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Megaminds: Wash. U.'s search for the world's supermen (and women) of memory



A man in a fedora walks into an empty classroom on the second floor of a building on Washington University's campus and waits in the darkened room. He has never been here before — not to this classroom, not even to St. Louis.

The professor arrives and flicks on a light. Soon students dressed in the 8 a.m. class uniform of track pants and sweatshirts begin to trickle through the door. As each enters the room, the fedora man walks over and introduces himself with a handshake. Before long the entire room is a din of chatter and tapping laptop keys. There are roughly 40 students assembled.

The professor asks for their attention. But instead of beginning his lecture, he steps back, and the man in the fedora stands up.

"Hi, everyone. My name is Chester Santos. I am the 2008 USA National Memory Champion," he says, walking to the front of the room. "If you remember meeting me when you walked in today, if I shook your hand, gave you my name, got your name, if you remember that happening, please stand up."

Chair legs scrape as the majority of the room rises.

"John?" Santos asks, pointing to a shaggy student closest to the far wall.

John nods and sits.

"Charlotte," Santos continues, starting with the girl at the front of the row next to John. He goes to the boy behind her, "Dan."

Santos starts to pick up speed.

"Helene. Sophie. Keisha. Vivienne. Nick. Jackie. Ashley. Prateek. Ashley. Ben. John. Neil. Huh," he pauses at an Asian girl about halfway through the room. "I'm not 100 percent positive on you. I'll come back."

He continues: "Alec. Shane. Isaiah. Rohit. Marlow. Emily. Laura. Deena. Talia. Jeremy. Moe. Anna. Reggie. Jessica. Wayan. Gaithree. Rosie.

"And then you," he says swinging back around to the lone girl standing in the middle of the room, "it's Kim."

"Yes," she nods.

"Wow," someone murmurs, and the room breaks into applause.

After meeting them for mere seconds — jet-lagged and not necessarily in the best "memory shape" of his life — Santos correctly names 33 students. In the past he's successfully made it through an auditorium of 200. It's not just a quick one-off, either. As the floor opens up to questions, he calls on each person by name.

The year he took the title, Santos memorized a 135-digit sequence, and studied and recited the order of a pack of playing cards in a minute and 27 seconds. At a public event in March, he named all 535 men and women of the U.S. Congress as well as their district number.

"I've gotten better and better and better," he tells the students.

After the demo is over, Santos' handler walks him down a flight of stairs and outside toward the Psychology Building next door, where for the last three days he has been through a battery of tests designed to unlock the secrets of his brain. Some of the challenges feel familiar — recognizing names and faces, memorizing word lists — but others are intended to probe his limitations.

"My prediction," Santos says, confident after his second day of testing, "is we're still going to perform above average."

By "we," Santos is referring to his fellow "memory athletes." In the United States there are roughly 50 active competitors, called "MAs" for short; in places like the United Kingdom, Germany and China there are hundreds more. In meets all over the globe these men and women converge to outthink one another in a series of mental tasks designed to test the limits of human memory capacity. Records are broken at these events every year; some believe the brain's powers of recall are limitless. But if there is a ceiling, the memory athletes will hit it.

He doesn't know it at the time, but Santos' boast about his fellow MAs turns out to be prescient.

"These people are just remarkable," says Henry "Roddy" Roediger III, a doctor of psychology, who, as part of Wash. U.'s Superior Memory Project, has invited the world's foremost megaminds to St. Louis. "Almost every test we give the memory athletes, even though they've never taken these tests before.... They do better."

In one video clip, Clive Wearing slouches far down into a couch, fingers laced, looking diminutive in his cream-colored suit.

"It's been like death," he says morosely in a clipped British accent. "The brain has been totally inactive. Day and night the same. No thoughts at all."

Suddenly, he gasps in surprise and leaps out of his seat. The camera swings around to follow.

"Oh, look who's come!" he says rushing toward the woman who's just entered the room. "Marvelous!"

