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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Memory Athletes Discuss Memory Palace Technique; Neuroscientists Study Practice of Memory Improvement. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired September 23, 2017 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:16] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you ever wonder how good your memory really is? How much do you worry about losing your memory? A lot of people are concerned about this. What can you do about it?

This is "Vital Signs." I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

We are at the historic Swan House which is also the perfect memory palace, as you're about to learn. We're going to start with someone who arguably has a super memory. He wasn't always this way. So how did he do it? And what can we all learn from him?

NELSON DELLIS, MEMORY CHAMPION: Ten of hearts. Queen of spades. King of diamonds.

GUPTA: This is the 2014 U.S. memory championships. Two competitors remain, and they are reciting back a deck of cards from memory.

DELLIS: Five of spades.

GUPTA: On the left is Nelson Dellis. He has won this competition four times. For him the motivation is personal. He lost his grandmother to Alzheimer's, a neurodegenerative disease that leads to memory loss, behavioral changes, and loss of language. There is no cure.

Do you remember the first time you noticed that she was having any kind of memory problems? What did you see?

DELLIS: Yes, I always go to this one memory. I mean, this was pretty late on. We were all having dinner and she just looks at me and doesn't really -- I can tell she doesn't know who I am. And she knows me, she loves me, and here is this person that's struggling to recognize me and place me. It's bizarre.

GUPTA: An avid mountain climber, Nelson was in Alaska when his grandmother died. He found out while checking his phone back at base camp.

DELLIS: And so that really hit me. And I had never had anybody close to me pass away. So I said to myself, you know, I don't want that to happen to me. And I don't know if that's something I can prevent, but I'm going to take what I've learned about memory and really go as hard as I can and prove to people that you know you can train your brain, and to myself as well. And that's when I went crazy with it.

GUPTA: Memories for facts and events are centered in our hippocampus deep in our brain. When your brain makes a memory, neurons form new connections in the cerebral cortex. To recall the memory those neurons reactivate. A study published last year calculated the brain can hold ten times more memories than we originally thought, the storage equivalent of the entire World Wide Web.

Researchers caution that memory training has not been proven to prevent or slow the effects of old age or dementia. For Nelson, who watched his grandmother suffer from Alzheimer's, flexing the brain like a muscles every day, though, is comforting. Here is how he does it. To memorize things like names and faces, decks of cards, or random digits, Nelson uses the technique known as the memory or mind palace, a practice of visualization that dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. And if you've watched popular TV shows like "Sherlock" on the BBC, you've probably heard of it.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get out. I need to go to my mind palace.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His mind palace. It is a memory technique, sort of a mental map.

GUPTA: Most memory athletes do use this technique. Visualize a place you know well, like your dining room. As you walk through it in your mind, you place images there associated with what you are trying on to remember. Then when you revisit that place by visualizing it again, the associations and therefore the memories should be there.

I wanted to try it myself. So we found a physical representation of a memory palace, the Swan House here in Atlanta. Built in 1928, this grand home has been beautifully preserved. And you might recognize it from movies like the "Hunger Games."

GUPTA: So is this a pretty good place for your memory palace?

DELLIS: Yes, this is the perfect memory palace just because it's got so many different things of interest that you can attach things to.

GUPTA: So let's do presidents.


GUPTA: Sort of in the middle.

DELLIS: Yes. And so what we need to do before we start memorizing is kind of choose our path or the things we are going to anchor the images to. So when I walk through these memory palaces I have things called anchor points or locations. And that's where you actually imagine the image for the thing you are memorizing on. Those can be pieces of furniture, corners of rooms, whatever. We are here at this first location, and we are going to start with the 25th president. Do you know who he is, by any chance?

GUPTA: McKinley.

DELLIS: You could maybe think of Mount McKinley which is the tallest peak in the United States. I just say that because that's an easy thing to picture is a huge mountain in Alaska.

[14:35:04] GUPTA: Right.

DELLIS: Right. So on this door what I want you to picture is, and we can do this a few ways, is maybe we open up the doors and there is this beautiful vista of the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley. And maybe you open that door, and we really want to add a lot of color to it, that blast of cold air Alaskan air just gets you chilled and snow flies in, and you can just imagine being enveloped by the snow and the cold.

So we move on to the next location. And that's going to be Teddy Roosevelt. When I think of Teddy Roosevelt, I think of a teddy bear. That's quick and easy. And so what we'll picture is a big cuddly teddy bear sitting on this rustic historic table, OK? Now we move over to the globe here.

GUPTA: The globe is President Taft. For this one, picture a giant raft floating on the oceans of the globe, a raft, which rhymes with Taft. Next up, this grandfather clock for Wilson. Why? A bright Wilson tennis ball came to mind for me, so picture yourself smashing it through that clock face. Finally in this room, the sofa for Harding. Instead of a comfy couch, imagine that sofa is rock hard, hard for Harding. Those are U.S. presidents 25 through 29. Stick around because we're going to test out my memory and yours at the end of the show.

Do you apply these techniques even subconsciously in your everyday life?

