At only 20-years-old, China's Wang Feng burst onto the memory scene, winning the 2010 World Memory Championship. The first non-European to win, he defended his title in 2011, signaling a cultural shift in the competitive memory world. China had become a new powerhouse in a sport dominated by England and Germany. Although he retired from official competition following his '11 victory, Wang Feng, now 27, has remained active, teaching and repeatedly appearing on China's #1 TV Show, The Brain. I had the recent fortune of competing with him on the show (you can watch it here). Here's an interview I conducted with him shortly thereafter (translated from Chinese; thanks to my mother-in-law Connie Hwang for doing all the translating!). He is a true legend in the memory sports world. I hope you enjoy!
How did you get interested in memory sports?
I came into contact with memory sport by chance. When I was in college, my teacher, Yuan Wenkui, who was the one who introduced me to the memory world, founded a memory association at the university I attended. That was the first time I learned that memory could be trained by some methods. Taking into account that my own memory was not very good, if the training could improve it, I thought I should give it a try. So I joined the memory association, started my training, and later participated in the world competition.
What do you enjoy most about memory?
There are two things I enjoy the most from memory training. The first one is when doing memorization, I create a series of dynamic pictures or images. It is like watching an interesting animated motion picture. The second one is the sense of accomplishment I feel from the progress of my memory ability. My progress was very fast, which gave me a great sense of accomplishment. The more I feel the accomplishment, the more I devote my time and energy to it, which creates a positive circle.
Do you have advice for beginners? Advice for those who have hit a plateau?
For beginners, first be patient—don’t focus on how much improvement you can make immediately. Instead, enjoy the fun of memory training. Fully immerse yourself in the construction of images. Work on how to make the linking of images more interesting and fun.
The early stage of training is very important. I recommend to learn to remember correctly the first time. Don’t allow yourself the second chance to go back to remember. This will build a good foundation and will avoid some difficulties in the future. Otherwise you will hit a plateau at some point. It is like building a house, if the foundation has a problem, then the height of the house is limited.
For those who hit a plateau, first of all, figure out the reasons why you are not progressing. Generally, we could examine the situation from four aspects: First, is your image system optimal? Can you make your image process more efficient and concise? Second, evaluate your way of linking images. Is it affecting your speed and accuracy? Third, evaluate the loci system. How can you link images with the loci so you can remember more firmly? Each linkage is important. Go over all of them. Four, is your training time enough? I tend to believe that intensive training period is important.
Could you describe one of your intensive training sessions?
Normally there will be about six hours of training every day, three hours in the morning, and three hours in the afternoon. There is a break after every 1.5 hours. At night, I probably go jogging or watch a movie to relax.
If you had to start your memory sports career again, from scratch, what would you do differently?
If I get to come back and do it again, I still will choose high-intensity concentration training.
Could you describe your memory systems? Cards? Numbers?
I usually use two digits as an image, and every loci has two images. The systems I use for numbers and cards are the same.
Could you give us an example of your number system? For instance, how would you memorize 123896307893?
My number system is not anything special. It is about the same as other people.
I’ve heard your number system has also almost become a 4-digit system. Did that come naturally through training? And how long did it take?
I use a 2-digit coding system. Probably because my speed is very fast, the two codes can be connected in an instant, so it looks like a 4-digit system. To achieve this speed, I think it would take at least six months of continuous training.
How did you decide on the system that you use? Did you ever consider changing systems?
I use a 2-digit system. I have considered a 3-digit system, but eventually decided to keep using the 2-digit system. Because it will take me a lot of time to adapt and become familiar with the 1000 images. Besides I think the accuracy of 2-digit coding is higher.
Do you have any pre-competition rituals?
When I have an important competition I usually meditate to adjust my own state. When meditating, I generally think of some beautiful scenery pictures to calm myself.
Besides meditation, could you tell me about any practices outside of regular training that you’ve used to sharpen your memory? For instance, adjusting your lifestyle, sleep schedule, diet?
During training, I try to avoid interference. I temporarily put down my job and other business, and only focus on training. I usually go to bed at 11:00 at night and get up at 7:30 in the morning. There is no special arrangement on the diet. I love fish.
How did you decide to stop competing?
After winning the world championship twice, I thought my experience in memory competitions has been enough. I hoped to do something more meaningful.
What do you think is the future of memory sports? What would you like to see happen in the memory world?
Memory competition is currently limited by two major factors: First, only a small population are doing the training. Of course, this has something to do with the current boring training methods. Second, the way of competition is not appealing for a general audience, so the media cannot play a good role to promote the competition. Contestants are sitting quietly memorizing, which is boring for the audience to watch.
If memory can become one of the science disciplines in our education system, I think it will be very valuable to our society.
Could you tell me about any of your other hobbies outside of memory sports?
My biggest hobby is travel.
What do you do for a living, and how do you think your experience with memory sports affects your career?
My career is in education and training, which is to teach students how to use the memory methods to improve their efficiency in learning.
Could you describe an example of how you’ve taught others to use memory methods in learning?
Students need to memorize a lot of knowledge. With the memory method, they can do more with less. For example, for Chinese students, the [English vocabulary] words “quiet” and “quite” are very similar, thus confusing. We teach students that “quiet” ends with “et” which we can think of as aliens [in reference to Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T.]. Now we link “aliens” with “quiet,” such as when aliens come, we have to keep quiet, so they won’t find us. Of course, there are different ways of connections you can make up to help you remember these two words.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?
Memory is not mysterious; it is a skill. Through the right way of training, it can be improved. It doesn’t require high IQ or talent. It is about practicing.
Thank you for your time, Wang Feng.
You can watch Wang Feng and my appearance on the Chinese TV show "The Brain" here.
在学习中有很多需要记忆的知识点，用了记忆方法以后可以做到事半功倍。比如对于中国学生“quiet 安静” 和 “quite 很，非常” 这两个单词因为比较相似，所以所以混淆。那么我们教学生， “quiet 安静” 结尾的字母是“et”，可以想到外星人，就把外星人和安静联系起来，比如外星人来了，我们要保持安静，以免被他发现。当然也可以进行别的关联。
*Youku: 最强大脑 第四季：武大才子王峰再战江湖 20170331