Talk about a memorable day: on Saturday mountaineer Nelson Dellis won the USA Memory Championship for the second year in a row.
The Florida man and mountaineering enthusiast outlasted seven other finalists, known in contest circles as mental athletes, at a packed event in New York.
Contestants' hyper-fit brains performed serious gymnastics, including remembering 99 names and faces, a 50-line poem, and the order of a shuffled deck of cards.
Dellis, 27, turned in an unforgettable performance, even smashing his own record in the random numbers category, in which he managed to memorize an amazing 303 figures in five minutes.
The founder of the 15-year-old contest, former IBM executive Tony Dottino, said his goal was to show how brains can be trained and improved, just like any other part of the body.
"Exercising actually helps growing bigger brains," he said. "We have more brain cells that grow through our life."
More than 400 clapping, cheering fans, some wearing T-shirts that said "I'm a mental athlete," crammed into a Manhattan conference room to witness the champs sweat it out. Contestants ranged between 14 and 59, with backgrounds that included unemployed, computer programmer, nurse and TV presenter.
During a break a special guest, "International Man of Memory" Chester Santos, wowed the brainy crowd by asking them to name any one of the 435 members in the US House of Representatives. To each name he then supplied, from memory, that member's state, district, party and which -- often obscure -- committee he sits on.
"This is actually pretty difficult, thousands of pieces of data, so if I get something right, clap," he said, before getting all but one challenge right.
Dottino insisted that in this fight, anyone can become a contender.
"Myth number one," he said, is "you're either born with it or not. It's a skill you can practice."
Memory experts use techniques like the "chunk" method, in which different bits of information are tidied up and grouped. A basic example would be to reduce a series of individual numbers into pairs, so 2-0-1-2 becoming twenty twelve.
But Dottino says you also need to feed the brain omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA. That's found in fish like salmon and mackerel, or, he pointed out, fortified formulas produced by the contest's sponsor, life's DHA.
At a minimum, Dottino said, keep away from those comfort foods. "Lots of carbs, starches, refined sugars are bad news," he said.
Jim Kwik, who coaches memory techniques at big corporations, said recall is more important than ever in an age of dizzying amounts of information. But part of his mission is also to teach handling what he calls "overwhelm."
Kwik bemoans ubiquitous and fiendishly clever gadgets like smartphones and GPS units in cars. "We're outsourcing our brains and memory to technology," he said. "Your mobile device is making you stupid."
Kwik tries to whip into shape the ordinary mortals who can't remember website passwords or the name of the person they just shook hands with. But asked his age, even he showed a glimpse of forgetfulness.
"Um, 38," he said after a second's pause. "I just can't believe how old I am!"
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