'Memory is the highest form of thinking, remember that': rediscovering a lost art at the UK Open Memory Championships

Paul Gallagher joins the world's best remembers as they take on faces and numbers in London
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“Welcome ladies and gentlemen… well, gentlemen,” Tony Buzan, our host at the 6th UK Open Memory Championships, corrects himself after scanning the 13 all male contestants spaced out in front of him. Memory is a male-dominated world it seems.

The organisers are men, the invigilator is a man, the special guest is eight times world memory champion Dominic O’Brien, and the competitors I’ve joined for the day to see what it takes to become a world-class mnemonic, are men of varying ages.

They have come from all over the world to the science museum in London to compete over two days across 10 disciplines designed to measure pure skill in areas such as facial and digital recognition, where memory is particularly important.

“Memory is misunderstood,” says Buzan, the co-founder of the World Memory Championships, first held in 1991 and returning to London later this year. “But it is the highest form of thinking, always remember that.”

Spaced out in the science museum’s library as if taking an exam, the Open competitors have a minute of mental preparation before their first test: names and faces memorisation - 109 names and faces of men, women and children of varying ethnicity to be precise, spread out over eight pages.

Mixed among the stock images is the new BBC Head of News, James Harding, except here he is known as Hai Bombarda. On the same page is Rajanikanta Tse and Irma Hlapalosa - no John Smith`s here - and it is one point for getting one name correct or two for the full name.

Sweden’s Jonas von Essen, a rising star in world memory I’m told, puts his construction ear protectors on, slips his sandals off and begins gliding his hand over each name, spending no more than three seconds on each. The 21-year-old has already won three tournaments this year, including the Welsh Open, is number four in the world and has already obtained Grand Master of Memory status.

After 15 minutes, the sheets are swapped with another set that leaves the names blank. Just to make it even more fiendishly difficult, none of the faces are in their original positions with Hai Bombarda having jumped to page seven from the first page. While most of the mnemonics jump from page to page finding faces they can put names to, Von Essen glides through each page in order. He doesn’t seem to be leaving many blanks.

After the round, 58-year-old Dane Søren Damtoft tells me the trick is not to aim for everything. “I just went for 25 names, no more. If I aimed for 50, I’d probably only get 10 correct. That’s what most guys do. But if you’re Jonas you go for everything.”

Damtoft gets 37 points but Von Essen manages 100, which puts him in second early on.

Confident with a bit of high-level advice and challenged by The Times science correspondent, I get stuck into the 165 rows that make up the binary digits round. There are 30 digits on each row. I aim for six, but after 10 minutes reduce that to four – 120 digits in all. Sadly, even that was too much as two mistakes wipe out an entire row and despite finishing one more row than The Times, his accuracy wins the honours for Fleet Street. An immediate counter-challenge is laid for the abstract images round but The Times scarpers, perhaps realising he has peaked.

“The biggest mistake you can make is try to remember too many things,” world memory sports council chief arbiter Phil Chambers tells me. “Dominic used to be up against people who would fill in more rows, but his accuracy was greater, so he always won.”

England’s Jake O’Gorman is here for the experience, having discovered the tournament a week ago. “I practiced with a deck of cards and that’s about it,” the 21-year-old personal trainer from London says. “It’s good fun though. I’m starting to get to know what techniques these serious guys use. I’ll be back next year and train a bit harder.”

But is it really only men that have decent memories? I’m forever misplacing things at home with the wife, accompanied by a roll of her eyes, telling me where my keys, cards or wallet are.

At last year’s tournament, Katie Kermode, a 34-year-old translator from England, recalled 1,560 binary digits, scored almost 50 points more than von Essen did today in the names and faces category and recalled 260 playing cards in 30 minutes on her way to the runner-up spot.

In fact, two women did enter this year’s championship but didn’t turn up. Maybe they simply forgot.

How to remember: the techniques

The Dominic System

Devised by Dominic O’Brien himself it's a system for memorising long sequences of numbers by first converting them into pairs of letters, and then associating those letters with easier to remember people and actions. For example, the number 11 could be seen as “AA” which could then become an image of Andre Agassi playing tennis. The number 33 could be “CC” and could be converted to an image of Charlie Chaplin.

The Major System

Similar to the Dominic System, it is a type of phonetic number system used to aid in memorising numbers and playing cards. The system works by converting numbers into consonant sounds, then into words by adding vowels on the principle that images can be remembered more easily than numbers. Hence 4 is r, the last letter of four and almost mirror images of each other, whereas 9 is p or b, the former a mirror image of 9, the latter resembling a rolled around 9.

The Person-Action-Object system

The most common form of PAO system is for every 2-digit number to get converted into a series of three visual images: a person, an action, and an object.

Here is an example using sample images based on the Dominic System:

Number// Person// Action Object

15// Albert Einstein// writing blackboard

16// Arnold Schwarzenegger// lifting weights

33// Charlie Chaplin// swinging cane

A number like 151633163315 would be chunked in 6s and then again in 2s like this:

15-16-33 16-33-15

The first 2 digits become a person, the second 2 digits become an action, and the third 2 digits become an object. Each compound image is then placed in one locus of a memory journey.

• Locus 1: 15-16-33 becomes Albert Einstein lifting a cane

• Locus 2: 16-33-15 becomes Arnold Schwarzenegger swinging a blackboard