"You're not going to tell her, are you?" he asks.

The woman in the photo is named "Dana," and after a quick glance — Santos says he needs about five seconds to lock in a name with a face — he has it.

"OK, so, when I saw her, first thing that came to my mind is that she has a pretty long pointy nose," says Santos. "So you want to exaggerate it and see it as a really long nose, and I'd stick a Danish to it."

Chester Santos
Courtesy Chester Santos
Chester Santos

The Pinocchio nose spearing a Danish would likely be enough for Santos to get "Dana." But if he needed some extra help he might envision an apple exploding out of the Danish dangling from the tip of the nose — a reminder of the final 'a' sound in "Dana."

"Next time I see her I would immediately notice the nose, and all that crazy imagery comes back to me," he says.

Earlier that same afternoon, Brad Zupp — a wiry, bespectacled upstate-New Yorker who works as a full-time juggler and magician — paints a similarly graphic tableau for memorizing playing cards. He's fond of a technique called "person-action-object," which allows him to remember groups of three cards in short sentences.

Zupp's wife is using a scissors to excitedly open a Christmas present.

This sentence corresponds to the queen of hearts, three of clubs and ace of spades. Zupp has a person or a character assigned to all 52 of playing cards. Like many memory athletes, the queen of hearts is someone of great emotional significance — his wife. He's assigned his hair dresser to the three of clubs (signified by scissors) and Santa Claus to the ace of spades (represented by the present she's ripping apart).

"They're pictures, so I don't have to keep thinking about them to keep them there," he explains. "I'm not using repetition, I'm using images and picturing them and making some really silly and creative associations."

These mnemonic memorization systems are well-known to Roediger. He likes using a primitive one to psych out his students by flawlessly memorizing, after just one try, a list of twenty words forward and backward on the first day of class.

"That really blew people's minds," he says. "The tricks are ancient. The Greeks and Romans knew about them."

In 2002 a brain-imaging study done on competitors from the World Memory Championship in London showed no physical differences in the memory athletes' brains, though some areas associated with navigation lit up as they interpreted information as pictures and scenes. This seemingly bolsters the memory athletes' insistence that anyone can do what they do, but the researchers want to know more.

"First what we have to do is have a good cognitive profile of these individuals," says Balota. "Is it the case they just have general better cognitive skills, or is it the case that they're really truly outstanding consolidators?"

There are no MRI scanners or cranial electrodes in the cognitive lab on the third floor of Wash. U.'s Psychology Building, only a basket full of mini Twix bars at the front desk and a row of private rooms with computers. The MAs are put through three days of testing, much of it consisting of staring at monitors. Though Roediger is still far off from having publishable data, striking results are already emerging from just a quick glance at the test results of five memory athletes, including Santos, Zupp and Dellis.

In one test, called the Stroop Color-Word Test, the mental athletes are shown a list of words in a colored font. When a word is printed, for example, in green ink, but the word itself says "red," most test-takers show some amount of "interference." They're tripped up by the word and answer incorrectly when asked what color the word was written in. Conversely, if a neutral word like "chair" is written in blue ink, there's no trouble at all in naming the correct color.

The memory athletes, however, do not appear to fall for this trap.

"They show about half as much interference in the color-word test," Roediger says.

The tasks also reveal that the athletes' memories are not superhuman, nor somehow "photographic." In another test, the athletes memorize "non-words" — pure gibberish. The researchers asked Riverfront Times not to reprint the exact words found on the task, but imagine trying to memorize these words: flerp, conternsta, utopare, yerf, orniga, palkemf.

Most people just give up. And at first, the memory athletes do about as poorly as average test takers.

That is, until they're presented with a list like that again. Some of the athletes reported that they switched strategies. Dellis boasts that on his test he invented meanings for the words — as if composing the fictional Game of Thrones language Dothraki on the fly. And it worked.

"That was really hard," says Dellis, who, after that devastating loss at the 2010 USA Memory Championship, came back to win it in 2011 and is now the two-time reigning national champion. "Everybody has a very steep dip in the scores for that. Mine were still pretty good."

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