Mind training has a long history in Buddhism, but when the 11th-century Tibetan master Geshe Langri Tangpa wrote the Eight Verses for Training the Mind, he probably wasn’t thinking of memorizing the entire IKEA catalog.
But for memory champion Yanjaa Wintersoul, whose furniture feat was used in a viral marketing campaign last year, meditation and memorization are intimately related. Wintersoul, 24, who was born in Mongolia and raised in Sweden, says that the meditation practices she learned from her great-grandfather, a Mongolian Buddhist monk, have played a key role in making her a rising star in the world of memory competitions.
Known as “mental athletes,” Wintersoul and her rivals compete in events in which they recite randomly drawn numbers, names and faces, poems, and playing cards. Wintersoul’s talent for remembering people led to a turn on Sweden’s Got Talent and the attention of the producers of the new documentary Memory Games, which made its world premiere at the DOC NYC film festival in New York City on November 15, 2018. The documentary follows Wintersoul and three other competitors as they prepared for the 2017 World Memory Championships. She would end up winning the gold medal in the names and faces competition, which involves correctly identifying people in a series of photos after a short period of study.
“The documentary is basically describing what is happening in our minds [as we prepare for the Championships],” said Wintersoul. “I think the documentary tries to touch on everything that has to do with memory and its importance. Memory is one of the things that makes us.”
Tricycle had the chance to chat with Wintersoul about competitive memorization, her approach to meditation, and how she draws on her family’s Buddhist roots.
Growing up, did you think of yourself as someone with an exceptionally good memory?
Actually, no. I almost didn’t graduate high school because I couldn’t make certain memories stick, and I couldn’t figure out why. But I had promised my mom that I would get a bachelor’s degree, and I was determined to graduate within two years instead of four. So I started learning memory techniques, and I was able to finish school early.
How did you learn these techniques?
I found the book Moonwalking with Einstein by science journalist Joshua Foer, who ended up competing in the US Memory Championship, and it was revelatory. When I finished it, I didn’t need to study much for my business school exams because I had those memory techniques with me. So I sailed through.
Can you give us an example of what these memory techniques are and how ordinary people can use them?
The basic process is about linking what you do know with what you don’t know. Let’s say someone introduces themselves to you and says their name is Brad, and you want to commit their name to memory. You can choose to think of how they look like Brad Pitt when he was younger—lucky you!—or Brad Pitt now, which is less lucky. Or maybe his skin tone reminds you of bread. Brad becomes bread, and because our brains have more fun with concrete objects than abstract words, we’re more likely to remember bread than some dude named Brad.
I’ve heard you say in interviews that you’ve used meditation to help you get mentally prepared and ready to use your memory techniques.
Memory training and mindfulness go hand in hand. I try to be present every single second of my life, and I really think it helps. There have been basic studies that have said that mindfulness can improve our memories, so I am really interested in seeing what science can prove, once there are more complete studies.
Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?
I grew up subconsciously knowing I was Buddhist without my mom ever saying “you have to identify as Buddhist.” When someone passes away or on certain holidays, I do all of the rituals I can think of. I definitely think I am more Buddhist than any other religion, but I do try to practice a little bit of all religions. I try to donate a certain amount of my earnings [from competition prizes, endorsements, memory coaching, and speaking engagements] every month to different things I find interesting and helpful to the world. I read the Quran. I try to mix it up. But spirituality-wise and ritual-wise, I definitely do more Buddhist stuff.
My great-grandfather was a Buddhist monk and had to flee during the socialist regime, so I definitely connect a lot with him. He had a great memory even when he was 90-something.
You had an opportunity to know your great-grandfather? That’s really beautiful.
Definitely. We hung out most of my life until he passed away in 2011. It was really nice. I’m not sure what his tradition of Buddhism was called, but I know that he was persecuted for being a monk and that he would read old Tibetan scripts. To be around someone who was 90-something and still spoke Mongolian Russian as well as Tibetan was very cool for me.
What do you think you took away from that relationship?
That relationship made me realize that there is beauty in old age and that there is beauty in taking care of your brain every single day. Because that is what he’d do every day; he’d hope for the best for everyone around him. He would also meditate every day and move around for exercise and help tend to my family’s dairy cows.
My favorite story about him is that an impoverished person walked onto his plot of land in Mongolia and stole a cow in the middle of the night. When everyone found out, they were in crisis. But he just said, “I think the cow has found its rightful owner, someone who needs it more than I do. Somebody who is willing to steal from somebody else.” It was very Zen of him.
Did hearing your great-grandfather’s stories about what it was like in Mongolia under Soviet control ever make you wonder about how hurtful the power of memory can be? Everyone who lived through that era went through a lot.
Absolutely. My mom suffered from depression for a really long time, and we didn’t know why. We later found out that it was latent post-traumatic stress disorder from all of the things that she had to do when the USSR collapsed.
So I’ve seen how our bad memories can hurt us. I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to remember everything you’ve ever seen.
Do you have any tips that you think would work for the most forgetful among us?
First, pay attention. Most of us think we’re terrible at remembering people’s names, when the problem is we really didn’t hear what they said in the first place.
Second, as I described earlier, learn to link what you don’t know with what you do know. It’s a creative process that can be hard to describe, but anybody can do this; it just takes practice. We see that in the documentary, when we meet people of all ages and professions—from Danish stockbrokers to a young girl who is a violinist from the African country of Djibouti—who learn to use these memory techniques in a way that works for them.
Most important, for the love of Buddha, get enough sleep. Your brain needs sleep to consolidate memories. This third tip is easier said than done.
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