DELLIS: Yes. Yes, it's just become something I love to do and that I kind of do it automatically. It doesn't mean I always remember things. But it does mean that I'm always thinking in images.

Five of hearts.

GUPTA: Remember the video from those 2014 memory championships? Nelson is on the left. And that's Alex Mullen on the right. He holds the world record in speed cards. And you won't believe it until you see it, next.


[14:40:51] GUPTA: Thursday evening, Hershey, Pennsylvania. This pizza restaurant is filled with kids. But they aren't eating. They're memorizing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, you guys ready? GUPTA: This is the Hershey high school memory team, and this is their

final practice before the U.S. high school memory championships in two days. This restaurant, full of distractions, is the perfect place to work on focus.

COLETTE SILVESTRI, TEACHER, GIFTED AND ENRICHMENT SUPPORT, HERSEY HIGH SCHOOL: They said, are you teaching memory or what are you teaching? I said, well, focus. And I stopped for a second. And I said, I don't know if I'm teaching memory or focus. And what is the difference between the two? So I think focus is the almost preparation of the brain to accept data and reflect, and memory is the recall.

Time. Keep your cards in order.

GUPTA: Collette Silvestri runs the memory team. She has been doing it for 11 years, and she believes that teaching memory should be a priority for every school.

SILVESTRI: When I first came in, usually I'm at other high schools, they had only juniors and seniors. And I at that time had gifted all the way down to eighth grade. And this one kid, can I try the course? Let him try the course. So I looked at that, and I thought about it, why not start them young and see what happens? Some of them have noticed their focus is better on tests. They can sit through the homework, through it all. So it increases attention span.

I was fascinated, their scores doubled per year. That's a lot. So even if they were challenged students, all their grades increased. And they learned how to study, even if they were like, you know, they needed help. That surprised me. So from the most challenged to the most talented, everybody's memory increased. And that's why I stuck with it.

GUPTA: Tuan is a sophomore at Hershey and an early favorite to do well in Saturday's competition.

TUAN BUI, 10TH GRADER, HERSHEY HIGH SCHOOL: I'm more nervous than excited. There's going to be a lot of big competers there. In school, I have used memory to help me remember, like, formulas in science and math. And I've create mnemonic devices and other such things. And it has helped me on tests and stuff.

SILVESTRI: Apparently, the country likes it as a sport, but I'm praying they start looking at the research of the brain. I'll tell you what, it is far more fascinating now than computers. I'm shocked at the beauty of the mental capacity. You can actually train memory. We all know you can improve it, but to see an Alex Mullen memorizing a deck of cards in under 17 seconds.

GUPTA: Alex Mullen has burst on to the memory scene over the last few years. He's also a firm believer that these memory techniques aren't just for show but can help change the way we learn.

ALEX MULLEN, MEMORY CHAMPION: I felt like I didn't really have a very good memory. I was doing things in school and forgetting things, getting frustrated. And so I picked up this book called "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer that talks about memory competitions and memory techniques, and that's really what hooked me. I started to practice memorizing silly things like numbers and decks of cards. It kind of just hooked me. I mean, it is hard to describe but it became an obsession for me.

CATHY MULLEN: I remember when he first started doing it. I thought it was hilarious. Alex actually had a really bad memory in daily life. And I feel I can say that because I'm his wife.

GUPTA: Alex and his wife, Cathy, are both medical students in Jackson, Mississippi. They took a year off to focus on memory. Alex became both a U.S. and world memory champion. When he returns to medical school this summer, he plans to use these techniques to help him study and learn.

ALEX MULLEN: My ability to come up with associations like that has definitely gotten better. I didn't consider myself to be a really creative person, and so I was worried about my ability to make associations. But it's definitely something that with practice you get better at. You get more creative. And it's very easy for me to think of things like that now.

GUPTA: He's a world record holder in speed cards, memorizing a shuffled deck of 52 cards in under 17 seconds. He's going to give us a demo, and we're going to show him memorizing this deck in real time because it is that fast.

[14:45:25] ALEX MULLEN: Usually you get five minutes to recall the deck, so I'll just start with that. So we're going to flip these cards over and see if the two decks match. All right, that's a good sign.

CATHY MULLEN: That's awesome!

GUPTA: He nailed it in under 15 seconds. How? Each pair of cards represents a sound. He translates the sound into a word and then places it mentally into a memory palace.

ALEX MULLEN: For that deck, I used the row house that I used to live in my third and fourth years of college in Baltimore. So for every event, I usually use a handful of different memory palaces. And so that's one of my speed cards palaces I use. I started basically on a street in front of the row house. And I see this opened can of jam. So each two cards for me becomes one image. This is like an open can of jam. I'm just sort of like smearing it on the bumper of a car out front. That was the first image. And then this next one, there's kind of a little tree in our front yard. And so this is like an electric razor.

GUPTA: You're probably look at this -- I know I am -- and thinking, there's no way I could do that. But memory athletes like Alex and Nelson have always said there's nothing special about their brains or their memories, that anyone can do this. And now science is on their side.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [14:50:14] GUPTA: In the Netherlands, Boris Konrad sits down with a deck of cards and memorizes them. He's a top ranked memory athlete. He's also a neuroscientist.

