These Canadian memory champs are building 'mind palaces' on the world stage
B.C.'s Braden Adams and N.S.'s Don Michael Vickers compete at Memory League World Championships
You don't have to be a genius to be good at memory sports, say two Canadians competing on the world stage. In fact, you don't even have to have a particularly good memory.
Braden Adams of Chilliwack, B.C., and Don Michael Vickers of Sydney Mines, N.S., are both competing at the 2023 Memory League World Championship. The virtual contest pits memory mavens against each other in short competitions where they have to recall cards, names, words and numbers.
Adams and Vickers are the only Canadians in the mix, and they both rely on a technique known as the "memory palace."
"Anybody can build a memory palace in minutes," Adams told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "Like, it's the easiest thing to do."
A very old, very simple trick for remembering
The memory palace — also known as the mind palace, memory journey or method of loci — is a visualization technique that dates back to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
It works like this: You pick a physical space that you're familiar with. It could be your home, office or neighbourhood, for example. Then picture yourself moving through that space, following a set path.
As you move through that path, imagine the things you want to memorize appearing in various locations, in the order you need to recall them in.
"Then to recall it, just kind of close your eyes, walk that path again, and, you know, remember all those images," Adams said.
LISTEN | Braden Adams shows off his memory palace skills:
It's worked wonders for Adams. Since he started playing memory sports in 2016, he's won three National Memory Championships in Canada, including in 2022.
According to the Canadian Mind Sports Association, he established four national memory records in 2019 by memorizing 292 images in five minutes, 62 names in five minutes, 122 random words in 10 minutes and 393 digits in 10 minutes.
Last year, he memorized the order of almost 70 complete decks of cards to raise money for the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia, recalling 3,636 out of 3,640.
"That was hard," he said. "After that I was toast. I took like a week off."
Vickers has only been competing for about two years, but he's already seen success. He finished third-place in the 2021 Russia Memory League Open Championship in the pro division, and second place among Canadians in a 2021 Honorary Memory Challenge.
This is his first world championship.
"It'll be a fun challenge. I hope that I can pull it off," he said.
The 33-year-old safety consultant says his memory isn't very good when it comes to everyday stuff. Then when the pandemic hit, it got even worse.
He was Googling some tips for improving his memory in 2020 when he came across the world of memory sports.
"I stumbled upon these people memorizing cards and I'm like, that looks really cool. I didn't really believe it at first that they could do this. And then I tried it for myself," he said. "The first time I memorized a deck of cards, it took me 10 minutes. But I slowly got better and better.
Vickers used to play hockey, but says he can't compete like he used to because of vision loss in one eye.
"So this kind of fills the competitive void for me," he said.
In fact, he says memory sports aren't that different from physical sports. It's all about making incremental improvements over time, but to your mind instead of your body.
"The brain isn't that much different from the biceps in that sense," he said.
Mentors and friends
For Adams, the skill is at least partially innate.
"My memory is actually naturally pretty good," he said. "My memory is something I took pride in, and then learning that there's these people out there doing this, I was like, 'Man, I got to learn how to do this.'"
When he got into the world of memory sports, he says he found his people.
"It's been awesome," said Adams.
In fact, he's become both a friend and a mentor to Vickers. The pair found each other online when the Nova Scotian was new to memory sports and was just starting to post videos about it online.
"Braden just kept giving me pointers and he really helped me improve a lot," Vickers said. "He's just been a massive influence on me."
- An earlier version of this story stated Braden Adams memorized seven decks of cards to raise money for the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia. In fact, he memorized 70 decks.Jan 11, 2023 7:53 PM ET
Interview with Braden Adams produced by Devin Nguyen.