He twirls her around, kissing her, laughing. The woman is his wife, Deborah, who's only been out of the room for a short time. Clive doesn't know this — he thinks it has been years. He doesn't realize he has been doing this for three decades, every time his wife re-enters a room after a few minutes' absence. This heartbreaking cycle began after a virus attacked Wearing's central nervous system and destroyed his hippocampus, the part of the brain closely linked with short- and long-term memory.

The footage is just a tiny fraction of the documentary work that has been done on Wearing, one of the most famous amnesiac patients in the world. The only bigger celebrity was likely "H.M.," a patient who had both his hippocampi removed and immediately lost all ability to store memories. Before his death in 2008, he was the subject of more than 12,000 academic articles that completely changed the way memory is studied. More recently a man named "K.C." gained notoriety after a motorcycle accident almost completely destroyed both his hippocampi — he experiences the same shock and horror every time someone explains 9/11 to him.

Though there has been far more written about human memory's foibles, there's an increasing body of research that treats understanding why memory succeeds as just as valuable as studying how it fails.

"The field typically studies individuals that have poor memories, and we build models based on them," says David Balota, a cognitive- psychology professor at Wash. U. and a co-investigator on the Superior Memory Project. "This is building a different model."

Roediger — a more-salt-than-pepper-haired 65-year-old with a slightly crooked smile — rose to prominence in the 1990s when he entered the infamous "memory wars" at a time when therapy patients all over the nation were acquiring "recovered memories" through controversial techniques such as hypnosis. Visions of horrific sexual abuse and Satanic rituals were assumed to be true. Dozens of cases went to court. The "Satanic panic" died down after investigations proved in some cases that the abuses couldn't have happened. Roediger influenced the conversation by showing that if given a list of words (bed, rest, awake, tired, dream), subjects reported they'd seen related words that never appeared on the list (such as sleep or slumber). The finding proved that it was possible to create false memories.

"That is amongst one of the most widely cited works in the field of memory," says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of law and psychology and a memory expert at University of California- Irvine. "He is a master at designing and conducting experiments."

In the last ten years Roediger's research into the "testing effect" proved that — as unpopular as the notion may be with students — repeated, low-stakes test-taking helps pupils retain information better than simply "studying" the material for the same amount of time. The theory played out when Roediger and his students implemented it in seventh- and eighth-grade classes at Columbia Middle School in Illinois.

"What he's found is, the best way to make a memory is to retrieve the information. It has enormous practical implications," says James McGaugh, a neuroscientist and superior-memory researcher at UC-Irvine. "It's solely his discovery."

Now Roediger; his frequent collaborator, Kathleen McDermott; and Balota hope that studying memory athletes will unravel what Roediger believes could be a particularly helpful form of superior memory — one that's conceivably accessible to anyone.

"We hope, by studying how it succeeds, that maybe all of us can improve our memories," says Roediger. "Hopefully we can find some things that helps in remediating memory for people who have impaired memory."

Nelson Dellis will never forget the two of hearts and the ten of diamonds.

Sitting in the hot seat onstage in the final round of the USA Memory Championship in 2010, Dellis appeared collected. To his left sat the defending champion, and next to him, the 2005 titleholder. All that separated Dellis, a lanky, six-foot-seven-inch University of Miami graduate student, from the championship were two packs of playing cards.

The competitors had survived a gauntlet of memory tasks in order to get to this point. That morning they were tasked with memorizing 117 faces and names, a list of 500 digits, 100 words, a previously unpublished poem and the order of a deck of cards. Dellis had already bested both of his final competitors in speed numbers and memorizing cards. He figured he had it in the bag.

For the final event all three men memorized the same two decks and were about to take turns in a sudden-death elimination challenge, naming the order of the cards one at a time. Dellis went first.

"Ten of diamonds," he said confidently.

There was a tiny silence. One of the other memory athletes shook his head, making a "cut-it" motion with his hand.

"Nelson, we've got two of hearts," the moderator responded.

