Why Memory Competitions Aren't Memorable

10/09/2015 17:33 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 10:12 BST

Memory competitions have gotten stale over the past few years.

That might surprise you. Not the bit about the competitions having gotten stale, but rather the bit about memory competitions existing at all. Most people don't even know about them. Believe it or not, these competitive flexings of mental muscle have been going on for nearly 25 years or so yet they still remain relatively unknown, small in attendance, weak in sponsorship, and crammed in the back corner of a three star hotel ballroom (at best).

In a world where there's a competition for practically every single oddity, for some reason memory competitions (the one you might think to be the most relevant to the ordinary person) get no love. Why?

Well, frankly, it's the format.

Founded in 1991 by Tony Buzan, the inventor of Mind Mapping and author of about 30+ identical books on the subject, a few gentlemen (including Buzan) thought it would be fascinating to pull together people who wanted to test their memory across 10 disciplines: an amalgamation of memorizing decks of cards, numbers, words, names, and the like. They called it the World Memory Championships. The first showing summoned a lack-luster seven competitors who didn't really produce any earth-shattering results. But over the years, as competitiveness grew and new methods and strategies developed, the records rose past anything any psychologist might have ever predicted possible: memorizing a single deck of cards in 20.44 seconds, memorizing a 504-digit number in five minutes, and memorizing 4140 binary digits in just 30 minutes. The most fascinating part? These impossible-sounding records are set by people with trained memories. No photographic memories. No innate skill. All learned with some dedicated practice. That's it.

Sounds amazing right? And maybe you can even see the potential for incorporating these competitions and techniques in schools, making a huge series of competitions that span over regions and school districts, that ultimately ends up at a final showdown live on ESPN. Well, no. For some reason, this competition has remained practically unheard of and overlooked for 20+ years. The problem with such a competition and the problem inherent with memory in general, is that it happens all inside your head. How do you show memorization to an audience?

Just like showing the hole cards in poker to viewers with a small hidden camera helped cause the rise of TV poker, memory was in need of the same. If people could follow and even play along, the competition would suddenly become more accessible.


Enter the Extreme Memory Tournament (or XMT), a competition I came up with three years ago with the help of former Australian Memory Champ, Simon Orton, and Dart Neuroscience (a company doing some serious research on finding a drug to help cognitive disabilities: take this memory test if you want to help their efforts: The goal? To make a memory competition that was actually interesting to watch and that people could easily follow along with. To do that, we decided that we needed a competition that had head-to-head memory battles, for one, but more importantly, we had to make everything digital and viewable LIVE to the audience (believe it or not, the World Memory Championship is done all on paper, ::groan::). So we put together a two day tournament called the Extreme Memory Tournament. Off the bat, everyone loved it. It was exciting, entertaining, media-friendly, prize money heavy, even a tad sexy.

Slowly but surely, XMT is making memory hot. In an age where Alzheimer's disease and cognitive health is a huge concern in everyone's mind, we believe that XMT is a way to ultimately make memory techniques and brain health relevant and popular.


Fast forward a few years, and we have a successful and growing competition that is going into its third year. Also, an online memory training software has grown from of it and will move further into the brain training space in the next year, aiming to teach and train these techniques to anyone.

While memory competitions may never achieve the popularity level of something as large as the NFL, we might be on track to get it to a place where you've at least heard of it and might even swap channels from the National Spelling Bee to watch it!

For more details on how the XMT works and how you can compete in the 2016 tournament next summer, go to