Champions of the Mind

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:03

The annual Memory Championship tests the outer limits of contestants' memory skills

Gramercy Park Every two years, the Olympic Games remind the world of humans' extraordinary athletic abilities. Another event, less well-known but arguably just as important in touting achievement, happens every year, to champion the power of the mind.

The USA Memory Championship is a contest that tests the limits of mental dexterity, now in its 17th year.

"It is amazing to me, 17 years doing the event that people still say, 'gee, I've never heard of this,'" said Tony Dottino, the founder of the USA Memory Championship. "And we have been on CBS, ABC, FOX, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, and it still amazes me that people have not heard of it."

In 1989, Dottino was looking for a way to improve creativity in the business field by focusing on the ability to create new offerings. He decided that memory improvement would help business people enhance their creative skills.

The parameters of memory are how well an individual can organize, store and recall information when needed. When one reads a new article or hears someone in a conversation, improved memory could lead to the creation of spontaneous new associations, new ideas, new innovations, new product offerings and new ways of dealing with certain challenges, Dottino explained.

"What do leaders and employees and organizations need to know about their own brains and its unlimited capacity to create if they want to compete and survive in a global economy?" he asked himself.

With that mindset, Dottino started the first championship in 1997 with the drive to provide not only a platform for memory amelioration but to dispel common myths about memory ? like the idea that the strength of one's memory is genetic, or that older people cannot have excellent memories.

Dottino compares the brain to a muscle that strengthens with practice. And just like an arm muscle can weaken if it's not given regular exercise, so can a person's memory. He contends that anyone can strengthen their neurons and train them to fire off more efficiently

The USA Memory Championship this year features 74 contestants, breaking their previous record by over 50 percent. The competition features events such as memorizing names and faces of 117 photos and having to recall them out of order and without the name. One event entails memorizing a previously unpublished poem, including correct spelling, punctuation and line breaks; another asks contestants to recall as many as 200 words in numerical column order. Another requires recalling a random person's name, date of birth, residence, phone number, pet, favorite car, hobbies and foods - with specific details, such as make and model or color and type - within 15 seconds.

Contestants train just like athletes for the competition. Nelson Dellis from Miami, a two-time consecutive champion from 2011-2012, is competing for the sixth time this year. He works as a memory consultant, aiding students and CEOs in improving memory.

"[I train] 4-5 hours a day; I basically mimic the events at the competition," Dellis said. "I'll work on cards in the morning, then numbers, poetry, words, and names."

T. Michael Harty, an ordained minister from Shippensburg, PA competing for the ninth times said that he practices three hours a day to prepare for the competition.

Nathaniel Jaye, a journalist from San Francisco Bay and first-timer competitor will be "eating oats for breakfast, swimming daily, channeling Giordano Bruno," a 16th-century Aristotelian philosopher who excelled in the art of memory, to prepare.

The top three winners of Saturday's competition will qualify for the World Memory Championships.