Prateek Yadav: Down Memory Lane

Prateek Yadav, bronze winner, World Memory Championship 2016
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The art of remembrance

LATE LAST YEAR, Prateek Yadav found himself up against a date and a curious event. ‘1525—Aliens attacked earth’. There were scores of such dates of nonsensical events—a total of 160—and the 24-year-old had all of five minutes to memorise them.

Yadav, an engineering graduate from Rishikesh, is a memory athlete. And he was representing India at the premier memory sports tournament, the World Memory Championship in Singapore. By asking participants to memorise dates of such fictitious events as opposed to real historical events, the format of this event (called Historic/Future Dates) ensures participants rely on pure memorising skills and not general knowledge.

So Yadav entered one of his ‘memory palaces’—an imaginary place where he stores and creates information—and built a bizarre picture, a story, around the date ‘1525’. In that particular palace, the figure ‘1’ is associated with ‘a tree’, ‘5’ is associated with ‘a hand’, and ‘2’ resembles a swan for its shape. So he thought up a graphic image of a hand falling from the tree. Within the falling hand lay a swan, which itself had a hand, and within it, an alien who was attacking our planet.

The more outlandish the visual, according to memory athletes, the better the chances of remembering it. “In my mind, the alien was big. Even bigger than the earth,” Yadav explains. “The greater the exaggeration, the better your chances of retaining it.”

Memory athletes use visual cues to memorise large amounts of information. It is believed that we best remember things when we connect with them visually. By this method, called ‘the memory palace technique’ or the Method of Loci, athletes imagine places and objects they are familiar with in real life.

Using this discipline, Yadav memorised several other dates and events in the allotted time of five minutes. Later, when he had to reproduce the events associated with the dates, Yadav managed to correctly reproduce 125 out of the total 160. It won him gold, of course, and was also incredibly close to the world record, 132 correct answers set by a German athlete back in 2011.

In this championship, the Indian team witnessed its best ever performance, winning a bronze. There is some confusion that the scores of one athlete from the US team might not have been calculated. If that happens—although there is no official word of it yet—it is likely that India might slip to fourth position.

The World Memory Championship, now in its 25th edition, draws numerous athletes from all across the world. In the latest edition held in December for three days (15-17th), around 2,200 athletes from 22 countries showed up in Singapore. The scores of the top three participants from each country in all ten events are added up to decide each country’s overall performance.

The tournament is usually dominated by athletes from China, USA, Germany and Sweden. According to reports, the sport has become incredibly popular in China and there is now even a weekly reality TV show there, The Brain, based on the sport. An Indian team has participated in every tournament since 1999. And the performances have been gradually improving. Two editions ago, in China, India came sixth and secured its then best performance. Then in Singapore, Indian memory athletes claimed gold in three individual events, a silver in another and the bronze over all.

Yadav won two of those gold medals. In an event called Random Words, where an athlete is given 15 minutes to memorise several columns of random words, Yadav’s score was 273 correct words. In another event, Names and Faces, where athletes are given 15 minutes to remember as many names of random faces, another Indian athlete, Sri Vyshnavi Yarlagadda took the top step of the podium. In this event, to make the format uniformly difficult for all contestants, the faces and names shown are of varied ethnicities. Sri Vyshnavi, who is said to be particularly good in this format, got 140 names correct in all. Yadav, who got 127 names correct, won the silver.

The competitors had been training especially hard in the months leading up to the tournament. One of them, Omkar Kibe, a theatre professional based in Mumbai, spent much of his time locked up at home from late August to the tournament in December. He refused work projects that came his way to put in as many as four to six hours every day building his memory palaces. For the championship, he built a total of 25 such palaces, within which he could keep a total of about 1,500 places where he could further store images. But it wasn’t enough.

“There are so many competitions on all three days. And by the third day, I was back to using the memory palaces I had used on the first day,” Kibe says. There is one big grouse that memory athletes in India hold. Memory games, they say, do not get recognition as an official sport. “People think we are just freaks,” complains Yadav, “As though we are born with [the ability].”

Like Kibe, Yadav spent about six hours a day training in the months preceding the tournament. He claims to invest hours daily even when there’s no competition coming up. “It is like every other sport,” he says. “If you don’t train, your form dips.”