Memory Champ An Unforgettable Winner

Losing your car keys, forgetting an anniversary, leaving water running in the bathtub; there are countless ways our memories can fail us. But when you put your mind to it, your brain can do amazing things. Take, for example, Ben Pridmore. He just won the World Memory Championships, held Saturday in London. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Pridmore, who had to memorize hundreds of numbers, dates and even decks of cards in order to prove his mental prowess.

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Losing your car keys, forgetting an anniversary, leaving water running in the bathtub - there are countless ways our memories can fail us. But when you put your mind to it, your brain can do amazing things. Take, for example, Ben Pridmore. He just won the World Memory Championships held yesterday in London. He joins me on the phone. Welcome to the program and congratulations.

Mr. BEN PRIDMORE (Winner, World Memory Championships): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: You're a repeat champion.

Mr. PRIDMORE: That's right, two years in a row now.

HANSEN: So, what did you have to do? What feats of memory did it take to win?

Mr. PRIDMORE: We have ten disciplines split over three days. They all involve memorizing big chunks of information in a certain amount of time. We have an hour to memorize as long a number of possible, another hour to memorize as many packs of cards. We have tests of random words, abstract images, historic dates. And it all boils down to a great climax where we have to memorize a single pack of cards as quickly as possible.

HANSEN: Now, when you're talking about numbers, I mean, how long a line of numbers is there?

Mr. PRIDMORE: Well, the person who won the number competition memorized 2,080 digits in one hour.

HANSEN: Two thousand and eighty?

Mr. PRIDMORE: Yeah, I personally only managed 1,756 this year.

HANSEN: Oh, so it's like different categories. You have different

Mr. PRIDMORE: That's right. There were ten different competitions and the highest overall score takes the title.

HANSEN: Okay. And you build up points, right?

Mr. PRIDMORE: That's right.

HANSEN: What was the hardest thing for you to memorize?

Mr. PRIDMORE: The thing that I always have trouble with is names and faces. I can never remember people's names, despite all of the memory skills I've worked out to acquire, I can never remember what people are called.

HANSEN: And what's the easiest thing for you?

Mr. PRIDMORE: The easiest thing for me is packs of cards, decks of cards. I can whip through one of those in 25 seconds and tell you the sequence they came in.

HANSEN: Oh my, we have to keep you out of the casinos, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRIDMORE: Well, it actually doesn't quite work like that.

HANSEN: Do you train for this? I mean, how on earth do you memorize so much and memorize it so quickly?

Mr. PRIDMORE: What we do basically is we transform the information in front of us, numbers, into images of people, of objects, and we visualize these people and objects interacting, forming a story along a mental journey.

HANSEN: How does that work with numbers?

Mr. PRIDMORE: Well, for each three-digit number I have a picture of a person, of an object. So, for example, 994 is my brother-in-law and 570 is Lisa Simpson, 892 is a telephone and so on. And so whenever I see these numbers, I'm automatically seeing these pictures and I make a story out of them.

HANSEN: My goodness. Now, I understand in the first competition in 1991 the prize was an encyclopedia. What do you get?

Mr. PRIDMORE: I get some very nice trophies and I get a free trip to Bahrain, which is where the sponsors are, a nice little vacation there. And I also get my free trip and my accommodation in a hotel in China next year for the world championship.

HANSEN: Ben Pridmore of Nottingham, England is the winner of the World Memory Championships held in London. Thanks. Congratulations again.

Mr. PRIDMORE: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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