Making a Mental Athlete


Can you memorize the names and faces of 99 people you've never met before? Or, how about memorizing an entire deck of cards? These are just two of the challenges confronting competitors at the annual USA Memory Championship.

The competitors are no smarter than you. But they are athletes -- "mental athletes" -- and 42 of them, ranging in age from 12 to 53, participated in the 10th annual memory competition held last weekend in New York City.

For the last two months, "20/20" has followed a team of 10 students from Samuel Gompers High School in the South Bronx, one of the poorest and roughest neighborhoods in New York City. The students' history teacher, Raemone Matthews, is trying to offer them an alternative to street life. He uses a unique teaching style, like using imagery from playing cards to help reinforce historical dates and figures, as a compelling way to impart information.

Building Better Brains

"Memory is a tool like notebooks and textbooks," said Matthews. "It is a tool to help the student access information as rapidly and as often as possible."

Watch the full "20/20" story on Friday at 10 p.m. EDT.

Another source of inspiration for the Gompers students is Tony Dottino, the founder of the USA Memory Championship, who has trained students on memory skills.

"When you build your memory skills," said Dottino, "it builds a more creative, effective and efficient brain."

When asked how hard it was to learn memory skills, high school senior Soumalia Morer claimed the training wasn't too taxing. "I enjoy it!" he said.

Fellow senior Akineyene Essien, a competition rookie, said the training has helped him with his school work. "I'm able to memorize the work I do in class better … way better, actually."

Like spelling bees and "mad hot" ballroom dancing, memory is the latest competition to be put under the lens.

A documentary about the USA Memory Championship is now in the works, scheduled for release in 2008. It may draw a large audience, considering how everyone could benefit from having better memory, whether it's remembering where we put our keys, or the names of people we meet on the job or in social settings.

There's an apparent market for memory improvement. So-called memory boosters are a multimillion dollar industry.

According to 44-year-old Scott Hagwood, it doesn't take drugs and you don't need to be a genius to develop a more effective memory. Hagwood seems to have a photographic memory, but that wasn't always the case. It took time and practice to develop.

"I was about an average student. And I had to study like every kid, you know -- staying up the night before or cramming the night before."

Seven years ago, Hagwood was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and told the radiation treatment would negatively affect his memory. He was determined to stop this from happening.

"I thought, even though I'm physically feeling bad, maybe mentally there's something that I can do." Over the next several months, Hagwood read books on memory and trained every day to improve his own memory.

And then something else inspired him. "I was flipping through the channels in 2000 and saw '20/20,' Bill Ritter doing a story on something called a memory competition and they were remembering cards and names and faces and numbers."

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