In 2009 Wang Feng joined a memory club at Wuhan University, where he studied land resource management. He was curious, he says, whether he could improve his memory through training, which at the time was “very average”. His teacher in the memory club is a memory Grand Master, and under his guidance Wang Feng made rapid progress. In just two weeks, he had surpassed other members of the club who had been training for many months. Just 7 months after starting, the 2009 World Memory Championships were held in London, and Wang Feng’s final score ranked him 5th place. The following year, when the competition was held in Guangzhou, China, Wang Feng took first place. He won the competition again in 2011, breaking world records in three of the ten memory disciplines at the event.
Wang Feng specializes in remembering numbers. Five of the event’s ten contests are related to numbers, “So if I want to be the champion, I have to be good with numbers,” he says. In one hour, he successfully memorized 2,660 random digits, one of his world records. He can’t explain why he is better so much better than others, “I guess I’m just really devoted to the training, or my accuracy is better.” He spends three months training intensively before a competition, following a strict daily schedule, waking at 7 and sleeping at 11. He also pays attention to food and exercise, “I eat more fish, nuts, and milk, which benefit the brain, and do aerobic exercise, which help also helps.”
That’s not to say that Wang Feng’s home is filled with almonds and treadmills. In memory training, there is no substitute for simple, time-consuming practice. The basic strategy that Wang Feng uses is not fundamentally different from that used by others, he says – he’s just adapted the well-known techniques for himself, and for the Chinese language that he operates in. The building blocks, as described in books like “The Art of Memory” by Frances Yates, are to convert things like numbers, and the order of playing cards, into information easily remembered by our brains.
The bread and butter of contemporary mnemonics is a technique known as the ‘method of loci’. Because our minds are well suited to remembering locations, the mnemonist first visualizes the thing to be remembered, then puts it into a discrete place, in a familiar location. To remember a shopping list, one puts the cheese on the bed, and some bread by the heater, perhaps some asparagus in the doorway. When the time comes to recall the list, one must simply take a walk through the location, and the items will easily be remembered.
Part of the training for Wang Feng is preparing these locations, getting to know them intimately in his mind. Another part is associating numbers with images. It won’t do to put an 8 on the bed or a 2 on the floor – the information must first be converted into imagery. A common technique, and the one Wang Feng employs, is to create a unique image for every 2 digit number, from 00 to 99. Wang Feng tends to use a number’s Chinese pronunciation to generate his imagery – 49 sounds like a convict sentenced to death in Chinese, and 19 is medicinal alcohol – which are much more memorable items to have around your room than random digits.
But even with a memory as impressive as Wang Feng’s, the technique has to be ‘turned on’, to be consciously used in order to be effective. Even he can forget a name, or where he left his keys, if he’s distracted. It doesn’t work automatically.
After winning the championship two years in a row, Wang Feng says he’s satisfied with his competitive ability and is ready to focus on teaching others the technique. He has his own students now, and is helping some of them to compete in the 2012 WMC, which will be held in India. He graduated from Wuhan University this year, and has been traveling to different Chinese cities to give lectures at schools, to demonstrate the technique and teach it to others. He says there’s a big demand for memory training in China, “A lot of people could use it to prepare for tests,” he says.
In the age of Google and Baidu, we have unimaginable amounts of information at our fingertips. Some may argue that we’ve reached a stage in human history where we don’t need to train our memories. There techniques were developed by monks and scholars in the time before the printing press, but Wang Feng and many others are pushing to bring some of the work of remembering back to our minds. With the deluge of data most of us process in a day, we sometimes become lazy, and our minds and memories suffer.
Those looking to train their minds, the way many of us train our bodies, would do well to try a bit of memory training.
Want to try mnemonics for yourself? Here’s a few resources.
official site of the world memory championships
Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
The Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates