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How to Train Your Brain to Remember Anything

Never forget your gym locker combo or what’s on the grocery list again. Here, the two-time winner of the USA Memory Championship shares his secret tactic.

A good memory is just something you’re born with, right?

That’s what top mental athlete Nelson Dellis, who will defend his 2011 and 2012 titles Saturday at the USA Memory Championship in New York City, always thought—until his grandmother passed away in 2009 after battling Alzheimer’s.

Determined to do everything he could to beat his family history and genetic risk factors for the degenerative brain disease, the now 29-year-old studied up on how to keep his mental function strong, and was pleased to learn that the mind—and memory—can be strengthened, just like any muscle.

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Fast forward a few years, and Dellis not only has those two national memory titles under his belt, but he also owns a pair of what-the-huh records—one for the most digits memorized in five minutes (303) and another for the fastest memorization of the order of an entire deck of cards (63 seconds). How the heck does he do it?

It’s easier than it sounds—which means there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to remember why your girlfriend sent you to the grocery store. “The overall process is less of a crazy unheard technique and more of a realization of how the brain is meant to think,” he says. Here, a quick summary of your no-fail, list-memorizing method.

1. Pay attention. If you don’t make an effort to consciously tune in and focus on what someone’s telling you or that shopping list in front of you, no strategy will work. Period.

2. Turn it into pictures. It’s easier for your brain to access a mental photograph. So let’s say you have to pick up milk, chicken, apples, eggs, cereal, and orange juice—you want to put them in pairs and form a vivid, crazy, memorable visual for each. (For example, milk and chicken might be best remembered if you picture a giant, cartoon-like chicken running around guzzling a carton of skim.)

3. Place the pictures on a path. “When we remember something, we don’t usually store it some place where we can retrieve it,” Dellis says. The solution? Create that place. Choose a location you know well, like your house, and pick a familiar path through it. Then, place your series of pictures along the path, interacting with specific markers—a closet, a couch, a door. The idea is that once you’ve placed all the items you want to memorize, all you have to do is walk back through that same path to “see” them.

Got it? Give it a try. The process also works in a less literal sense—Dellis assigns pictures to numbers and playing cards as well. And when it comes to unfamiliar words or last names, he’ll turn them into two familiar similar sounding words and form a picture of those. For example, while in Japan last month, he remembered the first name “Toshikazu” by picturing a butt (“tushy”) playing a kazoo.

Brilliant.

About Nelson Dellis: Dellis is the defending USA Memory Champion (he’s won the title in 2011 and 2012), and is also a physical athlete and activist, climbing mountains to raise money for Alzhemier’s Disease Awareness. He’ll head out to scale Mount Everest this spring. Check out his non-profit, Climb for Memory, to follow along.

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