BORIS KONRAD, NEUROSCIENTIST, DONDERS INSTITUTE: We all want to have a healthy brain through all of our lives. And as the field of neuroscientific research shows us, the memories that used is the memories that stays. If you don't challenge your own brain, you don't challenge your own memory, the risk to get dementia or other diseases also increases.

GUPTA: Boris works at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands with fellow neuroscientist Martin Dresler. Their latest study, to understand the brains of memory athletes.

MARTIN DRESLER, NEUROSCIENTIST, DONDERS INSTITUTE: So we were interested in what makes a memory athlete on the neurobiological level. So we do know that they use certain strategies but we don't know what happens in their brains.

GUPTA: The study enrolled 23 top ranked memory athletes, including Boris. He helped design a regimen for the participants to train like the athletes do for 30 minutes a day for six weeks. There was also a control group. The brains of all three groups were then examined through a series of MRIs.

KONRAD: You can do a lot of different things. First is we looked at their brain structure. We could see that by size of brain and even the size of different brain regions did not differ to a control group. We looked at activation during tasks, which part of the brain gets more active when you use such memory technique.

DRESLER: And we were surprised that the brain's structure actually doesn't differ that much from normal people. So there isn't any single structure, any single connection that really stuck out.

The researchers found that over the course of six weeks the brains of the newcomers to memory training began to resemble the memory athletes, meaning this may not be a special talent we are born with but one that we can train our brains to do.

KONRAD: What's hard for us to remember is names, textbooks, it's all the stuff the memory isn't good at, which is normally not visual directly. The technique they use make it visual. So at the end they don't actually improve their memory capacity. It's already there. They just find ways to use the usual memory to store normally much harder to memorize information which normally doesn't go in there.

GUPTA: Back in Hershey, it is competition day for these high school memory athletes. Nerves are running high for students like sophomore Tuan Bui. He is excited to meet four-time champ Nelson Dellis.

DELLIS: These kids are super lucky to have teachers who know about it, who are creating clubs and afterschool classes for them to practice and learn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, let's get this competition start. Rachel, will you get the timer running?


GUPTA: Among the crowd here is Robert Ajemian from MIT in Boston. Like Martin and Boris in the Netherlands, he recognized a gap in the research.

ROBERT AJEMIAN, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, MIT: The problem is there is no scientific explanation for why that happens. So my interest has been trying to figure out not that this works, which has been known since the time of the ancient Greeks, but why does it work?

What excites me about this is that this is the biggest behavioral phenomenon that I've ever seen where anybody can do a minimal amount of training, say a half an hour a day for two to three months, and all of a sudden you can do things like memorize the order of cards in a deck of cards that you would have sworn were not possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What they are going to get is a person's name. A guest comes up on stage, gives their name. They will then give their date of birth.

GUPTA: The day long competition is a true test of stamina. The weekly practices and focus training at the pizza restaurant paid off. Hershey High takes home the team championship. And Tuan wins second in the individual competition, a great showing for the 10th grader.

BUI: In my brain I'm like, yes, I did it. Like, I actually did it. And the overwhelming part of my brain is like, I want to sleep.

GUPTA: It is a proud moment for Colette, as well, who will continue to push to see memory techniques incorporated into the classroom.

SILVESTRI: The kids are all good. They're all good generation after generation. That's pretty cool.

GUPTA: So the kids passed the test. And back at the swan house in Atlanta, it's time to see if we can remember those five U.S. presidents in order. No cheating.

All right, so let's start. I would have never remembered what I'm hopefully about to recall without this, I will say that for sure. I see these doors and I see that Mount McKinley, I see the snow, feel it. It's cold. Open the doors and get that fresh air. So that's McKinley.

DELLIS: Perfect.

GUPTA: All right, move on over here, images, grateful dead, purple teddy bear, sitting there, standing there starting to take some drinks out of those containers, those cups. So that's Teddy Roosevelt.

[14:55:13] DELLIS: Very good. Yes.

GUPTA: The next thing is my eye is drawn to this next thing over here, is going to be the globe. DELLIS: Yes.

GUPTA: And that globe has a big raft on it.


GUPTA: It's a big wooden raft. It's maybe in the oceans there on the globe. But that raft means Taft.

DELLIS: Taft, that's right. Yes.

GUPTA: This one I love. This one I love because Nelson and I both have a destructive sort of personality, perhaps. But I see a big yellow Wilson tennis ball and someone slamming it and that grandfather clock takes a hit. That's Wilson.

DELLIS: Very good. Cool.

GUPTA: And then this sofa, as inviting as it looks, is actually hard and made of cement, and hard leads me to Harding.

DELLIS: There you go, perfect, five for five.

GUPTA: Nelson says this will stick with us for a while, especially if we practice recalling it a couple times over the next few weeks. In six months or even a year, it should still be there.

From Nelson to speedster Alex Mullen to the scientists examining why and how this all works as well as the kids and educators who find such joy in pushing their brains to the limit, it's been a fascinating journey into memory and the mind.