Dellis' eyes flew to the moderator, then to the ceiling. He'd named the last card in the deck, not the first. As the round proceeded without him, he looked into the audience and smiled mirthlessly at his girlfriend.

"Everyone who was supporting me was really disappointed," he recalls. "I thought I was going to win."

The experience highlights another trick of human memory — we recall tragedy better than triumph.

Though as a spectator sport the USA Memory Championship leaves something to be desired, this is where superior memories are forged. Most memory athletes swear that anyone can do what they do, and though highly competitive, they're willing to share their tricks.

The lessons, however, can be awkward. Seated in the lounge of Wash. U.'s Olin Library, Santos cringes slightly when Riverfront Times presents him with a photo of a female and asks him to explain how he would remember the woman's name.

"You're not going to tell her, are you?" he asks.

The woman in the photo is named "Dana," and after a quick glance — Santos says he needs about five seconds to lock in a name with a face — he has it.

"OK, so, when I saw her, first thing that came to my mind is that she has a pretty long pointy nose," says Santos. "So you want to exaggerate it and see it as a really long nose, and I'd stick a Danish to it."

The Pinocchio nose spearing a Danish would likely be enough for Santos to get "Dana." But if he needed some extra help he might envision an apple exploding out of the Danish dangling from the tip of the nose — a reminder of the final 'a' sound in "Dana."

"Next time I see her I would immediately notice the nose, and all that crazy imagery comes back to me," he says.

Earlier that same afternoon, Brad Zupp — a wiry, bespectacled upstate-New Yorker who works as a full-time juggler and magician — paints a similarly graphic tableau for memorizing playing cards. He's fond of a technique called "person-action-object," which allows him to remember groups of three cards in short sentences.

Zupp's wife is using a scissors to excitedly open a Christmas present.

This sentence corresponds to the queen of hearts, three of clubs and ace of spades. Zupp has a person or a character assigned to all 52 of playing cards. Like many memory athletes, the queen of hearts is someone of great emotional significance — his wife. He's assigned his hair dresser to the three of clubs (signified by scissors) and Santa Claus to the ace of spades (represented by the present she's ripping apart).

"They're pictures, so I don't have to keep thinking about them to keep them there," he explains. "I'm not using repetition, I'm using images and picturing them and making some really silly and creative associations."

These mnemonic memorization systems are well-known to Roediger. He likes using a primitive one to psych out his students by flawlessly memorizing, after just one try, a list of twenty words forward and backward on the first day of class.

"That really blew people's minds," he says. "The tricks are ancient. The Greeks and Romans knew about them."

In 2002 a brain-imaging study done on competitors from the World Memory Championship in London showed no physical differences in the memory athletes' brains, though some areas associated with navigation lit up as they interpreted information as pictures and scenes. This seemingly bolsters the memory athletes' insistence that anyone can do what they do, but the researchers want to know more.

"First what we have to do is have a good cognitive profile of these individuals," says Balota. "Is it the case they just have general better cognitive skills, or is it the case that they're really truly outstanding consolidators?"

There are no MRI scanners or cranial electrodes in the cognitive lab on the third floor of Wash. U.'s Psychology Building, only a basket full of mini Twix bars at the front desk and a row of private rooms with computers. The MAs are put through three days of testing, much of it consisting of staring at monitors. Though Roediger is still far off from having publishable data, striking results are already emerging from just a quick glance at the test results of five memory athletes, including Santos, Zupp and Dellis.

In one test, called the Stroop Color-Word Test, the mental athletes are shown a list of words in a colored font. When a word is printed, for example, in green ink, but the word itself says "red," most test-takers show some amount of "interference." They're tripped up by the word and answer incorrectly when asked what color the word was written in. Conversely, if a neutral word like "chair" is written in blue ink, there's no trouble at all in naming the correct color.

The memory athletes, however, do not appear to fall for this trap.

"They show about half as much interference in the color-word test," Roediger says.

