Memory athlete Simon Reinhard on the “almost magic” of the brain

Simon Reinhard is one of the best memory athletes in the world, holding both the first and second records for memorizing a shuffled deck of cards. This year, the German memory champ had victories in the UK, Singapore, Taiwan, and the US.

In our chat with Simon, he shared how memorization techniques can take on nuance depending on the person and subject, and how the brain surprises us with its ability to make associations.

Peak: Hi Simon, thanks for chatting with Peak. You’ve won several different Memory Championships. Not all of our readers will be familiar with Memory Championships, so could you describe a typical competition?

Hello Thomas, thank you for having me, it is a pleasure.

Regarding Memory Championships: Imagine a decathlon, but with memorizing things and then repeating them, often in the right order. We have numbers, names and faces, words, cards. Fixed memorization and recall times, from 5 minutes to one hour. A scoring system in every discipline, for example 70 names in 5 minutes would be 1,000 points, 35 names would be 500 points etc. The one with the most total points after the last discipline is the winner.

Lately there has also been another kind of tournament, the XMT (Extreme Memory Tournament) in San Diego, USA. More spectator-friendly: Duels, group rounds and k.o. rounds, only 1 minute of memorization time for cards, numbers, names and words. It’s done on a laptop and projected onto big screens for the audience to follow memorization and recall with live scoring. Very cool to watch online; we had hundreds of online spectators this year.

[Editor’s note: We recently interviewedthe Extreme Memory Tournament’s founder, Nelson Dellis.]

All in all, the sport has been growing quite much lately, with tournaments around the world and increased interest. Many Asian nations, for example, love it.

Peak: You had your most successful competition year in 2014; did you change your preparation or training in any way compared to previous years?

Not really, but in this sport you somehow always improve. Since we do not simply look at a page of numbers until we know it (no Kim Peek’s around) but are using certain extremely refined memory techniques, it is always possible to get better and better at applying those techniques. 2015 was also a great year until now with victories at, among others, the Singapore Open, US Open, UK Open and Taiwan Open. The sport lets you see the world, too :).

Peak: You broke the world record for memorizing a deck of cards. Do you use different techniques or different parts of your brain when you memorize cards compared to, say, names, faces, or digits? Is one subject harder for you than the others?

Cards and digits are technique-based disciplines, meaning we are using a spatial method called the method of loci, where we are walking along a prepared mental journey that we know very well, like from the apartment to the city center. We then convert the abstract information like digits and cards into more concrete things via a number-letter code (1=t; n=2; 5=s; 6=b etc…; mostly working with visual similarity) and then connect the newfound image (for instance the four digits 1943 would lead me to T-u-r-m, Turm, the German word for “tower”) with the location.

So if the first location is your doorstep, you might imagine that the building wall next to it has been redecorated nicely overnight and there is now a tower-like structure growing out of the roof area — a natural, normal connection. Rinse and repeat for the next images and locations.

During recall, you travel along your journey again and, almost magically, the things reappear at your locations and you can re-translate and reconstruct your data: You stand at your doorstep and recall there was something with the roof area, you remember the image of the new “tower” there and re-translate it to 1943. And so on.

I said the recall seems “almost” magical, because when you think about it, it is not so strange at all: the brain is simply very good at storing information in connection with real-world locations. For example, if you think about your last vacation and the hotel you were staying at, and the dining hall you were eating at, and the exact table you were seated at, chances are quite high that your brain might present you with a visual or audio-visual snippet of your own life, like looking at your meal or having a conversation with a friend or remembering how you felt that evening.

What people are calling “genius loci,” the feeling and nature of a place, is based on the same thing in a way: Things happening at a place can change how we see it, because it is automatically connected with so many feelings and memories.

And this location-connection mechanism is what we are also using in our tournaments: We connect things with locations, using this automatism of the brain. And it works.

There are also disciplines many people do without locations: For example I have my own way of memorising names: Very association based, finding connections between name and face, strengthening those connections. So there are multiple ways.

