The Memory Maestro – Dominic O’Brien
By Rebecca Coxon
Dominic O’Brien is a man who has held a world record eight times, written thirteen books and been banned from Casinos around the world... why? He has an amazing memory.
Eight time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien talks to Uncovered and reveals being diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, what inspired him to break records and how everyone has the ability to nurture an astounding memory.
Against the odds
As a child, Dominic explains that he was diagnosed with dyslexia, ‘I used to write backwards and I’m left handed.’
When Dominic was a baby he was involved in an accident and considers that some damage may have been caused as a result. ‘I had a knock to my head as a baby. I collided with a train and was actually dragged off onto the railway line. There was severe bruising to the top of my forehead so they think there may have been some damage there.’
Although in the 1960’s the term Attention Deficit Disorder had not yet been coined by psychologists, Dominic admits having ‘severe attention problems’ and that he ‘never listened to anything the teacher said’. Therefore in hindsight it is speculated that some kind of attention disorder may have been a likely diagnosis for Dominic at a young age.
Although he comes from ‘a long line of bridge players and card players’ in his family (his great aunts and grandfather played for England), Dominic reveals that it was watching a mnemonist on television that sparked his enthusiasm for improving his memory.
‘I saw a guy called Creighton Carvello memorise a deck of cards on television in 1987. I thought that was amazing so I wanted to know how he did it. And that’s how it started.’
‘It was by accident, I was inspired by watching somebody else.’
How long does it take?
It only took Dominic a matter of weeks and months to build up his memory from an average level to a truly remarkable and eventually world record-breaking level.
‘I didn’t start training until I was 30, but within a couple of weeks I was doing things that I thought were extraordinary for me. Then I suppose it was about three months before I could really start getting close to records like memorising a pack of playing cards very quickly.’
‘Within a year I was in the Guinness Book of records for memorising six decks of cards, and now I’ve got a record for 54.’
While Norris McWhirter who co-founded the Guinness World Records with his twin brother, told Dominic that six decks of cards would be the human limit, it wasn’t long before Dominic proved them very wrong, expanding the record to 54 decks.
‘There is no limit’, said Dominic. ‘It’s something you can develop very quickly and you can see enormous progress.’
Dominic explains how he trained someone recently: ‘He hadn’t got a clue about these techniques. I demonstrated a 50 digit number, he just called one out and I repeated it forwards and backwards’.
‘He said wow that’s incredible, I could never do that. But by the end of the day he’d memorised the first 100 decimal places of pi and the 44 presidents forwards and backwards, just by using these simple techniques.’
So how do you do it?
Since most people can only remember 5 or 6 cards in a row, after watching Carvello on television Dominic wanted to know whether he just had a super brain or whether was he using a certain technique.
Dominic decided to create his own technique, which he now realises actually originated from the ancient Greeks. ‘Gradually I developed a technique that I thought was unique but in fact the Greeks had already developed it over 2000 years ago.’
‘I call it the journey method, I first wrote about it in 1994 for my first book How to develop the perfect memory. It’s about using a familiar journey, a journey round your house or a journey to work or round the park and on various stages along the journey you anchor images to it. So if you were shopping for ten items you imagine each item along the journey - so cornflakes on the park bench, a bottle of wine by an oak tree.’
‘The journey preserves the order of information; it’s all about using your imagination and engaging the whole of your brain. It sounds a very simple concept but it’s an extremely efficient way of training your brain.’
‘When it comes to memorising things like playing cards and numbers, binary digits or names and faces then there are various ways in which you can code information so that you can understand it.’
The Dominic System
‘There are ways of converting numbers into letters, I call that the Dominic System - using mnemonics and associations to learn difficult names.’
Dominic uses a direct example to demonstrate: ‘You’re Rebecca Coxon, so I think of apples, and my step-daughter is called Rebecca so a number of images come into my head. I’m sort of adept at doing this now. I also find that comedians are very resourceful at making instant associations.’
Can anyone do it?
While these methods may seem pretty straightforward, I wanted to know if there was a catch –was it only for people with higher-than-average IQs, a natural flare for good memory skills or those who were in their prime brain age of youth?
The fact that Dominic did not start training his brain until he was 30 proves that the latter certainly is not true. All you need, Dominic maintains, is a bit of creativity. People who ‘think creatively’ are the most likely to succeed at training their memory. ‘But I mean that’s everybody if you think about it.’
‘I think you have to be someone with an open mind who will allow their brain to think of anything. It all goes back to childhood really, the way you’re brought up, if you were allowed to explore the world and had a stimulating childhood then you’ve got the best chance and the best start in life.’
Memory training – a solution to exam stress?
Dominic works alongside young people in schools to help them develop their memory skills and improve how they learn.
‘I co-founded the UK Schools Memory Championships so that people like me who struggled at school could use these techniques to help them study and pass exams.’
The Schools Memory Championships’ objective is to help pupils develop their mental skills and help their studies by learning the same techniques used by the top memorisers throughout the world. ‘That is the hope and it is working, we are getting some great results from students’ states Dominic.
According to the 53-year-old mnemonist and author, the techniques he uses ‘reveals the way your brain works and the best conditions for it to work. You can apply it to learning languages, technical formula, the sciences, dates in history.’
Too much of a good thing
However it’s not all good news for those with outstanding capabilities for memory, if you think you can make easy money out of memory based gambling techniques then think again.
Dominic tried his hand at card-counting for six months in 1991 and became very good at Blackjack: ‘I started making a living out of that. But now I’ve got a blanket ban on all the casinos in the UK, Las Vegas and some in Europe!’ he said playfully.
Useful for everyone
Aside from gambling tricks, training your brain’s memory can be a very useful tool in exams, public speaking and in life more generally. Whether it’s remembering your shopping list, appointments, phone numbers, dates or even names and faces – I think we could all use a better memory here and there!
Dominic, who achieved only average grades at school (and had to take his English language exam four times!) is proof that anyone and everyone can succeed if they are willing to strive for their accomplishments.
Dominic will be talking at the National UK Schools Memory Championship final held at London South Bank University on Tuesday 19th July 2011. More information can be found here: http://www.schoolsmemorychampionships.com/.
Dominic’s latest book released last month is also available on Amazon: You Can Have An Amazing Memory: Learn Life-changing Techniques and Tips from the Memory Maestro by Dominic O’Brien.