The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

There are two Scott Hagwoods. One is a consultant and workshop leader who coaches people on how to harness the power of human memory. He is also the four-time winner of the USA Memory Championship and America’s first international memory grandmaster. He calls his other persona “Scott the Dancing Bear.”

Scott the Dancing Bear can take a shuffled deck of cards in his paws, flip through them slowly, and then minutes later recall the exact order of all 52 cards. To become a grandmaster, Hagwood had to perform this memory feat on seven decks of cards within an hour, followed by memorizing a single shuffled deck in less than three minutes. At last count he could memorize nine decks of cards in 60 minutes and a single deck in 90 seconds. Though proud to be a memory Olympian, Hagwood sometimes wearies of the demand to perform. “I just feel very uncomfortable in the limelight,” he says. “I don’t think I’m any different from anybody else.”

Which is the whole point of his work as Scott Hagwood, sole proprietor of the Center for Creative Memory Leadership in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Everyone’s brain contains an elegantly efficient memory machine, he says. And you can learn to harness its potential, just like he did. In fact, most people could learn how to perform the card memorization trick in a matter of days.

If Hagwood and the world’s other memory champions are masters of anything, it’s a set of proven memorization techniques known as mnemonics. The same tools that created Scott the Dancing Bear can improve your life and perhaps even help to counteract age-related memory loss. “Anybody can develop their memory to an extraordinary level,” he says.

A Lump In The Throat

Hagwood’s path to memory enhancement started as a nearly impalpable lump in his thyroid. The butterfly-shaped gland, just below the Adam’s apple, produces thyroid hormone, which helps to regulate human growth and metabolism. Too much thyroid hormone brings a racing heart, high blood pressure, irritability, and nervousness. Without the hormone, people grow fatigued, depressed, and bloated. Another common complication of thyroid problems is memory impairment—that caught Hagwood’s eye. “I didn’t have a great memory to begin with,” he says. “I did average in high school and college.”

The day before Hagwood’s 36th birthday, his doctor found a small nodule in his thyroid gland. The birthday present fate delivered the next day was a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. Surgeons removed the gland immediately and Hagwood started taking synthetic thyroid hormone. Once a year, he had to go to Duke University Medical Center for a test to determine if any cancerous cells had escaped before the thyroid was removed. This involved swallowing radioactive iodine and then sitting in a lead-lined room for hours to allow the iodine to permeate his body. Cancerous cells would absorb the iodine and then light up as bright spots on a body scan. Thankfully, the scan found no residue of cancer. (Hagwood remains cancer free to this day.)

Concern over memory impairment lingered in Hagwood’s mind. “It was during that time that I thought there might be something I could do to help facilitate my memory.” Perhaps he could find a way to inoculate himself from memory impairment associated with his thyroid condition. A search at the local bookstore turned up a variety of IQ-boosting books and memory enhancement guides. Then he came across one of the scores of books by Tony Buzan, Use Your Perfect Memory.

Buzan is a celebrity in memory enhancement in Europe. One chapter discussed how to improve test scores. “It seemed like he was talking to me.” Hagwood had understood the material in school but did not perform well in tests, he realized, because he didn’t know how to study properly.

All In The Cards

The next phase of Hagwood’s transformation occurred in the lead-lined vault while he was waiting for the radioactive iodine to spread. In the Buzan book, he read a description of how to memorize a deck of cards. This intrigued him. “I thought, hmmm, I wonder if I could use this in Vegas?”

At first glance, memorizing an entire deck of cards seems just short of miraculous. The world record holder, Andi Bell, memorized a deck in 32.9 seconds. However, it’s not as hard a you think. The mind can retain large amounts of mundane information—such as the number and suit of each card in a  deck—if you learn how to enrich the information and make it inherently more memorable. Mnemonic techniques effectively make information more sticky in memory.

