Memory Guy Takes on the World

April 23, 2009 02:29 PM
by Shannon Firth
Ron White, 35, is training for a competition no American has ever won—the World Memory Championship, being held this November in Bahrain. White wants others to recognize he’s no Rain Man; it took him hard work to get this far.

Not So Basic Training

A former telemarketer, White, the self-dubbed “Memory Guy,” has taught mind-training workshops and seminars for the past 15 years. In March he won the U.S. Memory Championships in New York.

White attributes his recent victory to a special underwater training technique the Navy SEALs taught him, which helped him tune out distractions. White also had a computer program developed that would flash a number sequence and enhance the speed of his memory. At his last competition, given 1,000 digits, he recalled 167, a U.S. record.

As a full-time memory guru he’s continually asked to prove his worth. At a convention in 2007 Ron White told an audience of Mary Kay employees to stand up if they had exchanged names before his lecture began. Eighty people got up from their chairs. He then said, “Whenever I call off your name have a seat.”

White says learning his memory techniques is useful to sales representatives, real estate agents and students, or anyone whose livelihood, if not their grades, depends on recalling faces and names, or facts.

Some people don’t see the point of trying to train your brain to remember things. They call his work “silly.” White answers, “It’s silly to sell somebody a $300,000 house, and then see them three weeks later and not remember their name.”

Background: How to win a memory competition

In 2005 Slate writer Joshua Foer explained the criteria for obtaining the title grand master of memory: “memorize 1,000 digits in under an hour, the precise order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in the same amount of time, and one shuffled deck in less than two minutes.”

At the time of the article’s publication, there were 36 grandmasters in the world. Only one was American. Scott Hagwood from North Carolina had won every U.S. Championship between 2001 and 2004. In 2005 he recused himself to finish his book on memory, of course.

Foer explored how the competitors worked. He wrote, “The brain isn’t built to remember abstract symbols like numbers and playing cards,” however using mnemonic devices one can transform something abstract into something meaningful. He adds, “[B]inary digits can be made as memorable as your own address.”

Historical Context: The 2008 World Memory Championships

Ben Pridmore from England won first place at the 17th Annual World Memory Championships in 2008.

Tony Buzan, the founder of The World Memory Championships, was particularly pleased with the number of records broken last year, including that of Johannes Mallow from Germany, who in 15 minutes perfectly recalled 110 historic dates.

A press release states, “Competitors broke barriers that only a few years ago, people had assumed would never be reached, equivalent to the 4 minute mile in athletics or the 7 ft barrier in the high jump.”

Related Topic: Hyperthymesia: Total Recall, Totally Overwhelming; Do Brain Age and Sudoku Really Make You Smarter?

The memories we keep and those we lose are central to our perception of ourselves. No one understands that better than Jill Price, a 42-year-old school administrator from Los Angeles who has perfect recall of nearly every day of her life.

In 2008, two University of Michigan researchers showed that fluid intelligence, the kind of memory used to solve new problems, can be improved by training a person’s working memory.

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