Imagine you’re at dinner with friends and you’ve just been introduced to the person next to you. Would you remember their name?
Before she began to train her memory, Australian memory champion Anastasia Woolmer says she would have had no chance.
She worried that she had a shoddy memory in general.
“At school, I was always the kid who didn’t feel like I picked up the information, to an extent where I didn’t even try because I was just completely away with the fairies,” she says.
So, how did she go from “away with the fairies” to becoming one of Australia’s top memory athletes?
Inspired by a book
Ms Woolmer says her path to a magnificent memory began when her husband brought home a book called Moonwalking with Einstein, written by journalist Jonathan Foer.
The book was about memory competitions — where people battle to see who can remember the longest strings of random numbers or shuffled playing cards.
“I definitely didn’t think that [memory] was something that you could change. And in fact, even when I first heard about it, I was a little sceptical,” Ms Woolmer says.
In the book, the author trains his own memory and eventually wins a memory competition in the United States.
Ms Woolmer decided to take on the challenge for herself — devising a training plan where she would drill different memory techniques each day.
“I kind of set myself this little secret goal, which I didn’t really tell anyone about because I was too nervous about it, but, I’m going to become the best in Australia at this,” she says.
“So I was pretty intense about it.”
What are these memory techniques?
One of the more popular techniques employed by those who train their memory is known as a “memory palace”.
The day I lost my mind
Just over a year ago, I lost my memory. Not just for a minute, but for an entire day. What happened and why remains a total mystery to me.
This is a visualisation technique that leverages the human brain’s remarkable ability to remember vivid imagery and locations, says La Trobe University researcher and author Dr Lynne Kelly.
“The neuroscience is very strong that the human brain will naturally link anything to a place.
“The two things that are stored deep in the hippocampus are any link to place and to music.
“That’s why you’ll find people, even with advanced dementia, will respond to music that’s familiar from their youth or places.”
A very basic memory palace might involve memorising a short list of words — pineapple, motorcycle, coffee.
To do so, you’d attach a surprising image of each of those things to points of interest in a location you know well — like your kitchen at home.
So you might imagine a pineapple dancing on your fridge, a motorcycle zipping around your microwave and coffee spraying from the tap in your sink.
Dr Kelly says this builds off our strong natural memory for place — for example, you know without thinking where the spoons are kept in your kitchen, and you most likely remember the layout of your childhood home without too much effort.
With practice, people can memorise abstract concepts and recall lists of hundreds of items on topics ranging from language vocabulary to history.
One memory palace Dr Kelly has built contains the countries of the world and their capitals, ordered by population.
“I did the countries to test the system. And I started doing it and just got astonished with what I could do,” she says.
She’s since built other memory palaces containing vocabulary for French and Mandarin, world history, and the periodic table.
Put to the test
After training for several months using memory palaces, mnemonics and other techniques, Ms Woolmer decided to test her newfound memory abilities by competing in the Australian Memory Championship in 2016.
This involved battling through categories like “five-minute numbers”— recalling a list of as many numbers as you can, in order, after being given five minutes to memorise them.
Another category was “names and faces” — how many names you can put to faces after being shown each once before.
Ms Woolmer soon began to pull to the front of the pack of memory athletes.
By the end of the day, she’d become an Australian memory champion and the first woman to win the competition.
“It was interesting and nice … I have been enjoying memory sports ever since, although these days I tend to tend to enjoy applying it to things that I want to learn in real life instead,” she says.
On top of her finance job, she trains all kinds of clients on how to improve their memory: actors, law students, dancers, coders, bus drivers; even a scrabble champion.
And she says learning these new skills has totally changed her sense of self.
“If I want to learn something or I want to go into a situation where I need to learn something to succeed at it, I can,” she says.
Dr Lynne Kelly, who is also a senior Australian memory champion, says while modern technology has replaced much of the need to keep things memorised, experimenting with memory techniques can have unexpected benefits.
“If you want to start playing with your ideas and becoming creative, you need them in memory and you need different ideas from different places in order to see things differently from the way everybody else has,” she says.