Even those who forget where they keep their house keys can do it given enough time and practice because you are entirely bypassing the normal ways in which the brain memorises stuff.

Yadav got interested in memory building during his first year of Engineering after coming across an article on Swami Vivekananda that said he could memorise the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. He started googling. “I got a hint about the science behind it. Then I created my systems,” he says.

The main technique that memory athletes like Yadav use goes by the name of Memory Palace or Method of Loci. To store things, it uses areas in the brain that deal with visuals and locations, an exercise which evolution has made us exceptionally good at. “If I ask you what you had for dinner, the first thing that will come to your mind is not what you had but where you had it—restaurant, dining table, bed…” Yadav says.

This loophole in the brain’s design was discovered thousands of years ago. The Roman orator Cicero mentions it and shows the technique in a book he wrote on rhetorics. Before him, there are records of the Greeks using it, and the term ‘Memory Palace’ itself comes from them.

Memory athletes store vast amounts of information in locations that they are familiar with and then pull them out when necessary by going back on an imaginary journey inside the mind. In Yadav’s case, when he first started practicing, his Memory Palace was the route from his home to school and at points along it, he would place visual markers associated with whatever he wanted to remember. For example, one of the tasks in a memory competition is to look at a shuffled deck of cards with their faces open for some time and then recall their order. Yadav, while he was practicing, would first convert each of the 52 cards into imaginary objects or persons. The King of Diamonds was Bill Gates to him and Three of Clubs a bicycle. If they followed each other in a sequence, Yadav would think of Bill Gates riding a bicycle at a point between his home and school. There would be similar images for all the other cards. To recall the order of the cards, he just had to close his eyes and travel on that route looking at the images. “With practice it became easy,” he says.

A year later, when Yadav took part in the National Memory Championship, he won it by a wide margin and continued to win it the next two years too. In his mind there are hundreds of Memory Palaces where he stores images.

The history of structured memory competitions dates back no further than 2009, but there were a couple of Indians who had been into it much before that. One of them is Nishant Kasibhatla, a professional speaker and trainer based in Singapore. In 1994, he had just finished his junior college in Hyderabad when his father showed him a magazine article about some simple memory techniques. Nishant did not have a good memory and hadn’t known that it could be improved. ‘I started using some of those techniques immediately and could remember a list of 30 random words fairly easily,’ he says over email.

He came to know that the Limca Book of Records had featured Indians for memorising a 1,020-digit sequence and a deck of cards in about three minutes. ‘I really practiced like crazy and broke both those records,’ he says. In the mid-90s, he says there were very few people using memory techniques and they were spread all over India. ‘Because of the absence of the internet, communication was zero between the few of us. Actually, I never got to contact any of those people. So there really was no question of peer support,’ he says. He had to rely on books, but there weren’t many of these either.

Nishant believes he might be the first Indian to compete in memory contests. In 1997, he got access to the internet through the shell account of a friend’s father, found out about the World Memory Championship (WMC) and decided to take part. “The organisers told me that it would be good because there was never an Indian who competed before,” he says. “I started practicing a lot, sometimes spending as much as 12-14 hours in a day. I went to London in 1999 to compete at the WMC. My overall position was 13th.” Nishant turned his interest into his profession. While still in college, he started conducting memory improvement courses. He moved to Delhi and started holding corporate training sessions. He has been in Singapore since 2006.

The first man to win the Indian National Memory Championships once it was launched was John Louis from Trichy in Tamil Nadu. He too was one of the earliest in this field. He was a teacher of Chemistry in the early 1990s and had been instinctively using memory techniques all his life. He only realised it once he was 42 years old, while asking students with learning difficulties how they memorised things. “I asked them whether they see it as a picture and many said they never thought of it. Then I showed how to visualise things like chemical equations,” he says.

In 2001, he took part in a Memory Asiad in Chennai and won many events. His school then sponsored him to go to London for the World Memory Championship in 2003. When the Indian National Memory Championships started in 2009, he won it that year and the next. He doesn’t participate now, being more keen to integrate memory techniques with school curriculums. He trains students towards that end.

The man responsible for starting the Indian National Memory Champion- ships is a Hyderabad-based ENT surgeon Kranthi Raj, who got interested in its after attending a memory training workshop while in medical college. He looked up the internet and learnt that the World Championships happened in London. In 2007, after his graduation, Raj flew there on his own expense and became a participant. “I had absolutely no idea what the pattern of the event would be,” he says. The tournament is organised by a body called the World Memory Sports Council and he asked them about holding an affiliated competition in India.

Once he returned, he met some prominent memory trainers in India to hold the competition. The first year was haphazard and not even recognised because unless an arbiter of the Council was present, it wouldn’t accept the scores. Raj didn’t have the funds to bring in an arbiter from abroad. “The next year we gathered some funds and called the chief arbiter from London. He was impressed with the way we conducted the event and gave temporary approval for the [national affiliated] body to be organised,” he says. They called him the next year too, but after that Raj himself finished an arbitration course and became eligible for the role.

