Mysterium: Total Recall

Posted by Jonathan Bayme on 13 March 2013

Editor’s Note: This article is the eighth in a weekly series by Jason England: MYSTERIUM. Each article in this series will be posted on Wednesday at 11:00am EST – every post on a different subject. This week, Jason talks about the the psychology and method behind memorizing the order of an entire deck.

Total Recall

Years ago, I read a story about how Dai Vernon would often try and memorize a deck of playing cards before going to bed. This wasn’t to perform magic with a “Mem-Deck” as we now understand the term, but rather as a pure memory stunt. Although I haven’t been able to locate this story again, I believe Vernon stated that he got his time down to around a minute or so with practice.

The current world record for memorizing a deck of cards is under 30 seconds.

Actually, 21.90 seconds to be exact. It's held by Simon Reinhard of Germany. Other sub-60 second past champions are Ben Pridmore (24.9 seconds), Andi Bell (32.9 seconds), and Dominic O’Brien (38.29 seconds). Dominic O’Brien appears to be the first person to break the 60-second “barrier” in an official event, although other memory experts are likely to have duplicated the feat long before official records were kept.

Although experts like Reinhard, Bell and Pridmore all have their own systems these days, most modern systems can trace their roots (via Dominic O’Brien), to ancient Greece. The core idea behind memorizing a deck of cards or any random series of numbers for that matter is called the Loci Method. The Loci, or journey method uses a pre-memorized journey onto which events can be attached. These events can then be recalled by taking a mental stroll down your pre-memorized path.

As an example, let’s imagine a pathway through your house.

It might start at the front door, then proceed to a hallway or entrance way. You may go upstairs or downstairs depending on the layout, but you would try and hit every room, no matter how big or small. If you want a lot of fidelity in your journey, you could even create points within a room or rooms.

Eventually you will wind your way through your house or apartment and arrive at the end of your journey. For some, this will mean going out the back door and onto a back porch. Others may end their journey in a garage or back very near the front door where they began. The specifics aren’t important, only that you have a pre-memorized pathway through a space that you’re very familiar with.

Let’s assume a generic pathway of: front door, entrance hallway, living room, kitchen, bedroom, laundry room, spare bedroom, hall closet, stairway, garage. This journey has 10 stops from the front door to the basement.

Now let’s try and memorize the following list:

Hamburger, iPhone, spare tire, lamp, tennis racket, chessboard, t-shirt, ball cap and diamond ring. The first thing you would do is to imagine yourself eating a hamburger at your front door. The next step would be to imagine you dropping your iPhone and having it shatter in your entrance hallway. Next would be to imagine trying to change a spare tire in your living room.

You would continue creating interesting mental images using the items in this list until you ran out of objects to remember. By the way, if you run out of locations then you need to expand your journey!

To recall the list, imagine yourself at your front door. What are you doing? If you created a strong mental image a moment ago, you should have no trouble remembering that you were eating a hamburger at the front door. Going to the next step on our journey, we see that we’ve dropped our iPhone in the entrance hallway and it’s shattered. Next we find ourselves in the living room. What are we doing? Changing a tire. You get the idea.

The more ridiculous you make the images, the easier it will be to remember them.

Make things incredibly large or small, set them on fire, destroy them, alter them, etc. The crazier your image is, the better it will stick in your memory.

To memorize playing cards, you need to be able to “encode” the cards into objects or people in order to be able to visualize them. Only then can you “place” them into your memorized journey.

The various professional memory experts all have their own tricks and tips, but the Dominic O’Brien system is as good a place as any of them to begin.

Dominic assigns every 2-digit number from 00 to 99 a person and an action. For instance, in his book How to Develop a Perfect Memory, O’Brien assigned the number 15 to Albert Einstein. Einstein’s action was writing on a chalkboard. Dominic also assigned 63 to Sean Connery (the original and still the best, James Bond). Connery’s action was holding a gun. Remember, every two-digit number had an associated person and action. And each of these people and actions are unique. You can’t repeat an action or person in your pre-memorized lists. This is important.

Let’s say you were trying to remember the number 1563 for some reason. You would take the person from the first two digits (the 15) and take the action from the last two digits (the 63). Combining these images you get Albert Einstein holding a gun. Additionally, you would place Albert Einstein holding a gun at the first position in your Loci system: at the front door.

Imagining Albert Einstein holding a gun at your front door is a fairly ridiculous mental image. Deciphering the image would tell us that the first portion of that image (Einstein himself) gives us 15 and the last portion (holding a gun) gives us 63.

A list of 20 digits might look like this:

1563 = Albert Einstein holding a gun at your front door.
5366 = Eric Clapton pointing with E.T. in your entrance hall.
9175 = Neil Armstrong singing in your living room.
8238 = Humphrey Bogart baptizing someone in your kitchen.
2326 = Bill Clinton driving a stake into a vampire in your bedroom.

I think you’ll agree that all of these images are crazy. That’s what makes them easy to remember. Notice that it only takes five actual images to recall 20 random digits. That’s a pretty good “return on investment” when it comes to memory work.

To decipher these image you would of course have to know Dominic O’Brien’s original system, which I’m not at liberty to actually reveal here. However, if you’re interested in this type of memory stunt, web searches for Dominic O’Brien, Andi Bell, Ben Pridmore, memoriad and “memory olympics” will provide you with hours and hours of reading.