Memory sport, sometimes referred to as competitive memory or the mind sport of memory, refers to competitions in which participants attempt to memorize then recall different forms of information, under certain guidelines. The sport has been formally developed since 1991 and features national and international championships. The primary worldwide organizational bodies are the IAM (International Association of Memory) and WMSC (World Memory Sports Council).
In response to a conspicuous rivalry between two challengers to the same Guinness Book Record, Memory Sports Promotion and Control Ltd., (Company number 3548879) was incorporated on 6 April 1998, by the invigilators Dr Peter Marshall and Ms Anne Perrett. The company operated under the business name The Word Memory Sports Association.
One common type of competition involves memorizing the order of randomized cards in as little time as possible, after which the competitor is required to arrange new decks of cards in the same order.
Mnemonic techniques are generally considered to be a necessary part of competition, and are improved through extensive practice. These can include the method of loci, the use of mnemonic linking and chunking, or other techniques for storage and retrieval of information.
Techniques for training memory are discussed as far back as ancient Greece, and formal memory training was long considered an important part of basic education known as the art of memory. However, the development of trained memorization into a sport is only a development of the late 20th century, and even then has remained relatively limited in scope. The first worldwide competition was held as the World Memory Championships in 1991, and has been held again in every year since, with the exception of 1992.
Following the establishment of the World Memory Championships in 1991, national competitions have been set up in more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., India, Germany, UK, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, and the Philippines, among others. An up-to-date list of competitions can be found at the International Association of Memory statistics website.
In 2016, due to the dispute between players and the WMSC (World Memory Sports Council), most of the organizations except China and Arabia withdrew from the WMSC and launched the IAM (International Association of Memory). Beginning in 2017, both organizations hosted their own world championships.
The Guild of Mnemonists Ltd was incorporated 6 April 1998, Company number 03541058, to foster communication and technique sharing as well as to develop ethical controls for competitions and guaranteed standards in memory training courses. The Guild has since ceased to function.
Competitors describe numerous methods and techniques for improving their memorization skills, with some having published and named their specific methods. These include, for instance, the Mnemonic dominic system, named after former World Champion Dominic O'Brien, the Mnemonic major system, as well as the Person-Action-Object System which involves encoding cards and numbers into sequences of persons, actions, and objects. These methods are sometimes referred to as "mnemotechnics".
Dominic O'Brien's Dominic System is a powerful memorizing strategy that combines both traditional and innovative techniques. These include techniques like assigning easily remembered people to unmeaningful things such as numbers, and more known techniques like the memory palace.
Joshua Foer has written, "Though every competitor has his own unique method of memorization for each event, all mnemonic techniques are essentially based on the concept of elaborative encoding, which holds that the more meaningful something is, the easier it is to remember."
Sanctioned memory competitions comply with one of four formats for competition depending on the level. At the World Championship, all ten disciplines are conducted at maximum timing, while at other international competitions some disciplines are shortened to a 30-minute format. As the competitions become more regional, some disciplines are cut while others are shortened.
Decks of playing cards at the World Memory Championships
According to the World Memory Championship Competitors Handbook, the ten disciplines are as follows:
Names and Faces - “Memorize and recall as many names as possible and link them to the right face.”
Binary Numbers - “Memorize and recall as many binary digits as possible.”
Random Numbers - “Memorize as many random digits as possible, in complete rows of 40 digits, and recall them perfectly.”
Abstract Images - “Memorize and recall the sequence of abstract images in as many rows as possible.”
Speed Numbers - “Memorize as many random digits as quickly as possible, in complete rows of 40 digits, and recall them perfectly.”
Historic/Future Dates - “Memorize as many numerical historic/future dates as possible and to link them to the correct fictional event.”
Random Cards - “Memorize and recall as many separate packs (decks) of 52 playing cards as possible.”
Random Words - “Memorize as many random words in complete columns of 20 as possible and recall them perfectly.”
Spoken Number - “Listen to, memorize, and recall as many spoken numbers as possible.”
Speed Cards - “Memorize and recall a single pack of 52 playing cards in the shortest possible time.
In addition to the traditional competitions organized by the World Memory Sports Council or International Association of Memory, memory athletes often compete at alternative-format competitions. These include the Memory League Championships (formerly the Extreme Memory Tournament), Memoriad, and the MAA Memo Games.
Other types of memory competitions may not feature timed events. For instance, records for the memorization of π (known as piphilology) have been recorded since the 1970s, with the current record holder having produced from memory more than 70,000 digits.
Memory sport continues to have its records broken rapidly. A recent world speed record for memorizing a deck of cards was 12.74 seconds, held by Shijir-Erdene Bat-Enkh of Mongolia. A recent world record for the most digits memorized in five minutes was 572, held by Andrea Muzii and Munkhshur Narmandakh. There are two different up-to-date lists of world and national records: 1. The International Association of Memory statistics website 2. The World Memory Sports Council Official Statistics website
The highest designation set up by the World Memory Sports Council, which organizes the World Memory Championships, is the Grand Master of Memory. Subclassifications include international grandmaster (IGM), grandmaster (GMM), and international master (IMM). As of November 2016, there are approximately 200 grandmasters in the world.
Researchers have looked to discover the differences between brains with superior memory and those with average memory both in structure and capabilities, and whether their capabilities are innate or developed. Some research has found that there are no fundamental differences between brains with superior memory and the average person. Instead many superior memorizers, like those in the World Memory Championships, use mnemonic learning strategies to practice preferential engagement of areas of the brain such as the hippocampus and the medial parietal and retrosplenial cortices which allows them to store and access more information in their working memory.
However, other research into the causal factors of superior memory found that such performance could derive from either the practice of mnemonic strategies or in some cases a natural superiority in memory efficiency. The research also concluded that for those with regular natural ability, the superior memory they gain from using mnemonic strategies is typically limited by the applicability of their strategy to the task at hand. However, users of mnemonic strategies often perform exceptionally well with “less meaningful materials such as numbers.”
Up-to-date world rankings can be found at the International Association of Memory statistics website.