Vital Signs: Memory Athletes
PREMIERS JUNE 8 TH, 2020 AT 6PM
Do you ever wonder how good your memory is? CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores the world of memory and the mind. Learn from champion memory athletes about challenging your brain to improve your own memory.
Vital Sings: Memory Althletes
Premieres: June 8, 2020.
Sanjay Gupta: 00:25
Do you ever wonder how good your memory really is? How much do you worry about losing your memory? A lot of people are concerned about this. What can you do about it?
Sanjay Gupta: 00:33
This is Vital Signs. I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We’re at the historic Swan House, which is also the perfect memory palace, as you’re about to learn. We’re going to start with someone who, arguably, has a super memory. He wasn’t always this way, so how did he do it, and what can we all learn from him?
Nelson Dellis: 00:50
Ten of hearts.
Alex Mullen: 00:53
Queen of spades.
Nelson Dellis: 00:53
King of diamonds.
Sanjay Gupta: 00:58
This is the 2014 U.S. Memory Championships. Two competitors remain. They’re reciting back a deck of cards from memory.
Alex Mullen: 01:07
Five of spades.
Sanjay Gupta: 01:08
On the left is Nelson Dellis. He’s won this competition four times. For him, the motivation is personal. He lost his grandmother to Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease that leads to memory loss, behavioural changes, and loss of language. There is no cure.
Sanjay Gupta: 01:27
Do you remember the first you noticed that she was having any kind of memory problems? What did you see?
Nelson Dellis: 01:32
Yeah, I always go to this one memory. I mean, this was pretty late on. We were all having dinner, and she just looks at me, and I can tell she doesn’t know who I am. She knows me, she loves me, and here is this person struggling to recognise me and place me. It’s bizarre.
Sanjay Gupta: 01:55
An avid mountain climber, Nelson was in Alaska when his grandmother died. He found out while checking his phone back at base camp.
Nelson Dellis: 02:04
That really hit me. I had never had anybody close to me pass away. I said to myself, “I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t know if that’s something I can prevent, but I’m going to take what I’ve learned about memory and really go as hard as I can and prove to people that you can train your brain, and to myself as well.” That’s when I went crazy with it.
Sanjay Gupta: 02:32
Memories for facts and events are centred in our hippocampus, deep in our brain. When your brain makes a memory, neurons form new connections in the cerebral cortex. To recall the memory, those neurons reactivate. A study published last year calculated that the brain can hold ten times more memories than we first thought, storage equivalent to the entire World Wide Web.
Sanjay Gupta: 02:58
This urges caution that memory training has not been proven to prevent or slow the effects of old age or dementia. For Nelson, who watched his grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s, flexing the brain like a muscle every day, though, is comforting. Here’s how he does it. To memorise things like names and faces, decks of cards, or random digits, Nelson uses a technique known as the memory or mind palace, a practise of visualisation that dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. If you watch popular TV shows like Sherlock on the BBC, you’ve probably heard of it.
Get out. I need to go to my mind palace.
Oh, his mind palace. It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map.
Sanjay Gupta: 03:43
Most memory athletes do use this technique. Visualise a place you know well, like your dining room. As you walk through it in your mind, you place images there associated with what you’re trying to remember. Then, when you revisit that place by visualising again, the associations, and therefore the memories, should be there.
Sanjay Gupta: 04:02
I wanted to try it myself, so we found a physical representation of a memory palace, the Swan House here in Atlanta. Built in 1928, this grand home has been beautifully preserved, and you might recognise it from movies like the Hunger Games.
Sanjay Gupta: 04:18
Is this a pretty good place for your memory palace?
Nelson Dellis: 04:21
Yeah, this is the perfect memory palace, just because it’s got so many different things of interest that you can attach things to.
Sanjay Gupta: 04:30
Let’s do presidents.
Nelson Dellis: 04:31
Sanjay Gupta: 04:32
Sort of in the middle.
Nelson Dellis: 04:33
Yep. What we need to do before we start memorising is kind of choose our path or kind of the things that we’re going to anchor the images to. When I walk through these memory palaces, I have things called anchor points or locations. That’s where you actually imagine the image for the thing you’re memorising on. Those can be pieces of furniture, corners of rooms, whatever. We’re here at this first location, and we’re going to start with the 25th president. Do you know who he is, by any chance?
Sanjay Gupta: 05:00
Nelson Dellis: 05:01
Sanjay Gupta: 05:01
Nelson Dellis: 05:02
All right. You could maybe think of Mount McKinley, which is the tallest peak in the United States. I just say that because that’s an easy thing to picture, is just a huge mountain in Alaska.
