’Work and practice’ key to memory champ’s success
Montreal teacher vying for repeat title after picking up skill eight years ago
Last Wednesday, on the roof of Francis Blondin’s parents’ house in Quebec City, Frankenstein’s monster was protesting against the Montreal Canadiens’ recent loss in the Stanley Cup finals. Or maybe celebrating that they won. Blondin wasn’t exactly sure, nor did it really matter.
Nearby, Marge Simpson was wielding a chainsaw and slashing through a pile of rotten fish.
In reality, Blondin was sitting at the Montreal Gazette’s offices, staring at two sets of three playing cards in front of him: the two of clubs, the 10 of diamonds, and the jack of spades. The queen of hearts, the six of clubs, and the seven of hearts.
In Blondin’s mind, each card was associated with a specific character, action or object he had already memorized. The technique, called the person-action-object system, is a popular way of memorizing random numbers or, in this case, the order of a deck of cards.
His parents’ house, at the same time, was used as his “memory palace” — an approach that involves placing those characters or objects throughout a well-known location you can revisit in your mind.
It’s what helped Blondin, a 35-year-old substitute teacher who lives in Montreal, be crowned the Canadian Memory Champion in 2016. And it’s a skill he has continued to hone since then in his spare time, hoping to repeat his victory at this year’s championships, held simultaneously in Edmonton and Montreal on Sept. 2.
Your mind isn’t very good at remembering abstract information, Blondin explained, shortly after memorizing a shuffled deck of cards in two minutes and 47 seconds (a terrible time by his standards, he said).
“But your mind is good at remembering places, and particularly good if there’s some emotional element involved: people you know or things that are funny, violent or sexual,” he said. “Anything that marks your imagination.”
Blondin, like most who practise memory sports, does not consider himself to have a particularly good memory. He flunked exams in high school and, two weeks ago, he couldn’t remember where he parked his bike.
But he became interested in memorization about eight years ago, when he picked up a book on neuroplasticity that explained how the brain can keep transforming and adapting throughout someone’s life. The book changed how Blondin looked at things and understood learning. He started practising new skills: Sudoku puzzles, juggling, doing Rubik’s Cubes.
“Instead of thinking, ‘I’m good at this and I’m bad at that,’ I realized it’s just a matter of work and practice,” Blondin said. “Something that’s impossible can become possible and something that’s possible can become easy.”
Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, he read an excerpt from a book about competitive memorization, bought the book and got hooked. Using a similar method to the one he uses with cards, he has since memorized the first 2,000 digits of Pi.
To do so, Blondin’s stored them away in a larger memory palace in his mind: the first 500 digits are spread out in the Berri-UQAM métro station, the next 500 are in one of the school’s buildings and the last 1,000 are at Université Laval’s sports complex, where he studied.
Blondin can walk through the locations in his mind, picture the characters — Freddy Krueger swinging the Stanley Cup with a fishing rod in the métro’s convenience store, for example, or Brienne of Tarth blowing kisses to rabbits — and associate them to the digits.
“It takes some effort, but there’s really nothing superhuman to it,” Blondin said.
Competitive memory competitions started formally taking place in the early 1990s and are now held at national and international levels. The Canadian championships, which have junior and adult categories, consist of four disciplines: memorizing random names and faces, words, numbers and the order of cards in a shuffled deck.
At last year’s championships, where he wasn’t expecting to win, Blondin memorized 140 numbers in five minutes, 106 words in 15 minutes and a deck of cards in two minutes and five seconds.
Locally, Blondin said, memory sports are still barely known — roughly 16 people took part in last year’s championships — but he hopes they keep growing: he offers workshops on the “art of memory,” maintains a website with helpful information for beginners, and has taught the technique to some of his students, watching their exam scores soar afterward.
Simon Luisi, who has organized the championships since 2012, estimated there are probably only about 100 people in Montreal who train in the field overall.
But he has noticed steady growth in interest each year. The world championships, held later this year in China, will have participants from 30 countries.
“It’s engrossing,” Luisi said. “Once you start, it’s hard to stop.”
The 2017 Canadian Memory Championships are held simultaneously on Sept. 2 in Edmonton and in Montreal, where the event takes place at 1 p.m. at Université du Québec à Montréal.
Something that’s impossible can become possible and something that’s possible can become easy.
2016 Canadian memory champion Francis Blondin is preparing for this year’s event, which will be held in Montreal on Saturday.