I always try to find even more effective tweaks and improvements in all disciplines. I have a number of world records and Guinness world records and try to increase those, too. In the same way, I try to find improvements for the numerous real-life applications.

Peak: As a lawyer, what are the day-to-day benefits of having a memory as good as yours?

While I am travelling to many tournaments and am giving memory courses in a number of countries, I am also working as a lawyer in a Munich law firm. I very often use the techniques to prepare conference calls, speeches, court dates, and negotiations. Having the most important keywords of a new court decision or a contract in your mind, readily available, is a tremendous help, a bit like creating hyperlinks to access information quickly.

And to be clear: Nobody needs to memorize stuff word by word. This would be a waste of time and mental resources in many cases. I embrace the information normally first, reading it like always, to give me something to remember.

Memory techniques are not meant to replace how you have learned previously. They are a powerful supporting tool to use wherever “normal” learning does not quite cut it: a long list of arguments would be an example, or any kind of bigger information “web” which can be perfectly understood and adequately recalled with normal learning, but not to an arbitrary grade of exactness or completeness. Look at a list of 10 to 12 things: Chances are you might get 8 to 10 but those last few might prove too elusive. You have the feeling you cannot “reach” them. So whenever those higher levels of exactness are needed, memory techniques will help.

In general, I use them often because it can provide a level of control over your subject matter that you do not have otherwise: Having certain keywords on locations gives you a guarantee of completeness. This also leads to a feeling of independence from external notes: You know you have it all in your mind. And this, in turn, is quite calming. It simply makes the whole experience of recalling things under pressure much less stressful. And lastly, for people who suffer from “blackouts”: Due to the visual nature of the memory cues, the method is extremely robust and resistant to blackouts.

In my daily life and job, using the techniques is simply a matter of using an available advantage to gain increased efficiency and success, making it a no-brainer.

Peak: Do you ever forget things day to day?

Of course. I think it is part of human nature. Over time I came to realize thatoften when we forget things in our daily life it is more due to a lack of planning and organization than due to a lack of proper memory.

Peak: Let’s talk about the phrase “memory athlete.” Is memory ability trainable for anyone, or do you need to be born ready with certain mental aptitudes, or “muscles?”

It is trainable, definitely. I am sure almost anyone, with the right guidance, can bring their own prowess with those techniques to a level that enables them to use the techniques very efficiently in daily life.

When we are talking about the tournaments, which is basically doing all of this on a much higher level, faster than most often necessary for daily life applications, we can clearly see, after two and a half decades of tournaments, that the top guys have different talents, too: Some are very good at names, some struggle with it. Some kill it with numbers, some are merely very good. The same with words and cards.

So at the highest levels there seems to be some talent involved here and there but training plays a more important role there, too. For example I have four world records, my biggest “opponent” has six, but the remaining seven official records are distributed between six other people. So there are specialists for sure.

Peak: Do you have a photographic memory? What’s the difference between photographic memory and trained memory?

No. I am convinced that something like a photographic memory does not exist. To my knowledge there have been a number of studies about this subject over the years and none of the subjects have demonstrated anything even close to a photographic memory. It is a myth.

What I noticed about my trained memory is that my visualization seems to have improved. We are visualizing much and I have been able to visualize things much more clearly over the years.

Peak: When and how did you first realize you had a great memory?

I do not know if I have a great memory. Well, I always was quite good with names: Often when I was small I was helping my parents when they could not recall the names of certain people on TV. Learning vocabulary in school was ok, too.

But when I heard about the techniques about ten years ago and noticed how easy it was to memorize things with their help, I was thrilled and began to explore their potential.

I often compare them with an art like painting: Having a canvas, a brush and some colors seems deceptively simple, but those simple tools have an unexpected flexibility and complexity which allows artists to paint in so many different styles and create things of such a diverse beauty in the same small space of the canvas.

