Be a memory champion

Could we do away with our to do lists?
20 November 2018

Interview with 

Nelson Dellis


We've all been in that situation where we wish we could remember something - from to do lists, to keys or someone's name. With so many things to remember in life, the idea of a “better” memory sounds pretty enticing. Katie Haylor spoke to memory champion Nelson Dellis about his tips for how we can all improve our memories.

Nelson - I can memorize a deck of cards in just under 30 seconds. I've memorized about 20 packs of cards in an hour. About a thousand digit number and half an hour

Katie - Sorry, a thousand digits? Yeah.

Katie - How long does it even take to say a 1000 digits?

Nelson - Well in the competition we’re just writing them down, but yeah maybe 15 minutes?

Katie - Now I wasn't just going to take Nelson's word for it. I wanted him to prove it. Not 1000 digits. Let's just say 20. On the spot, I cooked up 20 digits and asked him to relay them back to me, so how did he do? Forwards backwards. He got it spot on. Now that's all very well but Nelson’s a memory champ. So what can us normal folk do to remember things better?

Well Nelson told me about a few tips he says you can use to remember pretty much anything. There are different permutations but they're all essentially based on his so-called see-link-go method; visualize an image, link it to something and then make it ridiculous. First up Nelson helped me with a phone number I'd been struggling to commit to memory.

Nelson - A very simple way to see the numbers in something called the number shape system or number rhyme system. So every digit between 0 and 9, if you're going the numbers shape route, you come up with a picture for what the number looks like. So 0 the first number to me I categorize zeros as anything of circle shape like a ball or a disc or a plate. Whatever comes to mind something circular you can just picture that image. And then the next number is 2. I categorize that as something that kind of looks like a bird, a swan sitting on a lake.

So what you do is you have all these images and you want to link them. So if you start with an image of a ball, so maybe you’re playing football. You try to hit a penalty kick and you hit a swan that was flying across the goal line. It flies out like a boomerang and loops back around. So you see, you’re making a story where you start with soccerball 0, hit a swan, 2, and turns into a boomerang, 7. Then you can apply this continuous process to all with digits to really make a memorable story.

Katie - A rather weird but certainly memorable tale! Nelson also let me in on the fun method he used to remember the number I gave him earlier on.

Nelson - I was using a system where I can group every four digits into one consolidated image so that means I have a system where every four digits means something very specific and that's something I’ve pre-learned. But for example the first fpur digits that you told me were 2 3 7 9 which is Jesus Christ playing football.

Katie - There is a method in the madness. Nelson links the number to an equivalent letter in the alphabet. So one is A two is B etc.. So 23 is B C that's how he gets to Jesus then 7 9, if you tweak the system a little bit is G N which in his head is Gary Neville. Character plus action equals Jesus Christ playing football.

So stepping back a bit, let's apply this general see-link-go method to say my shopping list. Item 1 cheese.

Nelson - So maybe the cheese is rotting. You even maybe taste it and it just makes you distgusted. It smells out the whole room, so that could be a more detailed picture. What was the next thing on your list?

Katie - Breakfast cereal.

Nelson - OK so then in a similar way I mean this would be the linking method, that is you take that gross mouldy cheese and you kind of sprinkle it all over your cereal. Maybe you feed it to your child and you can just imagine their face.

Katie - So similarly we're creating a sequence of events to enable us to remember our shopping list?

Nelson - Yeah and another way to do that - it’s called the memory palace technique. Instead of weaving into a story, you could actually use your house or some familiar place to attach the images along a path.

Katie - So how easy is this to do? With the help of a few willing co-workers, we put the method to the test. First up Izzie Clarke employed the memory palace technique on her work to do list and Adam Murphy use Nelson's technique of associating groups of four digits with characters doing actions to memorize Phi, the golden ratio. So how did they get on? Let's start with Izzie?

Izzie - Okay say my microwave is broken and I'm in my kitchen and there's an engineer there fixing that so that's to remind me that I need to look after a Naked Engineering podcast today. And then I walk in to our downstairs kitchen, brush my teeth and that is because I need to find something to do with a teeth show that is coming up. And then once I've cleaned my teeth I walk into the living room and the news is on, this is live news. That's to remind me that I need to find a live news guest for the show. I go up the stairs, pick up a newspaper because that's where we leave everything. Oh and that is to remember or that I need to publish an article on the website, and then as I walk up into my room and that engineer has a question for me and that's to remind me that I need to do question of the week”

Katie - Where Izzie got full marks for hers. Let's see how Adam got on with remembering his 20 digits.

Adam - So the first one is Michael Collins letting out a girlish scream, because Michael Collins was a revolutionary in 1916, so first two numbers 1 6 and then 18 because that A and H so ahhhhhh! So the next one was a fat cat who was going to the optician's, 3 is a C and that’s cat, and  0 is a big fat number so fat cat,  at the optician's C I because that’s what you at an optician's you see an eye! The next one was Hulk Hogan having a wrestling match with God, because Hulk Hogan is H.H. and then 7 4 is G D so God. Then the next one was - this was the hard one because I can barely remember 98 is the next two because I couldn't come up with a thing for it.

Katie -  Okay so that hasn’t quite worked on that part - let’s skip past it.

Adam - But whatever that thing was it was trying to drink because the next two is 9 4 which is I D and the last one was George Orwell going to town on a bucket of ice cream because 19 84 and then 82 is H.B. which is a brand of ice cream.


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