Memory Games

Off to see Pixies this evening (yay!) so slipped into an afternoon showing of this documentary about the World Memory Championships. The film accompanies several participants, a format that usually means that we can immediately guess the winners, and that there are all sorts of interviews with other contestants which have been left on the cutting room floor.

Maybe its an anti-spoiler to say that the 4 main interviewees have different levels of success in the competition, which I think makes for a better documentary. Though it is a shame that the film doesn’t reflect the internationalism of the competition winners and that all 4 are based in the West.

Its also worth saying that one of the people interviewed, Yanjaa, was born in Mongolia, but grew up in Sweden (and seems to have won Sweden’s Got Talent on the way). She has purple hair and pink docs and has a lot of interesting things to say about being a Woman of Colour participating in a discipline that is presumed to be a male terrain.

Yanjaa also talks about her multiple identities discussing first Mongolia (beautiful landscapes) and Sweden (free and effective public education system) before saying that her favourite place to live is the USA because of Amazon prime.

Incidentally, I was flicking through the IMDB user reviews – both of them – and one of them was a moan about why the film kept bringing up things like feminism and Alzheimers when all the reviewer wanted to do was learn how to improve their memory. Its because of filmgoers like me, mate.

Speaking of Alzheimers, one of the main motivations for Nelson’s involvement in the competition was watching his grandmother gradually lose her mind. Nelson speaks articulately about how taking part in competitions like this is dependent on spending all your time on preparation, and when he started to develop other interests, he did less well in the competitions. Just as you start to like him, he goes on to proudly explain that he can make more money selling his services as a Four-Time Competition Winner than in taking part in the competitions themselves.

And then there’s Johannes and Simon, two interchangeable Germans, who seem to have an ongoing friendly rivalry, getting similar results in a series of different competitions. The problem is that I didn’t really take in much of what either of them had to say, and can’t even remember which one is the one in a wheelchair.

The championship contains 10 rounds of different disciplines, such as remembering long numbers, lists of pictures and looking at a pack of cards for a few seconds, then rearranging a second pack in the same order. Which makes it all the more funny when none of them seems able to remember the full list of disciplines involved.

Underlying many of the interviews is an implied question as to whether success in these competitions is a sign of any wider intelligence, or if they are like IQ tests – which basically show how good people are at IQ tests and not much more. Someone says that improving your memory goes hand in hand with improvements in your cultural awareness, but at least some of the techniques used seem to depend on a proficiency for rote learning, and take place much too quickly to be the result of any serious thought.

For example, we are shown how our minds remember images better than words or numbers, and moving images better than a series of individual pictures. So a list of numbers can be remembered better as a film of strange unconnected images (sample and possibly misremembered quote: “I had Obe Wan Kenobi playing a bass guitar with his balls)

And yet they seem to get from the numbers to the images through a set of learned and not necessarily rational rules. So, 1 can be rendered as T, but also as I, whereas N can be rendered as 2, so you can more easily remember 112 as a picture of the tin man. Now I can just about see the letters T and I being long and thin like a 1, but N=2 seems purely arbitrary to me.

All in all, its an interesting documentary which makes you think (for example: couldn’t you remember 112 better as the European emergency phone number?) although you can only be so interesting when you’re showing a row of young people transcribing numbers into their binary equivalent as quickly as you can.

For some reason, it only seems to be playing in Berlin on afternoons, which is a bit of a shame, because as long as you’re not looking for a How-To manual (Hello IMDB user), you may find something in it.

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