Palantir Night Live: Nelson Dellis

How long would it take you to memorize an entire deck of cards, in order? One hour? Two hours? Three days? Would it be impossible?

On a good day, memory champ Nelson Dellis can complete the task in just 35 seconds. Under pressure, his official recorded time is 63 seconds, which was fast enough to earn his second title as US Memory Champion this year. But the striking thing about Dellis, as he revealed to a packed kitchen at Palantir Night Live on May 31 in Tysons Corner, is that he’s actually terrible at remembering things. It was when his grandmother passed away in 2009 from Alzheimer’s disease that Dellis made a commitment to exercise his brain and keep his memory alive.

This Palantir Night Live proved to be a magic show of sorts, during which the audience oohed and aahed at Dellis’ ability to recall a 49-digit number string on the fly. [See 32:49] However, Dellis is no Houdini. He spent the majority of his talk sharing the secrets behind his extraordinary memory with the intention that more people would, like him, better value their mental fitness and exercise their minds to protect it.

What’s the method behind his memory madness? Dellis has mastered the practice of translating concepts, ideas, things, people, places, numbers—anything—into visual narratives, and storing them systematically in the hard drive of his mind to ensure that he can recall them any time and any place. In order to do so, he draws on the people in his life and the places he’s been to recreate the journeys he knows best. This is actually an ancient memory technique known as Visualization and Method of Loci —or “Memory Palaces.”

First, he imagines the objects he’s memorizing (numbers, cards, to-do lists) to be images. Next, he incorporates those visuals into memories of routine journeys from the course of his life by storing each image along a different reference point on, say, his drive to work, a walk around a neighborhood park, or his path to first period in high school.

To demonstrate how his method works, Dellis mapped a journey using anchor points around the PNL stage and then instructed the audience to place visualizations on each of those points. The images were absurd, ranging from two-legged dogs hanging from the blinds to Jackie Chan playing Jenga near the easel, (See 17:00). The absurdity was intentional:

“You want to make things as silly, bizarre, violent, and sexual as possible. I’ll find myself memorizing things that are very disturbing. But, that’s the best way.”

As the audience shouted out each absurd image along the path around the room, Dellis translated the images to mountain names (Two legged dog = K2, Jackie Chen playing Jenga = Kangchenjunga), and revealed that the entire group had just memorized the tallest 14 peaks in the world, in order by height.

14 peaks is one thing—but how about 52 cards? Or a 303-digit string in five minutes (another of Nelson’s US records)? Dellis has developed a complex system for number memorization, associating each pair of numbers between 00 and 99 with a person—real or fictional. He quickly stores these pairs in sets of three, crafting a sentence by translating these people into persons, actions, and objects. He then strings these individual sentences into a single larger narrative that plays out over the course of a journey through his memory palace. For a full explanation, (See 39:00)

Techniques and tricks aside, Dellis emphasized the motivation behind his memory prowess:

“Memories are really important. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose the memory of everything you’ve built in your life. I just ask that you take care of it.”