Aug. 8, 2001 -- Tatiana Cooley knew she had a good memory, but she didn't know just how good until a few years ago. On a whim, she entered Memoriad, the annual Olympics of the Mind, where contestants cram as many numbers, names, faces and poetry verses into their heads as they can.
Cooley, the walk-on, won. Everyone at the competition was shocked "beyond comprehension," recalls Cooley. "They were picking their chins up off the floor."
It was no fluke: She went on to win three years in a row.
So, how good is she?
We tested her with the classic T.S. Eliot poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which she did not know already. She got right to work: Her eyes pored over the words, locking them in.
About 15 minutes later, she recited it back to us: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go through certain half-deserted streets..." She continued for 40 lines.
How Does She Do It?
This type of mental gymnastics might seem completely out-of-reach to those of us who can't remember the name of someone we met 30 seconds ago at a cocktail party. However, memory experts say that with some work, almost anyone can learn Cooley's techniques.
One method involves repeating to yourself over and over whatever you are trying to remember. Cooley says when you meet someone at a cocktail party, you should immediately repeat their name to yourself.
Her other technique involves creating a visual picture to make whatever she's memorizing more memorable. "For example, if there's somebody by the name Page, I will try to think of them with a page-boy haircut," she explains.
She Still Uses Post-it Notes
But here's the twist: Cooley may be a memory champ, but she is notoriously absentminded and a chronic user of Post-it notes and shopping lists.
One part of her brain can memorize an entire deck of cards and birth dates of everybody on the New York Yankees baseball team. But the other part of her brain can't remember to buy deodorant.
How does she explain that? "I can't," she says.
But the experts can. We have several different kinds of memory; the ability to remember large sets of facts is unrelated to the ability to remember what you need to do today.
And while you can learn fancy tricks for remembering facts, your best bet for remembering your to-do list remains the decidedly simple Post-it note.