Sanjay Gupta: 05:12
Nelson Dellis: 05:13
On this door, what I want you to picture is … and we can do this a few ways … is maybe we open up the doors and there is this beautiful of vista of the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley. Maybe you open that door and … We really want to add a lot of colour to it … that blast of cold winter Alaskan air just gets you chilled, and snow flies in, and you can just imagine being enveloped by the snow and the cold. Okay?
Nelson Dellis: 05:38
We move on to the next location, and that’s going to be Teddy Roosevelt. When I think of Teddy Roosevelt, I think of a teddy bear, right? That’s quick and easy. What we’ll picture is a big, cuddly teddy bear sitting on this rustic, historic table, okay?
Nelson Dellis: 05:58
We move over to the globe here.
Sanjay Gupta: 06:01
The globe is President Taft. For this one, picture a giant raft floating on the oceans of the globe, a raft, which rhymes with Taft.
Sanjay Gupta: 06:10
Next up, this grandfather clock, for Wilson. Why? A bright Wilson tennis ball came to mind for me, so picture yourself smashing it through that clock face.
Sanjay Gupta: 06:20
Finally, in this room, the sofa, for Harding. Instead of a comfy couch, imagine that that sofa is rock hard, hard for Harding.
Sanjay Gupta: 06:30
Those are U.S. presidents 25 to 29. Stick around because we’re going to test out my memory and yours at the end of the show.
Sanjay Gupta: 06:38
Do you apply these techniques even subconsciously in your everyday life?
Nelson Dellis: 06:43
Yeah. It’s just become something I love to do and that I kind of do automatically. Doesn’t mean I always remember things, but it does mean that I’m always thinking in images.
Sanjay Gupta: 06:57
The mind is always working. People make the analogy that the mind is like a muscle. Is that a fair analogy? I mean, do you think of it like that?
Nelson Dellis: 07:05
I do. I definitely think about it like that because I notice that when I stop training … and this hasn’t happened too often, but there’s been times where I just didn’t have time or the resources … I come back and I’ve lost some of my edge. It’s like when you haven’t worked out for a couple weeks. You come back and you’re just beat up, right? It’s the same thing.
Nelson Dellis: 07:30
Five of hearts.
Sanjay Gupta: 07:31
Remember the video from those 2014 Memory Championships? Nelson is on the left. That’s Alex Mullen on the right. He holds the world record in speed cards. You won’t believe it until you see it, next.
Sanjay Gupta: 07:52
Thursday evening, Hershey, Pennsylvania, this pizza restaurant is filled with kids, but they aren’t eating; they’re memorising.
Colette S.: 08:02
Okay, you guys ready? .
Sanjay Gupta: 08:06
This is the Hershey High School Memory Team, and this is their final practise before the U.S. high school memory championships in two days. This restaurant full of distractions is the perfect place to work on focus.
Colette S.: 08:18
They said, “Are you teaching memory, or are you teaching … What are you teaching?” I said, “Well, focus.” I stopped for a second. I said, “I don’t know if I’m teaching memory or focus. What is the difference between the two?” I think focus is the almost preparation of the brain to accept data and reflect, and memory is the recall.
Colette S.: 08:40
Time. Keep your cards in order.
Sanjay Gupta: 08:43
Colette Silvestri runs the memory team. She’s been doing it for 11 years, and she believes that teaching memory should be a priority for every school.
Colette S.: 08:52
When I first came in, usually I’m at other high schools. They had only juniors or seniors. I, at that time, had gifted all the way down to eighth grade, and this one kid, “Can I try the cards?” I let him try the cards. I looked at that, and I thought about it. Why not start them young and see what happens?
Colette S.: 09:08
Some of them have noticed their focus is better in tests. They can sit through the homework, through it all. It increases attention span. I was fascinated. Their scores doubled per year. That’s a lot. Even if they were challenged students, all their grades increased, and they learned how to study, even if they needed help. That surprised me. From the most challenged to the most talented, everybody’s memory increased, and that’s why I stuck with it.
Colette S.: 09:41
There you go.
Sanjay Gupta: 09:42
Tuan is a sophomore at Hershey, and an early favourite to do well in Saturday’s competition.
Tuan Bui: 09:48
I’m more nervous than excited, because there’s going to be a lot of big competers there. In school, I have used memory to help me remember formulas in science and math, and I’ve created mnemonic devices and other such things. It has helped me on tests and stuff.
Colette S.: 10:10
Apparently, the country likes it as a sport, but I’m praying they start looking at the research of the brain, because, I’ll tell you what, it is far more fascinating to me now than computers. I’m shocked at the beauty of the mental capacity. You can actually train memory. We all know you can improve it, but to see an Alex Mullen memorising a deck of cards in under 17 seconds-
Sanjay Gupta: 10:37
Alex Mullen has burst onto the memory scene over the last few years. He’s also a firm believer that these memory techniques aren’t just for show, but can help change the way we learn.
