Jeff Pearlman

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Nelson Dellis

#59
Where are your car keys? What was the name of that dude you kissed? Who's the drummer for White Lion? The U.S. memory champ says it's all (re)memorable. POSTED July 19, 2012

True story: A couple of months ago I was flying home from Los Angeles, bored, counting the hours, when I picked up American Way magazine and read a brief profile of an interesting man. I thought, “This guy could make an interesting Quaz, ripped the article out and placed it inside my diary.”

Then, ironically, I forgot all about it.

Eventually, I stumbled upon the piece, which told of the amazing skills of Nelson Dellis, the two-time U.S. memory champion. Not only could the man remember, well, everything, but he was also an accomplished mountain climber whose conquests included Mt. Everest. In other words, he was golden Quaz material.

Well, Nelson doesn’t disappoint. In one of my absolute favorite all-time Quazes, Nelson Dellis vividly explains how he never forgets (and uses a shitty Seattle Mariners pitching staff to illustrate), and how he’s motivated by his late grandmother’s struggles with Alzheimers; how anyone can have a fantastic memory and how—should he so desire—Nelson could dominate the ladies and Vegas.

Nelson’s charity, Climb for Memory, raises awareness and funds to find Alzheimer’s disease. The website can be found here. He also Tweets regularly.

Nelson Dellis, thanks for not forgetting the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Nelson, quick, quirky first question: You are the two-time defending USA Memory champion. Yet I feel like we live in the anti-memory age. Everyone has a phone with a camera and video recording capabilities; everyone takes a million photos and fires them off to Grandma, Uncle Stu, Aunt, Bess. I feel like half the time an event is going on, instead of embracing and cherishing it, we’re viewing it through a peep hole in a camera. Am I just an old, crotchety man here, or are we fucking with our own memories?

NELSON DELLIS: You are so right. All those stupid inventions we now use to create order (you could also argue disorder) in our lives like smartphones, digital cameras, Facebook … are destroying our memories. We spend no time taking things in any more and any time we are presented with data to memorize, we dump it on a hard-drive rather than our brains. While it can make our lives a heck of a lot more efficient sometimes, it’s definitely causing our brains to turn into mush. If you don’t use it, you lose it, as they say. Think back to when you were a kid—you probably knew dozens of phone numbers from all of your friends no problem. In fact, you could probably rattle a few of them off still. That’s because we had to use our memories back then, and when you have to use your memory, it gets better.

J.P.: You’ve said that your memory abilities are “no big deal.” You can memorize a randomly shuffled deck of cards in 34 seconds. You can memorize 86 names in five minutes. On and on—crazy, amazing stuff. How in the world is this “no big deal”?

N.D.: No biggie. I always tell people that when I’m bragging about my memory feats it’s not that I’m trying to show off what I can do personally (well, sort of a little bit—yes), but more so trying to show off what the brain can do. I say it’s no big deal because I never used to have a good memory and I can still do those things. I’ve taught my mom how to memorize a deck of cards and she’s getting up there in age and sharpness. Honestly, anyone can do what I do. Granted I spend a shit-ton of time perfecting my skills, but even still, anyone can learn the simple techniques needed to memorize a deck of cards quickly, the names of all the people in a room, etc.

J.P.: How does one become a memory expert? Like, literally, what’s your story? Where are you from, what’s your background and what has been your path to this point? Were you born with an amazing memory? Was there an ah-ha moment? Is this natural ability, or work?

N.D.: I’ve lived in the States for the last 14 years but grew up in London and Paris. My family is Belgian/French. There is no history of awesome memory in my family, but my dad has a pretty impressive natural memory (he’s a smarty pants businessman). I never had a good memory myself, though. I did, however, have a very good work ethic; something that helped me down the road when training my memory. I actually initially got into all this memory stuff in the summer of 2008 when I was jobless and bored. I’ve always been interested in the mind and after doing a little bit of Googling that summer, I stumbled on the USA Memory Championship website. I couldn’t believe the things the competitors were doing and that they were all saying the same thing: anyone can do it. I took it as a challenge and started trying out the techniques myself. They worked amazingly. Eventually I got a job and couldn’t spend time on it, so I put my training on hiatus. After my grandmother passed away the following summer, I was suddenly very concerned about the future of my own memory. I vowed to try and do everything within my power to never let the same thing happen to me. So I returned to the techniques I had briefly dabbled in the previous year and took them to a whole new level. An obsessive level. I was on a mission. The more I did it, the better I got, and the better I got, the more I wanted to do it. It felt like a super power. At some level, memory improvement is just about learning the techniques. To take it to a whole new level, it’s all about hard work and practice (like anything else, really).