It is very similar with the memory techniques: Making images and putting them on locations seems deceptively simple and it is easy to have your first successes because it is such a powerful tool, but once you invest some more time into it and try to delve into all possibilities, it becomes truly interesting.After a while, you notice that, compared to a friend, you might have a slightly different method to connect the images to the locations, or prefer a different kind of locations, prefer a different pace of memorizing or a different character of your images. You often read that exaggerated images are best because they stick best in your memory. In such a general sense this is wrong, of course, because if you only have strange and weird things happening in your mind, all becomes one mix of the same. I prefer clear connections, not too fancy, simple and elegant. Not so easy to do in the beginning but it saves time and works best for me. People have different styles and that is great.

And while using the techniques is like an art, it also satisfies my “researcher” side: Looking for improvements in the techniques has much of engineering or other natural sciences where you first think about a potential improvement, hypothesize about what might work and then create a number of experiments and rigorous tests to check if it pans out as you imagined. Exciting stuff, in particular if your hypothesis proves correct :).

Peak: Did you start training it right away? What was your first training regime like?

My first contact with the techniques was on the homepage of the not-for-profit club MemoryXL ( Back then they had a free software that let you practice all the championship disciplines in a level format up to level 10, like starting with 10 digits in 5 minutes on level 1 of numbers, then 30 digits in 5 minutes on level 2 of numbers and so on. Progress was saved. It was quite addictive and immediately accessible for someone who grew up with the second generation of video game consoles.

I was a bit sceptical regarding all this “location” stuff they were writing about and in the beginning only did names (where I cracked level 10 in my first week and was promptly banned because nobody has done that :); I was reinstated after contacting a -now- good friend of mine in the club). I also did words and simply made long stories to avoid using locations. But I could not crack 40 words in 5 minutes; the story simply became too long and convoluted. So grudgingly I made my first locations in my neighborhood, 20 of them, and put 2 words on each in a small story-like interaction. And lo and behold, it worked fantastically. I never looked back.

So my first training regime basically consisted of trying to crack level 10 in all different disciplines in this software, pushing myself more and more. Afterwards, when I started competing, it was about beating your own personal bests.

I tend to train more before championships with some breaks afterwards and trying to find a consistent baseline otherwise, with about 30 minutes of training a day.

Peak: How do you use and adapt these techniques now?

As described above, today I mostly use the method of loci and try to visualize things when feasible. Using more concrete images for abstract data is often easier to work with.

I also adapt the techniques for things like learning languages — I learned about 1,200 Chinese signs plus pronunciation with methods like that lately.Chinese is hard, but it gets easier with the right techniques.

Peak: How does your training regime today differ from what you did when you just started? Do you change it leading up to a competition?

I train more, definitely. I train with much higher amounts. I try to push myself more and fight to reach that next level. Sometimes you hit a plateau for quite some time but once you manage to crack a certain threshold, it gets so much easier, like you were unlocking the ability to do that.

Leading up to a competition, my training volume increases, training close to real tournament conditions. A week before I usually stop and rest to have full energy for the fight ahead.

Peak: What’s the most difficult subject for you to remember, and any idea why?

Luckily I am a bit of an all-rounder with not too many major weaknesses but there are a few disciplines where we have to go at a very high speed and only look at things once. This is the hardest for most of us because you need to get the connection perfect at your first try. Usually you can reinforce it at least once, but not there.

Such situations appear almost never in real life because either you can prepare things in advance like university subjects and speeches or the speed is much lower, like when you want to roughly memorize what someone is saying in a lecture or conversation. But well, the tournaments are made to test us under extreme conditions :).

Peak: What are your top 3 tips for memory training beginners?

  1. Use locations as early as possible. They are the bread and butter of your progress.
  2. Practice out of your comfort zone: To get good at something, increase your speed and wait for accuracy to catch up.
  3. Believe in yourself and have fun. The reason is simple: Memory is very confidence- and attitude-based. No need to be afraid: You will always remember much more than you forget. Best of luck!

To see history being made, check out this video of Simon breaking the world record for memorizing a deck of cards in 21.90s; the previous one was 24.97s. Since then, he’s broken his own record, hitting 21.19s.

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Tom Williams