Memory whiz Tansel Ali stares at my credit card. “There’s a lot of cheese in this card,” he says mysteriously. “It should be easy to remember.”
After a few seconds, he hands it back. When I ask him to recite the number, he rattles off all 16 digits without blinking. The next day I sneakily test him again, via email: perfect recall. Lucky he’s an honest man.
Australia’s three-time memory champion is used to people testing his skills. “It’s like magicians,” he smiles. “They always get asked to show tricks. But this isn’t magic. Anyone can do it.”
Not anyone, however, can memorise two Yellow Pages phonebooks in 24 days, as Ali once did – all 2300 ads, including business names and phone numbers. The mind boggles. But he insists we can all train our brains to perform memory feats.
Memory is like an imaginative filing system, he explains: “If you know where you’ve stored a file, it’s much easier to retrieve.” The key is to use images and stories. They help embed memories, making them easier to access.
I meet Ali at the Islamic Museum of Australia, where he’s running a workshop for a group of excited schoolkids. “Repetition is a boring, stressful way to remember things, and it’s often a waste of time,” he tells them. “Using your imagination works much better and it’s more fun.”
Forget rote learning, he says: it’s creativity that matters here. “Image plus association, that’s memory. If you add colour, emotion and fun, you can remember anything.” He says this includes numbers, names and faces, speeches, books, and (my personal bugbear) those troublesome car keys.
So how did he memorise the credit card digits? With two techniques: the ‘Major system’, which uses sounds to represent numbers, and the ‘Method of loci’ system, which uses landmarks as memory prompts. Numbers are too abstract to recall easily, so he converted them into images, which he wove into this bizarre story: “I arrive at my front gate to find there’s cheese smeared all over it. Suddenly, a train smashes through the gate. I try opening my front door, but it’s glued shut and the only thing that dissolves the glue is cheese.” With this scenario, he has memorised half my digits. Two more scenes provide the rest. (The “ch” sound represents 6, hence all the “cheese” in my credit card.)
It might sound like innate talent, but Ali’s skills come down to persistence. Over the years, by training his brain, the Melbourne father of three has turned his hobby into a fulltime job. He has written a best-selling book, The Yellow Elephant, developed a popular mobile phone app, coached fellow ‘mental athletes’ for contests, and run workshops all over the world.
“As a kid I never had many aspirations,” he says. “I was always just an average guy.” But as a young boy, he did show glimmers of his future occupation. He’d spend hours reading the family’s illustrated encyclopedias, and taught his six-year-old sister to memorise pages of the Koran by making pictures from the curved Arabic script. His local Thracian Turkish community nicknamed him “Little Hafiz boy”, or little memory boy.
In his twenties, when Ali played guitar in a heavy metal band, a musician friend bragged that he could memorise a random 40-item shopping list. Ali was sceptical, until he tested him. “I was amazed! I said, ‘Teach me how to do that!’” Once he learned, he was hooked.
As a young man his dream was to work in IT. By 2002, he’d achieved that, but it felt empty. His job satisfaction was zero, and he was being bullied at work. But after years of practice, his passion for memory techniques eventually opened up a new career. Along the way he has completed two Masters degrees, founded the Muslim Job Network, and been a Multicultural Ambassador for the AFL. His memory training helped on all fronts, he says.
His Yellow Pages feat was a paid gig, and the pressure was intense. “The first day I freaked out. Sitting at our kitchen table with these two huge phonebooks, I asked my wife, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’” But he took a deep breath, allocated 30 seconds for each ad, and passed with flying colours.
One final trick: can Ali help me memorise a friend’s birthday: Steve Grahame, 23 October? First we embed the name: “Imagine Steve has a stiff neck,” says Ali. (‘Steve’ sounds like ‘stiff’.) Easy: Steve’s a long-haul truckdriver. “Good,” says Ali. “Do you know any Grahames?” No... just my friend’s cat. “Great! Imagine Grahame the cat giving Steve a massage to unstiffen his neck.” I laugh: this weird image lodges quickly in my mind. “Now,” Ali continues, “a swan waddles up and chases the cat away.” (The number 2 is swan-shaped.) “The swan flies off sideways.” (A sideways bird resembles a 3). “Finally, it swoops down to catch an octopus for lunch.” (Octopus = October.)
Amazingly, it works: Steve’s birthday is now filed permanently in my brain. And those elusive car keys? Right next to my thesaurus. Always the best place to find “key” words.