U.S. memory champion Nelson Dellis shares his secrets for strengthening your mind

UPDATE: Dellis won his third U.S. Memory Championship title on Saturday. Original story begins below.


The 17th annual U.S. Memory Championship held in New York on Saturday is almost an anomaly in the age of disposable information and competitions built around who can eat the most hot dogs.

But two-time champion Nelson Dellis tells Yahoo News that the same routines he’s developed to become a memory champion work for all who want to improve their mental health.

“Over this past five years I’ve focused on four key areas: keeping my mind active, eating the right foods, being active in physical fitness and surrounding myself with a strong social circle of friends and family,” Dellis, 30, said.

He says there’s nothing magical to explain how he went from a mostly average young man to someone who can memorize an entire deck of cards in five minutes.

“It’s the same techniques but greater volume in terms of practice involved,” he said.

Competitors in the U.S. Memory Championship square off in four categories over the course of a roughly 10-hour day.

In the morning, the initial finalists are determined in a challenge to memorize names and faces. Contestants are asked to memorize a set of photos with attached names. They must then take only the names and correctly match them up with the corresponding photos. A single mistake can knock someone out of the competition.

In the second round, semifinalists are given five minutes to memorize a series of numbers that randomly generate on a computer screen. The contestants then rattle off the series of numbers until someone finally breaks. They’re also required to quickly memorize and recite poetry verses and dozens of words, and to recall personal information about a stranger.

After the field has been narrowed to three, the final contestants are given five minutes to memorize an entire deck of cards. The winner is determined after two finalists make a mistake in sequencing the deck.

Dellis, who is trying to recapture the title after a surprising loss last year, says he was inspired to sharpen his memory after watching his grandmother suffer through Alzheimer’s disease. He’s since used his celebrity from the memory championships and his mountain climbing hobby, to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s.

“I remind people that when I first started I was not very good. You have to start somewhere,” he said. “Since then, it’s been that joint message of doing this for your own health and to raise awareness for others.”

Dellis offers a practical list for anyone who wants improve memorization abilities. And it’s surprisingly old-school for someone who hasn’t even turned 30.

“Start by memorizing grocery lists, people you meet,” he said. “Eat a lot of foods rich in omega-3, like salmon or other fish. And remember that the brain is a pretty vascular organ, so being physically active is great for the memory.”

After Saturday’s competition, Dellis plans to write a book on developing memorization skills and is launching his own memory competition, “The Extreme Memory Tournament,” in San Diego this April. He won’t participate himself but instead wants to bring together past memory champions in a more audience-friendly competition.

“Everything will be head to head,” he said.

He’s less impressed by popular games and phone apps like Lumosity that promise to transform a person’s memory and cognitive abilities.

“I applaud their attempts to make it very approachable,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of other ways to do that. Their memory side of things isn’t very robust.”

“There’s so much information coming at us,” he said. “So many apps and devices that take everything our brain used to do. We’ve lost a lot of our natural skill that we used to have.”

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