New words memorization world records by Don Michael Vickers

Canadian Don Michael Vickers from Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, recently managed to break a new memorization world record with random words. He did so not just once, but twice. And not just by a second or two.

This happened during the 2024 Pan American Open – a competition held online on the popular Memory League training platform. The championship was ultimately won by Vishvaa Rajakumar from India, after a series of outstanding performances. While Don Michael Vickers wasn’t able to beat Vishvaa overall, he did achieve a long-term personal goal: the official world record in the random word category. During a match with Yasuhira Yamaguchi from Japan, Don perfectly memorized 50 words in 37.54 seconds. This had never been done before during an official Memory League competition. If you want to see what that looks like, full video can be seen here. The whole thing was covered and commented live by two-time world memory champion Johannes Mallow.

The previous record was about 43 seconds by Naoki Miwa from Japan. One might have thought Don’s new record would remain for a long enough while, but that’s not what happened. Turns out that Don broke his own record just a few weeks later, while playing against Andrej Savickij from Latvia. The official world record for 50 words perfectly memorized is now 32.41 seconds!

Here are the two lists of 50 words that Don memorized in a record-breaking time:

I think this level of skill is absolutely astonishing. And as we’re about to see, it’s nowhere near the limit of what’s humanly possible.

The road to mastery

Don discovered memory techniques in July 2020 thanks to the book Remember It! by Nelson Dellis. Braden Adams recommended that he try the training website Memory League, and soon enough Don was hooked on the process of training and improving. In April 2021, Don took part in a CMSA Honorary Memory Challenge. He memorized a little less than 100 words in 10 minutes. That’s already a very good score, but it was only the beginning. Today, Don can memorize 30 names and faces in about 50 seconds, a full deck of cards in about 25 seconds, 80 digits in less than 20 seconds and 30 images in less than 10 seconds. All those scores are exceptional. No doubt that Don will keep improving them. But his random words achievements are what truly set him apart. This is where Don has chosen to explore his limits.

How is that possible?

Don insists on saying that he isn’t particularly gifted. He certainly doesn’t have a photographic memory, which by and large, as far as we know, simply doesn’t exist. He was a good student, but nothing special. So how can he do what he does? Let’s put aside the speed question for a moment and talk briefly about the basic techniques.

If you ask a random person to perfectly memorize a list of 50 random words, chances are that he or she will be able to do so, but only after a long time spent reviewing the list over and over again. As you may know, the same task can become almost trivially easy once one starts using a memory palace. Don’s method for memorizing words is one of the most common: a pre-planned memory palace, 2 words visualized per location, try to make everything memorable in various ways. If you’ve never tried such an exercise before, I urge you to make at least give it a shot. If you make a sincere effort and you use the correct method, you will likely be able to memorize a list of 20 or 50 words on your first or second attempt. I (Francis Blondin) have tested that hypothesis numerous times with various groups of complete beginners. Once you can do that one simple exercise, you can try using the same method in various slightly more complex situations, like remembering the 20 or 50 key points of a presentation you have to make.

But how can it be so fast?

Now you may understand the basic method, but still be baffled by the speed. I don’t blame you. Not that long ago, even after learning a lot about memory techniques, I wouldn’t have thought that such speed was possible with random words. Let’s take my own performances as a point of comparison. During my very first competition in 2015, I memorized 61 words in 15 minutes. I remember thinking that was pretty good! Two years later, while taking part in the same competition, I felt quite proud of my 123 words in 15 minutes. That was enough to win against then-not-yet-nearly-invincible Braden Adams. When it comes to those 1-minute drills, my current record is “only” 36. And 36 is very good! Maybe not by Don’s standard, but still.

I understand how one can in theory become absurdly fast with the memorization of numbers and cards. Once you have a well-developed system to transform numbers or cards into images, you can drill that system over and over until it becomes a part of you. At some point, the conversion process can become fully automatic and the related images will appear in your mind almost instantly. Words are another matter. You can’t use a pre-determined “system”, you always need to improvise. That should slow things down considerably. There’s also the fact that your images will always represent only a rough approximation of what you’re supposed to recall. With numbers and cards, if you can remember your images correctly, unless you get distracted you’re guaranteed to get everything right. With words – and with names as well – there’s always the danger that you will accidentally end up recalling a similar word or a synonym. Numbers and cards are more like a science, words and names are more like an art. They’re easier to get into for a beginner, but they’re harder to master.

For those reasons, a few years ago I would have thought that one minute or so would be near the limit of how fast one can memorize 50 random words perfectly. I was wrong. So far, maybe 40 or 50 people around the world have managed to memorize 50 words in 60 seconds or less. And Don and a few others have been able to do it considerably faster. Who knows what others will be able to achieve in the future?

How? Mostly just by intelligent, persistent, well-thought-out forms of deliberate training. Don firmly believes that thanks to neuroplasticity, mental abilities can be trained more or less like physical abilities. What’s initially impossible can become possible. What’s possible can become easy. What’s easy can be fully mastered and done faster and faster and faster.

