Saturday, February 14, 2015

Neurons on the Ready

I've said a couple of times that I'll be posting more content here and I'm trying my best to do that. The good news is that I'm taking an English class right now and we're asked to write stuff there. So, I'll be posting most of the stuff that I've written there and have them published here.

On our second activity we were told to write a memoir. The topic that I chose here was a very easy one for me not only because I already wrote something similar when I was trying to work on my second book but because being a memory athlete, it just felt right doing a memoir about memory sports. Also, ever since I wrote and published MAUTAK: Howto Supercharge Your Memory, I've always felt the need to re-do that book because I felt that it was rushed and if you ever read that, you'd notice it too.  I wasn’t able to have someone else to proof-read the whole thing. So when my grandma read it, it was as if she was transported back in time and started correcting every word on it. You can see that being a teacher was still so ingrained in her that she had that book littered with corrections from cover to cover. If I ever do a re-print or second edition, I’ll definitely use that one and credit her as the editor.

As some of you might already know, I just qualified again for the Extreme Memory Tournament in SanDiego this year and I had a fun time doing that so I might add my views about it among the other Extremers. For now, I hope you enjoy my memoir and let me know any feedback on it on the comments section below...

Neurons on the Ready

It is a cold and rainy day with gray overcast clouds. I am walking under the rain because I never thought about bringing an umbrella, I thought it was going to be summer here, and I guess this was a typical summer in UK. My shoes are now soaking wet from walking over shallow puddles. I can now feel my cold shriveled toes squishing in my soaked socks. It’s a good thing that I’m now sitting alone at this huge desk that can fit three more with some elbow room to spare. I can also spare anyone from the stench later on. I’m in a conference room inside a posh glass building overlooking the Paddington Station in the London CBD. Even with an assembly of a number people, photographers, cameramen, arbiters, and some spectators, the room is dead silent.  I can probably hear a pin drop with a deafening thud. I can hear every click of cameras as they snap pictures and record videos. I can sense every rustle of cloth as other anxiously waiting people squirm on their seats as they try to get ready. I’m trying desperately to calm my nerves as I hold a deck of cards in my hand. My heart is pounding so fast that it felt almost like a jackhammer is pounding on my chest. I am shaking so much that I might have set off the seismograph to the nines. I can feel every muscle in my body quivering. My hands are trembling. It doesn’t help that the room is too cold for tropical man like me. I try to calm myself. I breathe in. Exhale. Shake my arms. Squeeze my fists. I close my eyes, waiting for the signal. The countdown has begun. Neurons on the ready…

I have always been immersed in physical activities. I’ve been dabbling in sports since I was a little kid in grade school. I like competition. I ran around the schoolyard in a race against my mates. I ran as fast as I could but couldn’t beat the fastest kid. I did a bit of Karate once during a summer in the 90's but the other kids beat my ass and it didn't help either that he was also the instructor’s black belt son. I played basketball, a lot of basketball. I’d even go to school so early in the morning to just play basketball with my best friends in High School. I even told my school counselor that I wanted to be like Michael Jordan when I grow up. I was even in the high school varsity team back then, nope, not basketball, but volleyball. I was too short to be in the basketball team, the same with the volleyball team for that matter, but they’re the only one who’ll accept me. But it didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to compete. I learned to skateboard in my down time. I taught myself how to swim. I tried so many things but I never amount to anything in them. In all those sports, I never came anywhere near an elite status. I knew how to play but I was never really that good. I wasn’t even considered the best, not even among my friends. It’s safe to say I never won anything of note.
Hanging out drying my jeans and shoes.
Hanging out before the start of the competition drying my wet
shoes and jeans, with the view of Central London at the back.

That is until I discovered Memory Sports. It’s not actually a sport, in the truest sense of the word, but it is a competition, a competition where the participants try to memorize as many random bits of information as they can in a given amount of time. You don’t need to be as tall as the mountain nor as fast as cheetah to compete, which is a wonderful thing to me, given that I’m not that exactly physically imposing. But you do need to have the proper mental gifts, a big brain, so to speak. At least, that’s what I thought.

I’ve always considered myself to have a good memory. But it’s nothing exceptional. It’s not like those people featured on documentaries or on TV, who can remember huge amounts of information, remember hundreds of books, or rattle off random trivia. I’m certainly not like that. I am no Rain Man. My grandfather even had Alzheimer’s and I might have it in my genes too, for all I know.  

Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible affliction to be had. It is not an ordinary senility that leaves you wondering where you put your stuff; those are more likely normal occurrences that happen all the time to normal, healthy individuals. But with this disease, you tend to lose your most recent memories first. You are then robbed of your personality. You would be like sleeping beauty that awoke from her thousand years of slumber. You would be reliving a life you once had and it will leave you struggling to connect your old memories with a reality that you alone can remember. That is how I remember my grandpa Rex. He was a virile man back in the days, an avid tennis player. He was a wrestler for some collegiate team in some university Chicago at one time. He could grip a man’s arm and probably rip it apart while trying to take his opponents to the mat. That’s what he was probably remembering while he was crushing my arms while he was sitting on his wheelchair when I made the mistake of getting close to him. He might have thought he was in wrestling match and didn’t recognize me. Good thing someone saw us and saved me from a visit with the orthopedist. I didn’t want to remember him like that. But that’s all the memory I had of him. I don’t want to be remembered liked that by my grandkids as well. It is a terrible disease that I don’t want to wish on anyone else, nor do I want to have one. But it is probably already in me. I just do not know right now.       

That is why I got enamored with Memory Sports. Aside from it being a form of competition that pits your skills against another person, it is a competition that is a purely mental endeavor. It’s almost like you are competing against yourself. You don’t rely on physical gifts but you rely mostly on your efforts in training and preparation. The winners in this competition are made in the training room. We just come on competition day to show each other where we are now on our skills and how much effort we put in training. Another thing that keeps me wanting to participate in this competitive memorization is the possibility of it being a tool that will delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. I know that it is a hereditary disease and that it I may or may not have the genes for it, but I also know that prevention is better than the cure. It may not keep me from having the disease; it may possibly push back its occurrence. At least, that is my hope. 

UK Open 2010 Speed Cards
2010 UK Open International Memory Championship 
Right: 1 min. 20 secs. on speed cards (silver)  Left: Me with the big ass table & the Japanese TV crew at the back.


          Neurons on the ready… Go! Finally, the signal that we have been waiting for is blasted through the speakers. Now the race begins. I quickly opened my eyes from deep concentration and glanced at the cards in my hands. I flip through all of them as fast as my shaky hands can muster. A normal untrained person my only see numbers and letters in these cards. But not us, we are mnemonists, trained in the Arts of Memory. In this art named after the goddess Mnemosyne, we do not merely look at texts and numbers, these bland and static information comes alive in our minds. To us, these are lively characters from a cacophony of pre-memorized images that are a part of a scene that we imagine happening right before our very eyes. If only we had the technology to visualize these images and scenes, we’d have an opus worthy of an Oscar. As I reached the last pair of cards, I slammed the timer down as fast as I could. One minute and twenty seconds. Not a bad time for a rookie. It is also good enough to get me a silver medal, my very first ever in international competition.

Before I learned these memory techniques, mnemonic devices, I never knew that it is possible to train your memory. To change your brain and make the best of what you are given. I realized that some are not born with exceptional minds, talents, or skills, but they were a product of their efforts, of pure hard work. I realized that intelligence might not just be a stroke of luck that you either have or don’t have, but it is a result of heaps of effort and dedication in learning. We can’t really be sure of what we have in our genes but we can definitely measure the effort in our work.

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