Alex Mullen: 10:48
I felt like I didn’t really have a very good memory. I was doing things in school and forgetting things and getting frustrated, and so I picked up this book called Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer that talks about memory competitions and memory techniques. That’s really what hooked me. I started to practise memorising kind of silly things like numbers and decks of cards, and it kind of just hooked me. I mean, it’s hard to describe, but it became like an obsession for me.
Cathy Chen: 11:12
I remember when he first started doing it because I thought it was hilarious, because Alex actually has a really bad memory in daily life. I feel like I can say that because I’m his wife.
Sanjay Gupta: 11:21
Alex and his wife, Cathy, are both medical students in Jackson, Mississippi. They took a year off to focus on memory. Alex became both the U.S. and world memory champion. When he returns to medical school this summer, he plans to use these techniques to help him study and learn.
Alex Mullen: 11:37
My ability to come up with associations like that has definitely gotten better. I mean, I didn’t consider myself to be a really creative person, so I was worried about my ability to make associations, but it’s definitely something that, with practise, you get batter at, you get more creative, and it’s very easy for me to think of things like that now.
Sanjay Gupta: 11:56
He’s a world record holder in speed cards, memorising a shuffled deck of 52 cards in under 17 seconds. He’s going to give us a demo, and we’re going to show him memorising this deck in real time, because it is that fast.
Alex Mullen: 12:27
All right, I’m going to say … Usually, you get five minutes to recall the deck, so I’ll just start that. All right, so we’re going to flip these cards over and see if the two decks match. This next one is … Oh, okay. All right, that’s a good sign.
Cathy Chen: 12:44
Woo! That’s awesome.
Alex Mullen: 12:44
Sanjay Gupta: 12:48
He nailed it in under 15 seconds. How? Each pair of cards represents a sound. He translates that sound into a word and then places it mentally into a memory palace.
Alex Mullen: 13.00
Yeah, so for that deck, I used the rowhouse that I used to live in in my third and fourth year of college in Baltimore. For every event, I usually use a handful of different memory palaces, and so that’s one of my speed cards palaces that I use.
Alex Mullen: 13:15
I started at basically like on the street in front of the rowhouse, and I see this opened can of jam. Each two cards for me becomes one image, so this is like an open can of jam and I’m just sort of like smearing it on the bumper of a car out front. That was the first image. Then this next one, there’s like kind of a little tree in our front yard, and so this is like an electric razor.
Sanjay Gupta: 13:42
You’re probably looking at this … I know I am … and thinking, “There’s no way I could do that,” but memory athletes like Alex and Nelson have always said there’s nothing special about their brains or their memories, that anyone can do this, and now science is on their side.
Sanjay Gupta: 14:01
In the Netherlands, Boris Konrad sits down with a deck of cards and memorises them. He’s a top-ranked memory athlete. He’s also a neuroscientist.
Boris Konrad: 14:12
We all want to have a healthy brain through all of our lives, and as the fields of neuroscientific research show us, memory is a fuse, so memory is at stakes. If you don’t challenge your own brain, if you don’t challenge your own memory, the risk to get dementia or other disease also increases.
Sanjay Gupta: 14:27
Boris works at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands with a fellow neuroscientist, Martin Dresler. Their latest study? To understand the brains of memory athletes.
Martin Dresler: 14:37
We were interested in what makes a memory athlete on the neurobiological level. We do know that they use certain strategies, but we didn’t know what happens in their brains.
Sanjay Gupta: 14:49
The study enrolled 23 top-ranked memory athletes, including Boris. He helped design a regimen for the participants to train like the athletes do for 30 minutes a day for six weeks. There was also a control group. The brains of all three groups were then examined through a series of MRIs.
Boris Konrad: 15:06
You can do a lot of different things. What we do first is we looked at the brain structure, and we could see that by size of brain and even the size of different brain regions did not differ to a control group. When we looked at activation during tasks, which part of the brain gets more active when you use such a memory technique?
Martin Dresler: 15:22
We were surprised to see that the brain structure actually doesn’t differ that much from normal people, so there isn’t any single structure, any single connection, that really stuck out.
Sanjay Gupta: 15:33
The researchers found that over the course of six weeks, the brains of the newcomers to memory training began to resemble the memory athletes, meaning this may not be a special talent that we’re born with, but one that we can train our brains to do.
Boris Konrad: 15:47
What’s hard for us to remember is names, is facts, it’s , it’s textbooks. It’s all the stuff the memory athletes are good at, which is normally not visual directly. These techniques they use make it visual. At the end, they don’t actually improve their memory capacity; it’s already there. They just find a way to use the visual memory to store this normally much-harder-to-memorise information which normally doesn’t go in there.