J.P.: Your grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2009, which seems to have had a tremendous impact on you. Do you believe that, by sharpening your memory now, at age 28, you can avoid a similar plight? And are there definite connections between working out one’s memory and avoiding related illness later in life?

N.D.: That is my thought, yes. There have been many studies that show that keeping your brain active helps delay the possible onset of Alzheimer’s. What’s more is that recent studies have also shown that doing challenging things with your brain increases the size of your hippocampus (the part of the brain partly responsible for memory). People with large hippocampuses (hippocampi?) never get Alzheimer’s—this is a fact. While doing memory exercises is not the only way to keep your brain healthy, I personally believe that with all the memory skills and techniques I’ve taught myself, I’ll be able to delay any signs of brain aging or sluggishness later on.

J.P.: Can you explain, in as much detail as possible, how you remember things. For example, if it’s OK with you, below I’ve pasted the Seattle Mariners pitching staff from 1992—as unmemorable a team as has ever existed. If you’re someone who knows nothing about baseball, and the names mean nothing to you, how do you go about remembering them, and, if possible, in order? (Jim Acker, Juan Agosto, Shawn Barton, Kevin Brown, Rich DeLucia, Brian Fisher, Dave Fleming, Mark Grant, Eric Gunderson, Erik Hanson, Gene Harris, Randy Johnson, Calvin Jones, Randy Kramer, Tim Leary, Jeff Nelson, Clay Parker, Dennis Powell, Dave Schmidt, Mike Schooler, Russ Swan, Mike Walker, Kerry Woodson).

N.D.: Ok, let me break it down. The basics to memorizing properly boil down to two things: Visualization and storage. First, you need to take whatever it is your are attempting to memorize and turn the pieces of data into vivid mental pictures. Why? Because that is what the brain is hardwired to remember. The brain works better with pictures of things you already know. For example, I hate baseball and know zilch about the Mariners (except that they had that guy … Ken Griffey, Jr?), so those names you listed mean absolutely nothing to me. That is the problem with most stuff we deal with on a daily basis. Numbers, names, addresses, etc, they’re all just a bunch of meaningless figures of numbers and letters for the most part. You can’t really visualize them as things you already know. So you need to train your brain how to convert them to pictures. Let’s take Jim Acker for example. The name Jim reminds of Jim from the show The Office (I can picture him sitting at his desk playing a prank on Dwight Schrewt). Acker reminds me of nothing but it kinda sounds like “Hacker”. So I’m gonna picture Jim from The Office hacking into Dwight’s computer as a prank. Let’s take Jeff Nelson. Jeff makes me think of the giraffe from Toys R’ Us (his name is Geoff), Nelson reminds me of me. To remember that name I’m gonna picture a giraffe trampling over me, blood flying everywhere. The key is to try and make these images as vivid and colorful as possible. Weird, sexual, violent, funny—all are great images to strive for because they stick the best.

The next step (if you want to keep the order), is to store those pictures somewhere in the brain. The problem with the way people memorize is that they don’t save their information anywhere specific. Imagine saving a Word document on your computer without explicitly stating what the file is called and what folder it’s in. You’d never find it. Same with the brain—we need to give it a folder, so to speak. How? By using journeys around familiar places in our mind. It’s very easy for us to picture our home and walk through it mentally. If you split up your home into a distinct path of anchor points (bedroom, closet, bathroom, staircase, whatever), you can imagine your silly pictures hanging out in each of those places along the path. So say we were remembering those pitcher names in order. The first image of Jim from The Office hacking into a computer I would picture it happening in my bedroom. Next I would picture the image for Juan Agosto in my closet, etc. Then to recall it all I would simply walk back through that journey and see all the images waiting for me at each stop. It works like magic. It works with any place you know well … an ex-girlfriend’s house, your office, the drive to work, etc.

J.P.: You’re the only memory champion I’ve ever interviewed, and you’re certainly the only memory champion I’ve ever interviewed who also climbed Mt. Everest (last year). Like many, I’ve read Into Thin Air and am riveted by Everest. What was that experience like, and how did you become a mountain climber? Does the high altitude and thin air have an impact on memory?

N.D.: Good god, mountain climbing is amazing. It liberates me. I only started doing it about the same time I got into all this memory stuff. I always loved traveling to places with mountains, but one day I thought, ‘Hey why don’t I try to travel to a new place and climb one of those damn things?’ After I climbed my first peak (Mt. Rainier), I was hooked. The feeling I got on the summit of a mountain was absolutely exhilarating. It made me feel like I could accomplish anything in the world. It might be part of the reason I became so successful in training my memory.

