My friend Tiff has her finger on the pulse of weird and strange happenings around the city. When she mentioned the USA Memory Championship was being held in NYC on Saturday, I agreed to go with her to check it out.
We weren't sure what to expect. Would the event be well-attended? Would it be well-attended by stereotypical nerdy types? Would it be super boring? The answers to those questions were a resounding Yes, No, and No Way José, respectively.
When we arrived, the auditorium was packed with (mostly) normal looking people. We snagged gift bags full of brain-health products and found seats near the back, just in time for the International Man of Memory's demonstration.
Chester Santos, International Man of Memory, took the stage looking sharp in a fedora, pink dress shirt, and jacket with pink pocket square. This fellow has memorized all 535 members of Congress. Audience members could call out the name of a representative, and Chester responded with their state, district, political party, and the committee(s) they served on. Impressive.
Next up was a segment where 5 contestants had to memorize several facts (name, birthdate, hometown, zip code, phone number, 3 fave foods, 3 hobbies, name/type of pet, favorite car) about 5 different audience members. They were given the data, had 15 minutes to commit it to memory, and then were able to recite it back on stage. Most of the contestants did well, but one was eliminated (phone numbers are a killer!)
During this segment, Natasha, a blonde, middle-aged school teacher wearing purple high heels, sat down next to me and struck up conversation. "Who's that one contestant in the grey t-shirt?" she whispered. "I think his name is Nelson," I replied. "Oh, he's fantastic. He's really doing it for me."
And later, "Don't you just want to cuddle up with one of these guys, and coo "Oh you big strong mental athlete, you!"?" Um, I don't know. Maybe? I did appreciate Natasha's friendly candor, though, even as she was objectifying the contestants.
The next and final challenge of the competition was "Double Deck O'Cards." The four remaining contestants had to memorize the order of two decks of cards (also in 15 minutes). One contestant was eliminated during the first deck, and a second at the beginning of the second deck. It was down to two - the aforementioned Nelson and a man named Ronny, who had a Southern drawl and wore a straw cowboy hat.
They passed the microphone back and forth between them, naming cards in order. Somewhere in the last half of the second deck, Ronny got stumped. "It's either the seven of clubs...or this cowboy's about to ride off into the sunset."
It wasn't the seven of clubs.
Ronny graciously left the stage while the crowd gave Nelson (the reigning and returning US Memory Champion) a standing ovation. Natasha was especially pleased about Nelson's triumph. "Do you think he works out?" she asked. "Um, probably," I guessed. (Turns out he climbs mountains for charity.)
The founder of the Championship handed Nelson his trophy - a turquoise glass sea-horse. Apparently the hippocampus (an area of the brain integral to memory storage) resembles the shape of a sea-horse. In fact, that's where it got it's name - hippocampus means sea-horse in Latin.
Nelson gave a rousing speech about the importance of brain health and taking care of our memories. Turns out, these mental athletes don't just have freakishly photographic memories - they all work at this, using various memory techniques to train their brains to remember large amounts of data.
So Tiff and I learned something new, were duly impressed, and left with our gift-bag bottles of DHA supplements and books on memory. And a new friend in Natasha, who dreamily supposes that "A mental athlete will never forget an anniversary!"