Chester Santos: Memory Master
"Our brains are very good at remembering what we see"
Chester Santos has one of the greatest memories in the world, with an astounding knack for remembering seemingly impossible sequences of information, and rather generously passes on his techniques in ways that are comparatively easy to understand and retain.
Chester was placed in the top five at the USA Memory Championship every year from 2005 to 2010, winning the coveted top spot in 2008, and has memorised every Kentucky Derby result since 1875 – including the winning horse, jockey and time to one hundredth of a second. OX caught up with Chester to talk psychology, influence and more…
Hi Chester, at what point did you realise that you had an exceptional memory?
I actually did have a good memory to start out with – good, but not extraordinary. I would often hear comments in school along the lines of “wow, you have a really good memory”.
About 16 years ago, I happened to see a segment on TV about the US National Memory Championship and it sparked my interest because when I looked into the competitors’ scores for various memory tasks, I realised that I was nowhere near their level. That’s when I started learning techniques to magnify my memory from where it was already.
What I believe is that no matter what your current level of memory ability, with the right training and practice you can dramatically improve it.
Like training a muscle.
So how did you actually train yourself to compete at the top level?
I started reading a lot of books, doing online research, and playing around with different techniques – names, numbers and so on, and stuck to training using the subset of techniques that I felt worked best for me. Eventually I did win the US Memory Championship, so now I train other people around the world in the same subset of techniques that I feel are the most powerful and effective.
How much are you interested in the neuroscience or psychology behind memory?
Very much. There are logical factors and psychological factors behind the techniques that I teach – for example, I teach visualisation. Our brains are very good at remembering what we see, and you always hear people say that they remember faces, but that names are more difficult. Let’s say you go to a party with a friend and meet a lot of people, then two weeks later your friend says to you: “remember that attorney we met at the party, he’s also a member of the tennis club?”. That small description will usually allow you to picture that person right away, but a lot of times neither one of you will be able to remember what their name is.
One trick for this is to involve additional senses when you’re trying to commit the information to memory. Step one is to picture the information as a memorable object or image, and step two is to imagine how this object tastes, feels, smells or sounds. As you are using more sense when you’re trying to encode the information into your memory, you’re activating more and more areas of your brain and building more and more connections in your mind to the information. That makes the information much easier to retrieve when you need it.
There’s more than one type of memory, of course – are you good at remembering events in your own life? I’m quite good at remembering phone numbers but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast.
Yeah, the two are completely seperate. I teach semantic memory which is facts, figures and information that, for example, might need to be recalled in business or school. Remembering where you were or what you did on a certain date is episodic memory, which is a completely different thing and that’s not necessarily what I’m good at. Obviously, the techniques that you can use with people are very interesting to watch, but they can also be helpful in business and self improvement, and so on, correct? Yes, my career is very much based on helping people use memory techniques in practical situations. There are so many applications – in business, remembering names is crucial, of course. In school, it might not be as important, but in business you’re not making the most out of networking if you’re attending a lot of events but the next time you see someone, you can’t remember what their name is or what they do for a living. It helps you to build better relationships and be a more influential and popular person.
One profession in which this is particularly true is politics: I’ve actually been hired by some politicians in the San Francisco area where I live because if they’re at a fundraiser, they need to remember the name of everybody there along with their spouse’s name and their opinions on certain subjects. You’ll also be seen as more of an expert in your particular field if you can deliver a presentation without breaking eye contact with your audience to look up facts and figures. I’m sure it’s possible to get along fine whilst relying on notes or PowerPoint slides, but you’re not really going to impress anyone and you’re not going to comes across as an expert in quite the same way. Another example is foreign language vocabulary - when you’re doing business with people that speak other languages, it’s incredibly helpful on an interpersonal level to be able to make an effort with a few key words or phrases.
Do you have an ‘exercise’ routine for keeping your memory as good as it is?
Now, it’s very different to when I was training for the Memory Championships. Now, my job is to give presentations and I always open with, for example, naming hundreds of people in the audience after hearing each name one time. That essentially means that my job gives me enough practice in itself. Back when I was training for the Championships, I would print out sheets of computer-generated digits and memories them, repeatedly memorise shuffled decks of cards, or visit yearbook websites and memorise hundreds of names and faces.
What about the future? Where can your memory take you from here?
Nowadays I’m totally focused on helping out others around the world. I’m also under contract to write another book and continuing with my speeches and presentations to get these techniques out there to as many people as possible so that they can be more successful in their careers and personal lives.
Instant Memory Training For Success – Practical Techniques for a Sharper Mind by Chester Santos is published by Capstone (a Wiley imprint). Paperback original and e-book: £10.99
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