He says India’s performance has improved hugely in the last few years. “We get national records broken every year. Indians do particularly well in Names and Faces, and abstract events,” he says. This year, India was placed sixth in the World Memory Championship held in Chengdu, China, in January, quite good for the small team of three or four people that India sends every year.

Omkar Kibe sits opposite me in a Mumbai restaurant with a Rubik’s Cube in hand, makes a few rapid turns and suddenly has all six faces the same colour. He solves the cube more than 100 times a day now; his best is 16 seconds and the average is 22 seconds. Kibe, who is 37 years old, is also the second-highest ranked memory athlete in India. It was Rubik’s Cube that got him interested in memory skills towards the end of 2013.

One of the events in a Rubik’s Cube competition is to solve it blindfolded. You remember a particular arrangement of cube colours before being blindfolded and then you solve it. It does not need any special memory skills, but then there are also events where many such cubes have to be solved simultaneously, blindfolded. In this, memory techniques help.

“I heard about the Mind Palace technique and started doing research on this,” Kibe says. “I started by remembering cards. Then I went to numbers, names, words, images and so on.” His first Memory Palace was his childhood home.

Kibe’s bugbear was the abstract images event. These images don’t mean anything and are like blobs of ink or a texture. Rows of five such images are placed before you for some time and then each row is shuffled. In the recall stage, you have to remember the old arrangement. In his first two attempts, Kibe scored abysmally in this event. “In the third competition, I trained so much that I created a national record in it. I scored 224. If a texture was like a table, I would imagine it as a full table. If two images were similar, then I would give different shapes to them,” he says.

Kibe would train up to four hours daily in the months leading up to the World Memory Championships in China. He has about 25 Memory Palaces in his head at an average of 50 journey points, making a total of 1,250 places where he can store images. Even this fell short during the three-day tournament. “For the third day, I would use the Memory Palace of the first day,” he says.

At the Championships this time, Kibe was aiming for the International Master of Memory title, a coveted one for memory athletes. For a shot at it, he had to memorise, among other things, at least a thousand digits in one hour the first day. It didn’t start well. He was planning to memorise 1,400 digits by his practice standards but the stress of the occasion got to him and he could memorise only 1,006 digits. It meant that even if he got one digit wrong, because of the scoring system, he would lose 20 points and end up with a score below 1,000. Kibe thought he had blown it. When he went back to the hotel that evening, he was so disappointed that he couldn’t prepare for the next day. “I kept thinking of the opportunity I had lost. I gave up, went for a walk, watched TV. I didn’t prepare for abstract images at all (the next day’s event) even though it was my favourite,” he says. In the morning when he woke up, he felt a little better, and with whatever time he had, he went through his images and memory palaces for that day.

“Abstract images was the first event and I scored 395 out of 395. It was a perfect score! Sometimes a break helps,” he says. It put him among the top 16 in the world in this category. He also got news that he had made no mistake in his 1,006 digits and the IMM title was his.

Kibe’s teammate at the World Memory Championships was Sri Vyshnavi Yarlagadda. In her BA Final Year now, she had been a professional chess player as a child when her mother enrolled her for a workshop hoping these memory techniques would help her learn chess openings. ‘Learning how to memorise the sequence of playing cards was so much fun. I got addicted to memory sports since then,’ she says over email.

In 2010, Sri Vyshnavi won a gold in the junior category in the first World Memory Championship she participated in. It was in the Names and Faces event, in which random names and faces are matched and given to participants. They have to be memorised and later, in the recall stage, only the Faces are shown and the names have to be written. ‘I am a very observant person and it helps a lot in the Names and Faces event,’ she says. ‘It demands a lot of spontaneous creativity. I just link a prominent feature of the person to their name. I usually make weird images out of names.’ Her best is 67 points in five minutes. In India, she has always dominated this event, winning it this year too in the National Championships. Altogether she bagged seven medals and finished as a runners- up after Prateek Yadav.

Kibe didn’t participate in the National Championship because he wanted to concentrate on the World Memory Championship that was happening soon after. Yadav, who won the Nationals, has never taken part in a World Memory Championship because they clashed with his college examinations. It is the reason he is not an International Master of Memory; the title is only awarded there. But Yadav plans to take part this year, and with him in the team, India’s overall performance will probably be even better. Both Kibe and Yadav also conduct memory demonstrations and workshops.

They also use these techniques in their day-to-day life. Yadav recounts an anecdote during his third year Engineering exams. There was a subject on microprocessors that involved memorising huge block diagrams. He hadn’t studied them throughout the semester. On the morning of the exam, with only three hours left, usually not enough to remember even one of them the conventional way, he put these diagrams in mental locations in his village and college. “I scored pretty decent marks in that subject,” he says.