Making a Mental Athlete

March 16, 2007 — -- 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."

The "Grand Master" of Memory

At his brother's goading, Hagwood entered the USA Memory Championship in 2001 and won. He went back the following year and won again. In all, Hagwood won the competition four years in a row. After his last competition in 2004, he wrote a book called "Memory Power: You Can Develop a Great Memory -- America's Grand Master Shows You How."

"Scott is a trained brain athlete," said Duke University Alzheimer's specialist and memory expert Dr. Murali Doraiswamy. Doraiswamy has examined Hagwood's brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging while Scott performed memory exercises.

He learned that Hagwood's brain works better than the normal brain. "When we scanned it," said Doraiswamy, "what we found was that his brain was much more efficient. It was just purring along like a finely tuned BMW, with minimal stress."

Studies suggest we can physically change, and even expand our brain by exercising it.

Doraiswamy believes constant stimulation of the brain, which could include learning new memory skills, might prevent the onset of age-related memory disorders such as Alzheimer's. He advocates mental exercises for everyone, which he calls "neurobics."

"Just like aerobics for the body, neurobics is to train your nerve cells."

As a mental athlete, Hagwood is at the top of his game. He can memorize a shuffled deck of cards in just two-and-a-half minutes, and then recall all 52 of them, one by one. The kicker? He can repeat them back to you, either in order or backward.

It's All About the Image

For Hagwood, remembering the cards is a visual process. "Each card has a very specific image. What I do is I blend the images together. For example, the jack of spades is a worker digging with a spade. The nine of hearts is an image of a wagon wheel. Inside my mind I'm seeing a worker actually digging up a wagon wheel."

In other words, he's making up a visual story using fifty-two cards, and then telling that story.

Telling a story is the same technique that Matthews uses to prepare his high school students for the memory championship. With only a month before the competition, the kids are in serious training. "I can't wait for the names and faces … it's the most easiest thing," Essien said.

That is certainly not the case for everyone. Remembering the names and faces of people you meet can be a challenge to many people, and a potential source of embarrassment.

At the "Blue Fin" bar in New York City's Times Square, Hagwood demonstrated how he remembers names. Just like with playing cards, he tries to make associations with the people he meets.

For example, he remembered a woman he met named Monica because she had long dark hair like the character Monica in the sitcom "Friends." He recalled another woman, Sophia, because he thought she looked similar to Sophia Loren. He claimed that Robert had a smile that reminded him of Bobby Brown, and another woman, Debbie, simply looked like a Debbie that Hagwood knew from his childhood. "I'm using anything that I already know of to try to make that association."

The Competition

The USA Memory Championship consists of four grueling events: memorizing 1,000 random numbers, a nonrhyming, unpublished poem, recalling a deck of cards, and remembering 99 names and faces of unfamiliar people.

This year, the Gompers team, though well prepared, came up short, and the reigning high school champs from last year -- the team from Mechanicsburg, Pa. -- won again.

But in other ways, the Gompers team has won, including an improvement in the students' grades.

Of course, most people are not training for a memory championship -- they would just like to remember day-to-day items, like a to-do list. Scott has a technique for that as well.

The first step is to familiarize yourself with a room in your house and pick up to 10 "anchors" to focus on, like a phone, a lamp, a blank wall or a printed pillow. Then, choose an item on your to-do list, like buying milk, and associate a carton of milk with an anchor. If the anchor you choose is your phone, think about spilling a carton of milk and ruining your phone.

It boils down to linking your 10 anchors to 10 items on your to-do list, then creating a story about each one. Once the connections are made, your to-do list becomes imprinted in your mind.

"Backwards, forwards, or any order," Hagwood told me, "that is the power of your memory."

The "Memory Movement"

The USA Memory Championship is currently seeking corporate sponsors to provide programming for children around the country to teach them the skills of memory.

Corporate sponsors would help underwrite local and regional competitions in middle and high schools. The winners of the regional competitions would then go to New York for the national championship.

Tony Dottino, the USA Memory Championship founder, is leading this "memory movement," and said, "it gives children and adults greater possibilities."

When he's not running the USA Memory Championship, Dottino teaches corporate leaders that they can boost their work force's productivity and personal satisfaction by learning how to use the natural abilities of the brain and its memory power.

"We are blessed," Dottino said, "with this incredible and powerful organic machine called the human brain. My mission is to provide an easy user's manual to help people maximize its potential in all areas of their lives."