National memory championship tests competitive rememberers in Hershey

HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) – A competition unlike anything we remember hit Hershey on Saturday for the first time in its 19-year history.

The national memorizing contest convened at Hershey Lodge, bringing together participants from all over the country.

Remember the name Alex Mullen. We’ll come back to him later. Now, remember Mallika Kodavantiganti. Got that?

She’s a senior at Hershey High School and practices memorizing things. Kodavantiganti has been remembering competitively for five years, the last four competing at the USA Memory Championship.

“I didn’t put as much effort into this as I wish,” she said, “just because, like, school is so crazy.”

She’s too busy studying to study studying.

“So, it was nice that I placed fifth,” she said. That was for memorizing faces and names, one of four tasks leading up to the finals Saturday afternoon.

“They give you a packet of random faces with their names in it,” she explained, “and then, after 15 minutes of memorizing that, they give you another packet where the faces are mixed up and you have to recall the names of that person.”

In another task, the 54 “mental athletes” competing Saturday studied a poem for 15 minutes, then had to write it from memory, including correct spelling and punctuation.

Another involved playing cards. Remember that. We’ll get there.

“There’s a lot more that you can do with your brain than you ever thought possible,” said Tony Dottino, the founder of the USA Memory Championship.

Remember Alex Mullen? He’s a medical student from Mississippi and he’s a champ. “Not the U.S. Champ,” he clarified. “The world champ.”

The world memory champion, crowned last year in China among a field of 200 competitors from 60 countries.

Mullen set two U.S. records Saturday; he earned one of them for memorizing 483 consecutive digits in five minutes.

“The basic technique is just you turn what you want to remember into images,” he said, “just like mental images you see in your head.”

Different competitors use different methods: There’s talk on the contest floor of journeys, assigning numbers to letters and creating words, and breaking up long strings of integers into two- or three-number sets and assigning people and actions to them.

Remember the cards? Alex does.

In the final task before lunch and the start of finals, everyone got a randomly shuffled deck of cards and up to five minutes to memorize the order. Competitors are allowed to stop their time as soon as they’re comfortable they’ve memorized it. Then, each contestant got a second, unshuffled deck and five minutes to put it in the same order.

“One full deck memorized in 22.7 seconds,” Mullen said. That was U.S. record number two.

“How do you do it?” Dottino asked him after making sure his cards were in the right order. “I couldn’t even move the cards that fast.”

A few minutes later he embarked on his second try (everyone gets two). Remember this time: 18.65 seconds. Timer stops, cards down.

“Just mind-boggling,” Dottino said.

“I can’t even flip through a deck of cards in 18 seconds,” said Paul Mellor, another competitor.

But remember: it only counts if they’re in the right order. The next seconds were tense, as the entire room of contestants gathered around Mullen’s table as he and Dottino flipped over cards from the two different decks one by one.

A smile spread over Mullen’s face as the final cards landed face-up.

“World record!” Dottino yelled as the crowd erupted. A world record set Saturday in Hershey. A victory for the sport of memory.

“Cognitive fitness is something that’s part of how we extend our life expectancy,” Dottino said. “So it’s life-changing for me.”

“Obviously, you want to win, but I feel like a lot of it is just keeping yourself healthy and keeping your brain really active,” said Kodavantiganti, who’s planning to major in biology and photography at Drexel University next year. “Especially with technology, we don’t really use our brains as much as we should.”

Less than 20 seconds.

“It just shows what the mind can do,” Mellor said.

Remember that.

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