Memorising your revision notes? Meet Max, a memory champion

Easter holidays are here – and for many, it’s a tricky kind of non-holiday as they try to balance relaxation and having fun with revision for summer exams. Learn how to improve your memory with a memory champion.

Students across the country will be exploring hacks to help them remember their course content. Techniques range from poring over past papers, getting crafty with flash cards, teaching topics back to peers and squeezing in extra one-to-one lessons to help commit the year’s learning to memory.

Even if at times it doesn’t feel like it, the brain can hold a lot of information. It’s a muscle and with practise it improves. Don’t believe us? Meet Max: the top Pi recital champion of this century. (Yes, that’s a thing: reciting the decimal places of the mathematical number Pi).

Max Ungless, a 14 year old programmer studying for his GCSEs, recited Pi to 3,464 decimal places from memory on 14th March this year. We got on the phone with him to see how he did it.

Hi Max, congratulations on your recent achievement! An amazing feat of memory. Is maths your favourite subject at school?

Hi, thank you! I’m ok at maths – but my favourite subject is actually probably Latin.

When did you first realise that you were good at memorising numbers?

I didn’t really realise it at any one given point. I’d say I’m not naturally born with it. I just put it down to practise.

I remember hearing in year 6 that people could memorise Pi, and I gave it a go then – I didn’t really put in proper effort at that point but just kind of tried it out. Then, in year 7 when I realised that my secondary school had a Pi competition I thought I’d try again. It sounded fun and the last top score had been from a student who’d managed 86 digits of Pi. I thought I could beat that so gave it a go.

Tell us a bit about the Pi competition you took part in.

It’s not an official national competition. There’s an international leaderboard where you can submit officiated recitals of Pi. Our school just runs a competition every year – I encouraged them to submit my attempts to the international leaderboard.

How many decimal places have you managed each year that you’ve taken part in the competition?

2015 – 331
2016 – 928
2017 – 2,224
2018 – 3,464

Do you have any techniques to help you remember large sequences of numbers?

I prefer thinking of Pi as not individual numbers but a series of short sequences. It’s easier to remember a long number as shorter strings of numbers rather than as individual numbers. Think of phone numbers – they’re easier to remember in chunks.

What also helps is to think of how we pronounce numbers. Nine sounds different to seven – so remembering what the sequences sound like can be a helpful safety check against what you’ve committed to memory. I can stop myself several hundred digits in by realising a section didn’t sound right.

Other people use different strategies. The ‘memory palace’ is a popular one. This relies on the vision of things. People envision a journey through a house or ‘palace’ and as they wander through and look around them, they associate what they’re seeing with sequences of numbers. These strategies work because our brains remember things better through sounds and vision.

For this year’s competition I just practised everyday, when I woke up and before going to sleep. Maybe 45 minutes a day. And I’ve been doing that since November (although I took a month off to focus on studying for my GCSE mocks in January!) so I probably did about 3 and a half months prep.

Where are you currently in the international rankings?

In Great Britain, I’m currently 7th; once the leaderboard is updated I’ll be 6th. I’m still number #1 Pi recital champion of this century.

Wow, congratulations! Do you plan on going to university? And if so, what subject do you think you’ll study?

I don’t really know right now but possibly Classics. Like I said, I like Latin. I also really enjoy programming so might explore that as a possibility too.

If you’re inspired to approach memorisation afresh, check out our other articles with tips on how to retain information as you revise:

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