When his grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in 2009, Nelson Dellis began studying memory—focusing his research on how memory works and ways he could improve his own. After only three years of research, practice and competing, the 28-year-old mountain climber has won both the 2011 and 2012 USA Memory Championships, and hopes to show the world that anyone can improve their memory with a little time and practice.
“Memory has nothing to do with natural talent. People claim to have photographic memories, but in actuality, that doesn’t exist,” Dellis says. “Memory is something that can be trained—just like you can train to run a marathon, you can train to memorize quickly and more efficiently.”
Dellis has been competing in the USA Memory Championship since 2009, but ever since he lost in the finals in 2010, he has intensified his training regimen. Although he has been training daily for the past few years, he never expected to take his memory this far.
“I would spend three to five hours per day training—memorizing cards, numbers, names, words and poetry every single day,” he says.
Tracy Alloway, assistant professor at the University of North Florida and author of Training Your Brain for Dummies, explains this type of memorization is possible for everyone, but requires improvement in our working memory.
“I think a conductor is a nice image to refer to when thinking about working memory, because we do know the front of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex, is working the hardest when we are doing an activity involving working memory,” she explains. “This conductor works with other parts of the brain to bring information from our long-term memory to the current moment.”
According to Alloway, research has shown a direct correlation between improvement in working memory and improvement in grades.
“Working memory is a much better predictor of college-level success compared to SAT scores, for example,” she says. “Working memory is your potential to learn—it’s how you can actually use the knowledge that you have.”
Students who spend their time only memorizing facts and definitions may not necessarily be able to put the information together when writing a short answer or essay. However, Tony Dottino, founder of the USA Memory Championship, still argues these types of exercises should be introduced to high schools and universities everywhere, as they are helpful skills to have in any situation.
“The work I’ve done in local high schools—teaching these kids memorization techniques—has helped them improve in academic performance,” Dottino says. “Retention and organization of information helps improve test scores.”
So what are some techniques students can use to help boost their memory before an exam? Alloway recommends focusing on sleep, diet and exercise.
“I highly recommend not studying the night before an exam and giving your brain a rest by getting a good sleep,” she advises. “The kinds of foods you eat can also have a great effect on your memory—a breakfast full of blueberries and coffee, for example, has shown to boost memorization in the moment.”
As far as mental exercises go, Dellis recommends visualizing the information you are studying.
“Try to turn whatever you’re memorizing into pictures—make them weird, violent, sexual or funny,” he says. “It turns out our brains are better at remembering pictures like these, rather than abstract information like numbers, dates and names.”
“But most importantly, pay attention,” Dellis urges. “You’d be surprised how far just paying attention and devoting yourself to a topic will take you.”