Champion memorians memorize decks of cards with a variety of techniques. Hagwood’s modus operandi is an adaptation of the centuries-old “Roman room” method. This mnemonic device was used by the Romans to memorize large amounts of information, but was originally invented in the 5th century B.C. by a Greek. Fundamentally the Roman room method involves associating new and unfamiliar information with the old and familiar—locations within the rooms of your house or apartment, for example. Here’s what Hagwood does to memorize a deck of cards:

First, there is an initial training period in which each card is associated with a unique and memorable image. Hagwood calls it a “conversion.” For example, he associates 3¨ with the image of an explosion and J§ with a large Medieval-style war club. The conversions are arbitrary, although to work well should be striking, funny, unusual, or vivid.
As Hagwood flips through the shuffled deck, he starts walking through the rooms of his house. Each room has 10 locations where he can store the memory of each card: four corners at the floor, four corners at the ceiling, the floor, and the ceiling. That covers an entire suit of ten cards.

Each location in the room is numbered in a consistent pattern. As he walks into the first room, the corner of the floor at his left is position 1. The equivalent corner in the next room is position 11, and so on. If the first card in the deck is 3¨ (associated with “explosion”), he needs to create an association between the card and position 1 of the first room. Say there is a coat rack in that corner of the room. Hagwood then visualizes a coat rack exploding. This strongly associates 3¨ with the first corner of the first room.

Say the 11th card in the deck is J§ (associated with “war club”). Since the first room can only hold 10 cards, the first corner of the second room (position 1) is where he will store the 11th card. Say there is a radiator in that corner. Hagwood visualizes the war club smashing the radiator to bits.

Once he’s placed 50 cards in five rooms and the final two in two other known locations—say on the chimney of the house and on the gas grill in the yard—Hagwood then mentally walks back through the rooms, recalling each card based on the vivid image associated with each location. With practice, you can do it perfectly almost every time.

Hagwood started to teach himself to memorize decks of cards during his first thyroid scan. This was a pretty inexpensive way to pass the time, since everything he wore and carried in would become weakly radioactive and had to be left behind for disposal. But Hagwood says he was not merely learning a party trick. He figured that memorizing decks of cards would have broader benefit regarding mental skills. He also began to use memorization techniques from Buzan’s books at his job. Hagwood worked for General Electric, visiting various production facilities and evaluating potential safety risks. He found he could use mnemonic techniques to memorize the names of the various personnel at all the different plants he visited.

Memory Champions

In February 2000, just after Hagwood’s second thyroid scan, he caught part of a profile on the television program 20/20 about Tatiana Cooley-Marquardt. Like Hagwood, Cooley-Marquardt was a devote of Tony Buzan. She had also won the first three USA Memory Championships—in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Tony Buzan started the first such competition, The World Memory Championship, in Europe in 1991. One of Buzan’s disciples, Tony Dottino, started the USA competition. Hagwood went to the ABC website to learn more about the championship. His reaction was typical of the uninitiated. “You have to remember how many cards and how quickly? That’s impossible. I was just completely blown away. I thought, no way am I going to be able to do that.”

The USA championship has five different sub-competitions. The first challenge is to memorize the names and faces on a series of 99 color photos in 15 minutes or less and recall them in 20 minutes. In the next challenge, competitors must memorize a list of 100 random words within 15 minutes and recall them in 20 minutes. In “speed numbers,” competitors memorize single random digits from 0 to 9. (The list consists of 25 rows of 40 digits each.) Competitors have 5 minutes to memorize the numbers and 5 minutes to recall. Next, they must memorize an unpublished 50-line poem. Finally, in “speed cards,” competitors have 5 minutes to memorize a deck of shuffled cards and 5 minutes to recall them. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, they must then take a deck arranged in perfect order and reconfigure them to the exact sequence of the shuffled deck. Partial points are awarded based on how much of each task the competitors complete.

Hagwood continued to practice the card memorization trick and keep detailed records of his performance. But it took some good-natured ribbing from his brother to get him to enter the USA competition. After twisting his ankle in a family touch football game, Hagwood lay in bed as his brother teased him for being old and out of shape.  “I said I may have gotten slower and gained a few pounds, but I’ve gotten smarter too,” he recalls. “Give me a deck of cards!” So he shuffled the cards and perfectly memorized them in about 10 minutes. “The look of his face…kind of like that MasterCard commercial: priceless! I’ve never seen him so surprised.”

