A pro at making lasting memories

Andrea Concepcion // Staff writer

Many of us have trouble remembering the name of an acquaintance we met a month ago, the phone number of a best friend or even what we had for breakfast this morning, but one UM student has proven that with practice, people can improve their memory.

Nelson Dellis, a graduate student of the department of computer science broke a U.S. world record when he memorized 178 digits of a random 500-digit number in five minutes at the 13th Annual U.S. Memory Championship in New York City.

The year before, Dellis stumbled upon the competition when he was browsing the Internet. He describes himself as a “numbers kind of guy” and frequently searches for information and facts about memory.

He did not win last year, standing a little above the mid-level but he was determined to win this year. His inspiration was Ronnie White, a competitor who won in 2009 but was a nobody in 2008.

“[White] flew under the radar,” Dellis said. “Nobody expected him to win but he broke two US records and won the whole thing.”

After the competition, Dellis discovered memory techniques that he could use to learn to amplify his memory.

According to mindtools.com, if a person uses vivid mental images to code and organize information they can structure the data effectively and recall it much easier.

Dellis’s technique has been around since the time of the Roman Empire. In his mind is a virtual storage warehouse where he organizes information into rooms and compartments and then converts the information into pictures. He converts two-digit numbers into letters that formed initials. The initials become pictures of people, celebrities or cartoons Dellis can easily identify.

“So if I see 72, I convert it to a picture,” he said.  “72 is George Bush.”

G is the seventh letter in the alphabet and B is the second. He then makes a story from the pictures.

“Everyday I memorized the order of a pack of cards, three to four times,” he said. “Then, I memorized a 200-digit number twice a day.”

The competition is a full day affair with four morning events and the final elimination round, consisting of three afternoon events.

Dellis was in first place until the last event had the contestants memorize the random sequence of two decks of cards in five minutes. He knew the sequence perfectly, but accidentally recited the first card from the wrong deck and was the first contestant to be eliminated from the round.

“It was frustrating because I knew it,” he said. “So I got third place.”

He plans to return and will enter into the World Memory Championship in China at the end of August.

Also, Dellis has launched a Web site called climbformemory.com, which takes his passion for mountain climbing to raise money for Alzheimer’s disease. His next major project: Mount Everest.

Doctor Geoff Sutcliffe, Dellis’ Master’s thesis advisor has known him since fall 2009. He said Dellis is not a computer science geek but a tall, athletic kind of guy.

“If he was born in the ‘50s, he would be seen as the classic American hero,” he said.

Easy steps to improve your memory for classes

-Actively pay attention the first time information is introduced

-Make information gathering fit your learning style

-Involve as many senses as you can

-Relate information to what you already know

-Physically organize information

-Review what you’ve learned the same day you learn it and at intervals thereafter

-Regularly exercise to increase oxygen levels in your brain and reduce risk of disorders that lead to memory loss

-Make time to relax and unwind – Cortisol, the stress hormone, can damage the hippocampus if the stress is unrelieved.

-If used regularly, these tips will have maximum effect.

Andrea Concepcion may be contacted at aconcepcion@themiamihurricane.com.