Sanjay Gupta: 16:11
It does raise the question, is there such a thing as too much memory? Turns out, the brain is prepped to handle that as well.
Martin Dresler: 16:19
The brain is not only very good at memorising things, but also very good at forgetting things. Most of what we experience during most of our days is just forgotten. All the non-important information typically is forgotten quite quickly, and only important informations are really stored by the brain, and there doesn’t appear to be an upper limit.
Sanjay Gupta: 16:42
Back in Hershey, it’s competition day for these high school memory athletes. Nerves are running high for students like sophomore Tuan Bui. He’s excited to meet four-time champ Nelson Dellis.
Nelson Dellis: 16:55
These kids are super lucky to have teachers who know about it and who are creating clubs and after- school classes for them to practise and learn.
Speaker 13: 17:05
Okay, let’s get this competition started. Rachel, will you get the timer running?
Speaker 14: 17:10
Sanjay Gupta: 17:14
Among the crowd here is Robert Ajemian from MIT in Boston. Like Martin and Boris in the Netherlands, he recognised a gap in the research.
Robert Ajemian: 17:24
I was very sceptical, but when you talk to people who actually do it and then you start just going online and looking at the history of this technique, there are all kinds of stories and anecdotes of people improving their capacity. The problem is there’s no scientific explanation for why that happens. My interest has been trying to figure out not that this works, which has been known since the time of the ancient Greeks, but why does it work. What excites me about this is that this is the biggest behavioural phenomenon that I’ve ever seen where anybody can do a minimum amount of training, say a half an hour a day for two to three months, and all of a sudden you can do things, like memorise an order of cards in a deck of cards, that you would’ve sworn were not possible.
Speaker 13: 18:12
What they’re going to get is a person’s name. A tea party guest comes up on stage, gives their name. They will then give their date of birth-
Sanjay Gupta: 18:20
The day-long competition is a true test of stamina. The weekly practises and focus training at the pizza restaurant paid off. Hershey High takes home the team championship, and Tuan wins second in the individual competition, a great showing for the tenth-grader.
Tuan Bui: 18:40
In my brain, I’m like, “Yes, I did it. I actually did it.” The overwhelming part of my brain is like, “I want to sleep.”
Sanjay Gupta: 18:51
It’s a proud moment for Colette, as well, who will continue to push to see memory techniques incorporated into the classroom.
Colette S.: 18:58
The kids are all good. They’re all good, generation after generation. That’s pretty cool.
19:02 The kids passed their test. Back at the Swan House in Atlanta, it’s time to see if we can remember those five U.S. presidents in order. No cheating.
Sanjay Gupta: 19:12
All right, so let’s start. I would’ve never remembered what I’m about to hopefully recall without this. I’ll say that for sure. I see these doors, and I see that Mount McKinley. I see that snow. I feel it. It’s cold. Open the doors, and you get that fresh air. That’s McKinley.
Nelson Dellis: 19:28
Sanjay Gupta: 19:29
All right. Move on over here, and the images, the Grateful Dead big purple teddy bear sitting there, standing there, starting to take some drinks out of those little-
Nelson Dellis: 19:39
Sanjay Gupta: 19:40
… containers, those cups. That’s Teddy Roosevelt.
Nelson Dellis: 19:42
Very good. Yep.
Sanjay Gupta: 19:43
All right. Now, the next thing, and my eye is drawn to this next thing over here, is going to be the globe.
Nelson Dellis: 19:48
Sanjay Gupta: 19:51
That globe has a big raft on it. It’s a big wooden raft. It’s maybe in the oceans there on the globe, but that raft means Taft.
Nelson Dellis: 20:01
Taft. That’s right. Yep.
Sanjay Gupta: 20:02
All right. This one, I love. This one, I love, because Nelson and I both have a destructive sort of personality perhaps. I see a big yellow Wilson tennis ball, and someone slamming it, and that grandfather clock takes a hit. That’s Wilson.
Nelson Dellis: 20:20
Very good. Cool.
Sanjay Gupta: 20:21
All right. Then this sofa, as inviting as it looks, is actually hard and made of cement. Hard leads me to Harding.
Nelson Dellis: 20:30
There you go.
Sanjay Gupta: 20:30
Harding is the next president.
Nelson Dellis: 20:31
Sanjay Gupta: 20:31
Nelson Dellis: 20:31
Five for five.
Sanjay Gupta: 20:34
Nelson says this will stick with us for a while, especially if we practise recalling it a couple times over the next few weeks. In six months or even a year, it should still be there. From Nelson to speedster Alex Mullen to the scientists examining why and how this all works, as well as the kids and educators who find such joy in pushing their brains to the limit, it’s been a fascinating journey into memory and the mind.