The tasks also reveal that the athletes' memories are not superhuman, nor somehow "photographic." In another test, the athletes memorize "non-words" — pure gibberish. The researchers asked Riverfront Times not to reprint the exact words found on the task, but imagine trying to memorize these words: flerp, conternsta, utopare, yerf, orniga, palkemf.

Most people just give up. And at first, the memory athletes do about as poorly as average test takers.

That is, until they're presented with a list like that again. Some of the athletes reported that they switched strategies. Dellis boasts that on his test he invented meanings for the words — as if composing the fictional Game of Thrones language Dothraki on the fly. And it worked.

"That was really hard," says Dellis, who, after that devastating loss at the 2010 USA Memory Championship, came back to win it in 2011 and is now the two-time reigning national champion. "Everybody has a very steep dip in the scores for that. Mine were still pretty good."

Though the results are far from definitive, K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University cognitive psychologist who's been studying memory athletes for decades, found it similarly difficult to "interfere" with the memory of Chao Lu, the man who holds the world record for memorized digits of pi (a staggering 67,890), by setting up tests intended to distract or interfere with his mnemonic concentration.

"These manipulations," Ericsson wrote, "did not reduce Chao Lu's virtually perfect accuracy of recall."

It is promising results such these that are an endless source of frustration to the memory athletes and the founders of the USA Memory Championship: The techniques they espouse aren't taught in schools.

"If you can get into this and do it through high school and college and through law school — if I would have known it back then, it would've changed my life," says Dellis. "I think it should be taught to kids, for sure."

But Ericsson does raise an important point.

"From my experience, people who would be interested in training their memory are not your average person," he says.

Roediger puts it even more bluntly: "You're not going to take somebody who's kind of a dullard — they're not going to be memorizing a deck of cards in 24 and a half seconds."

Whether or not the memory techniques can truly soup up the mind's faculties is a question that a second phase of Roediger's project could attempt to answer, using students. Although nothing is set in stone, there is talk within the Superior Memory Project team of starting a freshman seminar in fall 2013 that would not only teach about the way mnemonics work, but attempt to turn its participants into the next generation of memory champions. The researchers would then track the students' academic progress for the remainder of their time at Wash. U.

"We'd compare them to other freshmen who are taking random [seminars]. We'd measure them all beforehand and make sure there's no difference," Roediger says. "It's a natural experiment. We can just follow my twenty, or however many, from my freshman seminar. Do they make better grades?"

One could see Tom Kavanaugh as the memory-athlete antichrist.

Sitting at a table at a Starbucks in the Central West End, he's distractingly handsome. A personal trainer in St. Louis Hills, he looks more like a typical jock than some kind of savant.

But Kavanaugh possesses a different kind of superior memory. In 2006, he took home $142,602 from the game show Jeopardy! — the sixteenth-highest take in the game's history — and is considered one of the show's "champion" players. He lasted for eight episodes.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome," Alex Trebek greeted the cheering audience in the fifth game. "Better than a $21,000 average per win so far for Tom Kavanaugh."

When he thinks back on it now, the closest thing Kavanaugh used to an organized memory technique was stall tactics.

"There were lots of times when it was like, on the tip of my tongue, and I'd ring in, and I'd use that time counting down to remember what it was," says Kavanaugh. "During one of the commercial breaks they told me, 'You have to stop waiting until the buzzer's about to ring.'"

Kavanaugh can't really say how he manages to hang on to odd bits of movie trivia just as easily as Emily Dickinson's nickname ("The Belle of Amherst") and the world's capital cities, or how he can call them up so quickly. It's just always been that way.

"I remember things that I learned in third grade in science class," he says. "People are like, 'Wow.' But doesn't everyone remember what they learned in third grade?"

Kavanaugh is part of another branch of the Superior Memory Project, culled from the ranks of Jeopardy!'s top performers. Just before Santos and Zupp arrived in St. Louis, Eugene Finerman, a loquacious writer from Chicago with an encyclopedic memory for history, became the first Jeopardy! champ to take a turn in Roediger's lab. Finerman won in 1987 and went home with $57,902. (There was a five-win cap back then; under today's rules he would have advanced further.) He made an additional $11,600 at the '87 Tournament of Champions.

