The ravings of a memory champion

The bizarre scenarios that helped turn Swede Jonas von Essen into the world memory champion

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2014. Illustration by Stephen Cheetham)

It’s a summer’s day and a cool breeze is blowing across Gothenburg’s Liseberg amusement park. By the iconic wooden rollercoaster, Dolly Parton is juggling laser swords, while just down the walkway Sherlock Holmes is licking a puddle of vomit. Beside the botanical gardens, a giant fish is transforming itself into a gun, while nearby Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović is eating a toilet.

These may sound like the imaginings of a madman, but they are the images Swede Jonas von Essen used to win the World Memory Championship last December. The 22-year-old from Gothenburg, who is studying to be a maths teacher, beat the German world number one Johannes Mallow (aka “The Human Hard Disk”) over three days of events, ranging from remembering random lists of words to matching names and faces, and memorising as many numbers in an hour as possible. In becoming champion, von Essen achieved the competition’s highest ever score.

Among other feats, von Essen memorised more than 24 decks of cards in an hour, and recalled 3,841 binary digits in half an hour – helped by Dolly, Sherlock, Zlatan and co. “I want the images to be memorable, but also to have some meaning,” he explains. “For example, I imagine that Zlatan is sponsored by a toilet company, and that they’ve sent him a toilet cake he has to eat; or the fish is turning into a gun to get revenge on the fishermen who killed his friends.”

So what exactly is going on in von Essen’s head?

Almost all memory competitors use a technique called the Method of Loci, or Memory Palace technique, a system that was developed 2,500 years ago by the Greek poet Simonides, who is said to have first used the technique to identify the guests killed when the roof fell in at a banquet he was attending. As explained by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein, his brilliantly entertaining book about “memory athletes”, the Memory Palace is a building or physical space that you walk through in your mind, placing images that relate to the things you have to memorise.

For von Essen’s 3,841 binary digits, he used seven memory palaces, including Liseberg amusement park, his cousin’s house and the Gothenburg Book Fair. As he walked through, he would place different scenarios in order through the memory palaces, which represent 18 binary digits each, converted into decimal. Zlatan is number 16 (001 and 110 in binary), eating is number 45, and a toilet is number 08 – so Zlatan eating a toilet stands for 164508 (or 001110100101001000).

All memory competitors (read Foer’s book to hear about the weird and wonderful characters involved) insist that anyone can learn this technique, an idea borne out by a 2002 study at University College London (UCL) that showed memory champions are made, not born. “My memory was nothing special, and it still isn’t,” says von Essen, who says he routinely forgets his keys and even doctors’ appointments.

Von Esssen only started learning the techniques two years ago, after seeing a book in the library, Memo by Norwegian Oddbjørn By. “I guess the difference between me and a lot of people is that I didn’t just read the book, I really tried to use it. If you go to memory competitions, you get this amazing range of very different people, but I think what they share is a certain curiosity.”

Von Essen improved fast. “Once I realised, ‘Hey I can do this,’ my goal was to become the Swedish champion. When I started beating most of the Swedish records, it dawned on me that I was becoming one of the best in the world.”

But a key question is whether a good memory is even a benefit in these post-Google days. Foer argues that, with the inventions of the alphabet, printing presses, cameras and finally computers, it’s become gradually easier for humans to externalise memories, to the point where it seems we don’t need them any more. In a TEDTalk, he described it as “outsourcing our memories to technology”.

Particularly in the Western world, education has moved away from memory – in a time when students take exams with spell-checks, calculators and often reference books, learning by rote has become old-fashioned.

While not endorsing a return to rote-learning, Foer argues that everyone can benefit from memory training, and that it fires rather than hinders the imagination – something von Essen agrees with.

“The internet is making us more stupid,” he says, “because the information is being stored outside of our minds. If you really want to use information, it’s vital to actually get it in your brain, where it comes alive. It’s the mash-up in your head that’s interesting, and which allows you to come up with new thoughts and new ideas.”

In more practical terms, von Essen says he has become more confident – he can remember peoples’ names, and knows what he has to say in interviews for jobs or with inflight magazines. “Learning memory techniques has made my mind more effective,” he says. “It’s easier to separate the bits of information in your head and to find the things that you want.”

It has also taught him to open his eyes – on most holidays, he’ll remember things and use them as potential memory palaces, whether hotel rooms or walks through the city. He has one, from a trip to London, that goes through Buckingham Palace, into the palace gardens and past souvenir shops on the way to Victoria station. He admits, though, that his memory places aren’t always 100 per cent accurate – “Sometimes I’ll go back to the real place and it’ll look quite different.”

Either way, what he’s doing when he remembers makes him look less like a human calculator, and more like someone who’s learned to develop his imagination. That 2002 UCL study took 10 memory champions and 10 people with “normal” memories, and found that the former group had no superior intellectual capabilities – what they did find, however, was that the champions had taught themselves to use parts of their brain more effectively, especially the area of the hippocampus used for spatial navigation. The same researchers found similar results in London taxi drivers, who have to remember every road in London, and the fastest route between any two destinations.

The taxi drivers learn to see spaces and roads as living entities, packed with associations – they seem to assign the roads with meanings and then process them, just like Jonas von Essen does when he imagines that Sherlock Holmes is tasting a puddle of vomit to figure out who puked (number 640242, in case you were wondering).

Because, let’s face it, 164508 is quite hard to remember; and the image of Sweden’s greatest footballer chowing down on a toilet is quite hard to forget. Jonas von Essen’s no genius, he’s merely learned a way to let his mind do its own thing.

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