A boot camp for your brain: How to become a mental athlete

Mental athletes (yes, that's a real term) will compete on Saturday's USA Memory Championship in New York. We got tips from last year's champ on how to improve yours.


This Saturday, an elite group of athletes will gather in New York City in a battle of strength—but they’ll be flexing their brain muscles instead of their biceps.

The mental athletes at the USA Memory Championship (which is sponsored by Brainstrong, a DHA supplement company) will compete in challenges like memorizing a list of 200 words in 15 minutes and two decks of cards in five minutes.

But they swear they weren’t born with superhuman temporal lobes.

“I never had a good memory,” says Nelson Dellis, last year’s USA Memory Champ, a 28-year-old former software developer from Miami. Dellis says that regular practice using memory-enhancing techniques and drills transformed him into the mental athlete he is now.

Nelson Dellis
Nelson Dellis, memory champ

“I actually do them every single day, in the same way that someone who’s physically active runs every day,” he explains. “And it’s not just training—I eat well, take omega-3s and antioxidants, and I try to watch my stress and get a lot of sleep.”

We’ll have to wait and see if Dellis’ hard work will pay off at the competition on Saturday. But, in the meantime, here are two key tips for improving your own memory, so you can at least remember where the hell you put your phone.

1. Remember to remember. “The simplest thing you can do is to be aware and pay attention,” says Dellis. “It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but it’s half the battle.” So, stop texting during important meetings.

2. Visualize. “Turn whatever you need to memorize, whether it’s a name or a list of groceries, into bizarre, vivid pictures,” says Dellis. The brain is better at remembering pictures than abstract concepts like numbers, and the stranger they are, the more they’ll stand out. So if you toss your keys on a chair, picture the chair, say, with human legs. —Lisa Elaine Held

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