"Apparently, I'm still considered an interesting relic," he says bemusedly, seated at a lab computer console. "What I love, I remember. I love history, so I remember all the details. Phone numbers? Uh-uh."

Kavanaugh and Finerman have gone through the same bank of tests as the memory athletes, both as a comparison group, but also to explore the ways innate superior memory works as well.

"They're natural sponges," Roediger describes.

The history of memory research is not devoid of extreme cases of innate superior memory. There have been studies on expert chess players who walk away from games recalling every move. There's the 1920s case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist who was diagnosed with "fivefold synaesthesia," because he experienced everything from a drink order to poems written in a foreign language as something visual and tactile, even imbuing numbers with personalities. Some said that Shereshevsky could not forget things even when he wanted to.

Currently, researchers at UC-Irvine are breaking new ground on a condition known as "superior autobiographical memory." A man with SAM can recall in detail everything that has ever happened to him on precise dates, going back decades, as if they'd just happened the day before — though this impressive recall seems limited to the details of his own life. James McGaugh, who heads the study, says that although most of his 50 subjects enjoy this special ability, at least one finds it deeply troubling.

"She's had a lot of bad memories," says McGaugh. "They plague her."

At first glance during his early testing of the Jeopardy! champs, Roediger says he sees signs of the same kind of "laser-like" focus that came through for the memory athletes. Not surprisingly, the quiz-show winners do quite well on a 45-minute trivia test, but they also seem to avoid the mind booby traps on tests like the Stroop Color-Word task. At the same time, they are merely average when it comes to memorizing long lists of words and digits.

"We think of them as having their own special ability, and we don't know what it is," he says. "Nobody has studied these people at all."

In his stately office, the bookshelves piled to the ceiling with titles promising to improve one's memory, Roediger concedes he's noticed signs of his own memory faltering.

"I do have name-finding difficulty. That's the first thing to go in older adults," he says. "Strangely, it is restaurants. I'll say, 'Let's go to somewhere.' I'll have it perfectly envisioned in my mind and then not be able to come up with a name. It's annoying."

This is, of course, where the two disciplines of studying memory success and memory failure meet. The dream would ultimately be to save us from, not just the day-to-day perils of forgetting to buy milk or putting a toilet seat down, but from memory deterioration due to accidents, illness and age.

Roediger doesn't get sentimental about his own memories, nor grandiose about whether his research will be able to stave off his or anyone else's memory loss. As for the memory athletes themselves, their ambitions for their skills range quite a bit.

Brad Zupp incorporated teaching the techniques into his act long ago, with the hope that kids who struggle with rote memorization in school will find his methods helpful. Chester Santos bills himself as "The International Man of Memory" and travels the globe giving talks to corporations and business leaders on how to make flawless presentations without notes, or remember important people after just one meeting. Nelson Dellis does one-on-one coaching and is the spokesperson for two memory-related companies (health supplements and data servers), but dreams of one day being commissioned by professional sports teams to help, say, a new NFL quarterback memorize his Bible-thick stack of plays.

He has also started a charity that marries his two passions — memory training and mountaineering. It's called Climb for Memory, and it seeks to raise awareness and funds for studying Alzheimer's. As he has often remarked, Dellis began pursuing memory training in the first place because of his own grandmother's descent into dementia.

"I wanted to see if there was anything I could do for my own mind," he says.

Roediger says there's a controversial theory that supposes that building up one's skill as a memorizer, or "cognitive reserve," could stave off the outward signs of dementia — that it's worthwhile to be an ant stockpiling brain cells for winter while the rest of the grasshoppers sing. But it's totally unproven, and as of today, none of the world's memory champions is old enough to prove that their cerebral stockpile is keeping them free of dementia.

Roediger sounds skeptical but cautiously open-minded to the idea that Dellis, or anyone else, could save himself from such a fate.

"That would be the great hope," says Roediger. "Maybe he will. Nobody knows."

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