Med thumb memory brain

World-class athletes spend countless hours perfecting their breaststrokes and double backflips, fine-tuning their forms to save that extra second or deliver that wow-inducing element.

Mental athletes may not draw the same-sized crowd as, say, your LeBron James or Serena Williams. But, the elite eggheads train with comparable fervor and focus to set records for memorizing heaps of information — decks of cards, lists of numbers and words, chunks of prose — at a breakneck pace.

Memory champions’ arduous schedules have received attention, most notably in the 2011 book Moonwalking with Einstein, in which journalist Joshua Foer chronicled his year training for the U.S. Memory Olympics. (Spoiler alert: The training paid off — Foer came in first place.)

But their sleeping schedules haven’t gotten the same treatment. Given the critical role that sleep plays in memory, the world’s best recollectors’ resting routines must certainly play a role in their ability to memorize at levels unimaginable by the average brain.

Two decorated memory champs with divergent sleep habits, Nelson Dellis and Lance Tschirhart, explained how they rest for the win.

Research shows that sleep contributes to memory consolidation.

A Model of Sleep Health nelson dellis 2

UK-born Nelson Dellis has won the U.S. Memory Championship the past two years, taken seventh place in the world competition and broken several records. 

Dellis trains three to five hours a day for most of the year. During that time, he tries to sleep seven or eight hours a night. Any less, and he feels the cognitive strain. Memory training, Dellis says, requires applying immense focus for hours on end, a feat he finds easier when he gets consistent sleep and exercise.

During the month leading up to a competition, Dellis forces himself to go to bed by 10 and rise between six and seven, so that his body clock syncs up with the competition schedule.

The most mentally draining event to train for, Dellis feels, is speed numbers. Competitors are given five minutes to memorize pages of computer-generated numbers in consecutive order. Then, they have 10 minutes to recall the numbers without making any errors.

To commit pages of random digits to memory, competitors use encoding systems. Put simply, they convert numbers into images, which then stand out more in the mind’s eye.

Like other top-ranking champions, Dellis uses a three-digit system, associating every three-digit number — from 000 to 999 — with a distinct image. The more absurd the image, the better. Dellis says that memorizing the encoding system, so that the number-to-image conversion becomes automatic, consumes the most most brainpower. 

How does sleep strengthen encoding? As Dellis pointed out, research shows that sleep contributes to memory consolidation, the process of converting newly learned information into long-term memory. If Dellis converts 100 three-digit numbers into distinct images, but quickly forgets his number-image pairs, the encoding system is useless. He also believes that sleeping lets his brain recharge between periods of intense cognitive exertion, similarly to sprinters taking breathers between 100-yard dashes.

“I’ve never had a decent night’s sleep leading up to day of championship.”

The Memory Rebel

Lance TschirhartLance Tschirhart, a 26-year-old competitor from Texas, holds U.S. records in speed cards and speed numbers. By memory champ measures, he uses a fairly standard encoding system. From a profile published in Los Angeles Times in 2014:

Lance Tschirhart, 25, a competitor from Texas, explained how the number 141251213 is embedded in his memory: 141 brings to mind a dart; 251 is an electrical outlet; 213 is a nutmeg. "So I can imagine throwing a dart into an outlet and sparks shooting out around a nutmeg," Tschirhart said during a break between drills in the competition.

Far less standard, however, is Tschirhart’s sleeping schedule: He has been known to stay up for two days before competitions.

This happened by accident. About two years ago, for a one-year period, Tschirhart fell into a cycle of staying up two days for every night he slept. The schedule, he says, freed up hours for memory-related activities, from practicing speed trials to thinking about memory strategies. Both structured training and free-form navel gazing, Tschirhart believes, are critical to his succes. While Tschirhart is confident that his sleeping habits are unique in the mental athlete community (as is Dellis), he’s not concerned about being an outlier.

“I function well, which should be a barometer of whether or not it’s an issue,” he told Van Winkle’s. “As far as I understand, there’s no scientific consensus as to why there are people who only sleep three hours a night or so and still seem to have at least normal memory and cognitive speed capabilities… I’ve never had a decent night’s sleep leading up to day of championship, and usually I get no sleep at all the night before.”

When Tschirhart does get a full night’s sleep, he tends to crash for 12 or 14 hours. While his sleep schedule has always been odd, he says he naturally does his best work between midnight and 5 am. He suspects that he’d keep more consistent hours if he could only switch to a nocturnal schedule.