He entered the 2001 USA Memory Championship, facing stiff competition from the reigning champ, Cooley-Marquardt. Hagwood finished first in names and faces but didn’t do especially well in random numbers. His lead on Cooley-Marquardt began to dwindle. The only way to beat her would be to nail the card memorization event and score maximum points. “This was exactly the thing I had been practicing in the hospital,” Hagwood explains, “and it was not Tatiana’s strongest event.” To win, he had to recall all 52 cards—and this at a time when the US record was only 27 cards. He did so, got bonus points for it, and edged out Tatiana. This landed him on Good Morning America—his first serious national exposure. Then he won the next three competitions in a row—in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

People who win national events are eligible to compete in the World Memory Championship, which is held outside of the United States. The competition consisted of 10 separate events. Hagwood did not win, although he placed 11th in the world. However, he did become a memory Grandmaster. This required him to memorize 715 random numbers, seven decks of cards in an hour or less, and a single deck of cards in under 3 minutes.

Looking back on where he started, Hagwood seems surprised by just how far he has come from his former life as an average guy with what he thought was a below-average memory. “I felt like if I could do this, if I could train my brain, if I could make this thing I thought was just a total memory wreck… if I could organize it and be able to recall almost anything I wanted to, anybody could be able to do that.”

Memory Calling

The prizes offered at memory competitions are modest—enough to keep you supplied with playing cards for life, but not enough to live on. Some champions have parlayed their celebrity into memory enhancement guidebooks or consulting to business people and other groups. For example, Frank Felberbaum, who in 1995 won the first U.S. Gold Medal at the World Memory Olympics held in London, England, has tutored thousands of business executives at his Memory Training Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. He recently published The Business of Memory: How to Maximize Your Brain Power and Fast Track Your Career.

As Hagwood’s celebrity grew, he received more and more invitations to speak and perform, and also to participate in memory-enhancement workshops modeled on Tony Buzan’s “mind mapping” concept. The technique is taught to workshop facilitators like Hagwood in Palm Beach, Florida. Mind mapping promises to enable people to distill any body of information—an after dinner speech, the history of England, the Red Sox scores from 1933-2004—into a combination of key words and symbols. Hagwood compares each element of the mind map to a computer screen icon used to launch a program or document: double click it, and you unlock a larger chunk of information from memory.

In 2004, Hagwood was approached by a publisher who had seen him on TV. Two publishers ultimately bid on the project, which culminated in his first book: Memory Power: You Can Develop A Great Memory. America’s Grandmaster Shows You How. It is scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster in January 2006.

As a layman memory athlete, Hagwood has had to do some neuroscience homework to lend credibility to his consulting work. He says he has spoken to a number of memory scientists and read everything about human memory he could find and understand. “It’s been kind of like a personal mission, a calling.” He has found a lot of support for one of the key take home messages of his book and his group talks—one that any memory researcher would agree with: “Our memories are really more extraordinary than we give them credit for.”

Hagwood emphasizes that people always fixate on the things we forget—that person’s name you just talked to for an hour at a party, or the location of your wallet or car keys. “But we don’t think about the millions of things we do remember during the day. The book is really about focusing that.” Or in other words, the remarkable machinery of memory exists in all of us at birth; you just need to discover it and cultivate it.

Further Reading

  • “Memory Power: You Can Develop A Great Memory. America’s Grandmaster Shows You How,” by Scott Hagwood. (Simon & Schuster, January 2006.)
  • “The Business of Memory: How to Maximize Your Brain Power and Fast Track Your Career,” by Frank Felberbaum. (Rodale Books, June 4 2005, 256 pages, softcover.)

Center for Creative Memory Leadership:

USA national Memory Championship:

The World Memory Championships: