In 30 seconds, Nelson Dellis can memorize the order of a pack of shuffled cards.
In five minutes, he can recite a sequence of 310 random numbers. In 15 minutes, he can match 193 names to faces he has just met. And yet, he insists, his talent isn’t the result of a photographic memory, or high level of intelligence.
According to Dellis, anyone can do what he does. That is, if they’re willing to put in the effort. Dellis, a former software developer turned “memory consultant,” trains his memory for up to five hours a day to keep his mind sharp. The 30-year-old Florida resident first took an interest in memory maintenance six years ago when his late grandmother, Josephine, started showing signs of Alzheimer’s.
Memorizing is a solitary thing. It’s just me and my mind.
Today, Dellis is the winner of three U.S. Memory Championships, and the founder of Climb for Memory, a not-for-profit that raises funds and awareness for Alzheimer’s disease by scaling some of the world’s steepest peaks. This year, Dellis will tackle Manaslu in Nepal. In 2015, he’ll take on Everest for the third time.
When he’s not competing, training or climbing, Dellis often acts as a keynote speaker at health-related events, lecturing about the important of memory maintenance, and sharing his training techniques.
For Dellis, developing his memory is about more than just having an impressive skill: it’s a question of health. As the population ages, and Alzheimer’s and dementia become more prominent, Dellis’s mission is to make his mind strong, and encourage others.
“The brain is something you can mold. You can make it fit,” he says. “A lot of people know that about their bodies, but they don’t think about the brain that way.” Like any muscle, the brain requires that you “use it or lose it.” Stimulating the brain through exercises like memory games can help to build new neural pathways and connections. This stimulation, combined with a healthy diet and physical activity, can help keep the brain healthy and strong for longer.
Prior to his grandmother’s illness, Dellis hadn’t given his memory much thought. But as Josephine’s health declined, he began to worry about the state of his own brain. Though Josephine lived abroad, the two were close. Dellis remembers summers spent at his grandparents’ farmhouse in the south of France, where Josephine would make Gateau Rose, a pink cake made from cookies popular in the region.
Because of the distance, Dellis would only see his grandmother once or twice a year, and didn’t initially notice her illness. The signs were subtle at first: Josephine would occasionally forget where she put things, or struggle to remember words. Sometimes, she would space out. “She was my old grandma,” Dellis says. “It seemed like no big deal.”