Nelson Dellis

Backstage Pass: Sharpening Our Minds with USA Memory Champion Nelson Dellis

Nelson Dellis can memorize two decks of cards—104 cards, to be clear—in just five minutes.  In the same amount of time, he memorized 193 digits, in order.  It’s this unique set of skills that have made Dellis a champion—a three-time USA Memory Champion, to be exact.  Dellis is a regular on the memory championships circuit, although, he admits, “it’s not a huge sport, as you can imagine.”  And while most people are unlikely to become as skilled as Dellis, he’s recruiting others, including the Chicago Ideas Week Edison Talks crowd, to start sharpening their minds through daily practice and simple memory tricks.

Nelson Dellis

Prior to competitions, Nelson Dellis completes four to five hours worth of memory exercises per day.

My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and she passed away in 2009.  Seeing her get worse over the years took a toll on me and my family.  The fact that it was memory made me think if I could do something right now to make my own brain health better when I get that age, then [I should].

So, where did you start?

One of the first things I found was this USA Memory Championship.  That was a really cool place to focus on and train and learn these techniques and set up the drills I do every day.

What are these memory championships like?  Do you all get into a room and swap memory tips?

All the tips are pretty much the same.  There are some strategies that someone come up with that will make, say, memorizing a deck of cards easier or faster.  No one is afraid to share that stuff.  What it comes down to is, how long did you practice? Who spent the most time sitting on your ass?

It’s the nicest competitive atmosphere…because they know you have to practice for a year to get good at it.

What does it feel like to do these memory drills every day?  Is it like your form of meditation?

I feel like when I’m memorizing, it’s this place where I go.  I go away to a mental memory palace, which is a childhood home or my favorite park or whatever.  It’s just five or ten minutes of just focusing on one thing.  That’s kind of a meditation.  I have to block out everything and focus and be in this fantastical world in my head.

Did you have a kind of innate faith early on that doing all of these tricks would strengthen your memory? Did you have any inkling how good you would become?

No.  Of course, I was very skeptical.  I heard about the things these guys do at these competitions.  I thought it has to be guys who just are gifted, even though they say they aren’t.  I read one of the memory champion’s books.  And I tried these exercises.  And I thought, “OK, this is actually possible.  I can see how this could become faster, and this could become easier.”

OK, but how many hours a day do you have to spend to get as good as you are?

Leading up to a big competition, maybe four or five hours a day.

Are there advantages to your super memory that seep into your day-to-day life? 

I find that because I’m aware of memory and I’m always thinking about it, I’m better at remembering to remember.  Things like placing your keys or just keeping track of things that are often forgotten because of distractions.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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