Funny you should ask about high-altitude and memory. Last year I was on Mt. Everest and I brought my memory training up there with me (I basically trained memorizing cards and memorizing numbers). I usually keep pretty detailed stats on all my scores and times so I did the same at each elevation we got to each day on the mountain. Over the two-month expedition I had some pretty wacky results. My card and number scores went up (and went back down when I returned to sea level) the higher I got. Don’t ask me why … could have been the low stress environment (although seeing a dangerous mountain looming above you isn’t necessarily stress-free), could have been the lack of oxygen, I have no clue.

J.P.: Can a memory champion make money? What I mean is, while it must be wonderful to be able to recite every president alphabetically, a brotha’s also gotta eat. How do you survive, day to day?

N.D.: I used to think not, but now I’m a believer! Many of the competitors who do this do it as a hobby. A few others sell memory products and actually make a good living from it. I’m not a salesman—I hate that kind of thing. I just want to share what I’ve figured out and learned with everyone out there. Luckily, winning the past two years (and I guess having an interesting, relatable, young-hearted story) got me a couple of endorsement deals. One from a flash memory company out in Utah called Fusion IO and the other from a DHA Omega-3 brain health supplement company called DSM Nutrition. I also take the casinos in Vegas for hundreds of thousands by playing Blackjack (hehe—just kidding … or am I?). I also do speaking engagements for different companies around the world. I also train people and athletes one on one how to memorize better.

J.P.: When I was in high school my track coach always used to say, “If you’re physically fit, you’re mentally fit.” Is there any truth to this? Do you feel like exercise and working out is connected to your cranial abilities?

N.D.: Totally true. Staying fit improves blood-flow to the brain, which in turn makes brain processes quicker and smoother. Staying physically fit is a huge part of my memory-driven lifestyle. I honestly think it’s what gives me the edge over all the competitors at memory competitions. I work out pretty hard because I need to be in great shape to climb mountains. It all comes full circle. Right now I’m heavy into Crossfit—been doing it since February and have never felt this fit in my entire life.

J.P.: I would think this whole memory thing would perfectly lend itself to picking up the ladies. “I bet I can remember your number without writing it down” sorta thing. Am I wrong?

N.D.: Ah, yes indeed. Unfortunately I have not been able to ever try it out. I’ve been in a relationship ever since I got good at all this memory stuff. I’ve been dying to try that one out though because it’s clever and would be so easy to do. I could definitely take it to more than memorizing just a phone number, although after that point it might just get creepy. Ha.

J.P.: What’s your best childhood memory? Your worst?

N.D.: Ooof, that’s hard. Best childhood memory … hmmm … maybe when I learned how to ollie on a skateboard back in 1998 in London? Those days in my head were awesome. Sunny summer days, had just graduated middle school, no more acne or braces. I was a force to be reckoned with! Going younger than that … spending time at my grandparent’s farm house in the french countryside … great memories there.

Worst memory? I don’t really have any. Never really had anything traumatic happen to me as a kid. If I remember anything negatively, I just look at it as something that made me who I am today.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NELSON DELLIS:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: I fly a lot, but I’m actually pretty scared of flying. Well not really … I’m just constantly thinking that the plane is going to crash and what it would be like to crash and die. It’s messed up, but I can’t help it. I’m a wuss with turbulence.

Rank in order (favorite to least): Kim Kardashian, John Starks, cherry blossom trees, maggots, the number 17, Wham!, eggplant parm, windbreakers, Ft. Worth, Pat Benatar, Tupac, Cherry Coke: 1. Windbreakers; 2. 17 (in my number system, it’s my good friend Alex); 3. John Starks; 4. Kim Kardashian; 5. Cherry blossom trees; 6 Tupac; 7. Ft. Worth; 8. Pat Benatar; 9. Cherry Coke; 10. eggplant parm; 11. maggots; 12. Wham!

• Do you believe in any sort of life after death? Or, when we die, does the memory (and all else) go pfft?: Nope. Dead and done. Memories don’t exist if the brain is dead.

• Would you rather have an awful memory or awful body odor?: I already have an awful memory (when I’m not actively trying, of course) … so I’d go with awful body odor.

• Do you think Cindy Crawford’s mole makes her more or less attractive?: More!

• If you devoted a year only to memorizing the dictionary, word for word, how would you do?: I would have it down pat. Page numbers and all. No big deal.

• You seem to be a pretty big Miami Heat fan. How thrilling would it be to meet Eddy Curry?: Eddy … who? Was he part of the Big Three?

• Celine Dion offers you $10 million to serve as an opening memory act to her new tour, Celine Sings Sympathetic Nazi Songs to Crazy White People. You in?: Totally in. But I’d make sure to make it clear to the audience that I forgot who was following me and what she was going to be singing about. Just to be clear, I, in no way, support Nazism … but $10 million is a good chunk of change.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life