Applying the principle of progressive overload to memory sports.

People who are serious about physical training will use the principle of “progressive overload” by gradually forcing themselves to lift heavier weights or do more frequent sets. This is what can improve strength and endurance and stimulate muscle growth. People who are serious about some form of mental training will often use a similar principle. With memory sports, for most people, that means learning to memorize slowly at first, and then progressively increasing your speed by going outside of your comfort zone.

There’s nothing new to the idea of aiming a little higher, step by step. However, I’ve rarely seen anyone in the memory sports world apply the principle of progressive overload in such a hardcore, systematic and serious way. Many people – including often me – will practice, improve for a while, reach some plateau, and then either give up, stagnate, or satisfy themselves with very slow and inconsistent improvements. If you’re serious about exploring your limits, you need to carefully analyze what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. You need to fix your weaknesses and capitalize on your strengths. And you need to go beyond your comfort zone. Not just by a little, but by a lot.

Don thinks an error too many people make is to be too conservative and to set goals that aren’t ambitious enough. If you can memorize X amount of data in 45 seconds, he thinks you should try to do the same in 35 seconds. Not go so fast that you don’t remember anything, but fast enough so that you can barely recall 75% of what you tried to memorize. Going “too fast” in order to make “very fast” feel slower. Not all the time – you also need to know how to “play it safe” and get perfect recall – but at least some of the time. One can’t argue with the results, although this certainly isn’t an easy way to train.

Don has experimented with other unorthodox training methods, including trying to memorize 100 words in less than 90 seconds or delaying recall to make things harder. He also practices memorizing words in other languages. He’s getting close to a perfect 50 words in French, a language he doesn’t commonly speak.

Pushing the limits

Believe it or not, his 37.5 and 32.41 seconds world records are nowhere near his maximum speed. In practice and in regular matches, he has managed to be much, much faster. How fast? 24.7 seconds for 50 words perfectly memorized. That’s 2 words memorized per second. Not an “official” world record because it didn’t happen during a championship and it wasn’t monitored. But as far as we know, that’s the fastest perfect score that has been done so far.

And that’s only for his attempts that led to 50 words perfectly memorized. When he’s trying to exceed speed limits, things can become even crazier. Below is an almost perfect sub-20-second attempt he did. While his “official” score is 48 words, in my book that counts as 50 words. His only error was writing “photo divorce” instead of “divorce photo”, a very easy-to-make mistake when one is placing both words at the same place in a memory palace. That’s not all. He has done some sub-15-second attempts that were almost as good!

This proves without a doubt that a sub-15-second perfect score is possible! I can’t get over how amazing that is. I’m supposed to know a lot about memory techniques, and yet that’s about 300% faster than what I would have thought possible. Imagine learning that some human beings can jump over a 6-meter high fence or run 100 meters in 4 seconds. That’s how I feel about those absurdly fast word memorization attempts. In various ways, they seem more impressive to me than a whole deck of cards memorized in 10 seconds (current world record is 12.85 seconds).

Can anyone achieve the same results?

Yes, as long they aren’t very old or suffering from some cognitive issues. Or at least that’s what Don thinks. “I’m a great memory athlete because my training methods are effective, not because I’m gifted.” He thinks the number of people achieving 50 words in one minute will soon explode. He thinks almost anyone can get there, as long as he or she is sufficiently motivated.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t quite say the same. It’s true that everyone will improve if they use the right methods and they remain persistent for a while. But I also think that “talent” matters as well as age, IQ, working memory capacity, ability to focus, conscientiousness and various other not completely malleable factors. Not everyone learns at the same speed and not everyone can reach the same levels.

I also think that for the most part, it doesn’t matter! Most skills can be learned by most people. Including most cognitive skills. “Talent” only matters when you “need” to outperform others who are training just as much as you are. If you want to become good at something, you probably can. And it doesn’t need to take years. I think that’s an amazing and hopeful fact about human potential. And I think that’s what should count. If you’re pursuing a goal just for the sake of it, who cares if someone else can get there faster?

Should you try to emulate Don’s performances? If you’re passionate about memory sports and you’re very competitive, go for it! We should all be grateful for people who show us what is humanly possible in various fields of human endeavour. For the majority of people, other types of goals are more appropriate. Few people should try to memorize 50 words perfectly in 60 or 30 or 15 seconds. But I do think you should be able to look at a list of words or a list of whatever and know that you can memorize it all without much problem, no matter the speed. Getting to that level can be done much, much faster than you imagine. I think you can and should learn the basics. Improve your abilities for a little while, and then see if you want to push things further, focus on long-term memorization or language learning or whatever it is. Few people should try to break the 100-meter Olympic world record. Most people should learn to run at least a little. Why not give it a try?

About memory techniques:

About Don Michael Vickers:

  • You can check out Don’s future exploits by following his Instagram and/or Facebook, Youtube or Tiktok pages.
  • His 2023 participation in the Memory League World Tour was covered by the CBC.
  • Longer interviews with Don can be found here, here and here.