Memory expert Chester Santos wowed a lunchtime meeting of local retirees last week, first by remembering the names of all 50-plus people in attendance, then by asserting they could have great memories, too.
The self-described “International Man of Memory,” who appeared at a Sept. 4 gathering of Sons In Retirement (SIR) Branch 51, said his oft-performed feats such as memorizing names and decks of cards have been honed through training “that makes the most efficient use of the brain – everyone sitting here today, you are all capable of doing extraordinary things with your memory.”
Speaking at Fremont Hills Country Club in Los Altos Hills, Santos stressed that use of visualization, all of the senses and imagination are key elements in developing a good memory.
He asked the audience to picture an absurd scenario of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin lecturing in a living room and then throwing pies at each other. He asked guests to bring other senses into the scenario, hearing the splatter, imagining the smell and taste of the thrown pies.
“If you are able to complete that simple exercise, then you have the ability to remember anything at all that you would ever want to remember,” said Santos, a talk-show and news-show favorite whose resume includes appearances on FOX, NBC, CBS, and PBS and in Wired magazine.
He was crowned U.S. Memory Champion in 2008. Santos holds a monthly memory workshop and has regular gigs as a professional speaker and corporate trainer.
Visualization as a tool
Santos noted the power of visual memory and the problem people have when they remember faces, but not often names.
“You don’t see their name – it’s much more abstract for the brain,” he said. “One way you can get better at names is to turn those names into powerful visuals, something you can picture or see in your mind. So ‘Mike’ – microphone. ‘Alice’ – I can picture a white rabbit because it reminds me of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ When you create a picture for a name, it becomes much more memorable.”
Santos also suggested that good memory requires an attitude adjustment.
“Shift your approach,” he urged. “Rather than (memorizing as) a difficult, boring exercise, look at it as a fun opportunity to use your creativity and imagination.”
Santos assigned the audience the task of memorizing 15 seemingly random words. He created a story connecting the words, for instance, describing how a monkey picked up an iron that had a rope attached to it, and so on. Before long, audience members, in visualizing the story, could recite the random words in order, and even backwards.
Santos said such exercises build brain muscle strength just as an athlete builds physical strength pumping iron.
“If you do stick to this, your memory is going to improve over time, even independent of using these techniques,” he said. “Your brain is very trainable.”
Improving memory can happen at any age and good memory – or bad – comes down to a matter of use, Santos noted.
“In school, we are constantly challenged to learn – then later in life, we’re less challenged to use memory. … We reach a certain point in life where not that much is new to us anymore,” he said.
We don’t improve our memories, Santos said, if “we’re always writing everything down, always entering things into electronic devices – what are you saying to your brain? You’re saying at this point, I don’t need to remember anymore so you are going to start to lose that ability over time.”
A strong memory – at any age
The good news, he added, is that if “you make it a point to exercise your memory and work it out, you can keep it strong and, in fact, improve it at any age.”
Santos pointed to the attendees at his monthly one-day workshop in San Francisco – the ages range from 8 to 90s.
“I’ve seen plenty of people in that workshop in their 60s and 70s completely outperform working professionals in their 20s and 30s,” he said.
One 85-year old woman in his workshop didn’t make a mistake the entire day.
“She’s always taking a class,” Santos said. “She makes it a point (to learn). She’s dedicated to keeping herself mentally active.”
According to Santos, “the more we force our brains to perform a particular function over and over again, the more it signals to our brain that it’s something important that we need to be able to do, so your brain finds a way to make itself better.”
Santos spoke at a weekly meeting of SIR Branch 51, one of three local SIR branches that offer retired and semiretired men fellowship through monthly luncheons and other activities such as golf and bowling. The other local branches are 5 and 35.
For more information on SIR, visit sirinc2.org.
For more information on Santos, visit ChesterSantos.com.