03/29/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

The 15th Annual U.S. Memory Championship

Competitors in this year's 15th annual U.S. Memory Championship brought out a large group of college students who competed to remember 117 names and faces, two decks of cards, poems and more in New York on March 24.

More than half of the nearly five dozen mental athletes were students, and nine of them were in college. Some have been practicing for years. Others, like college sophomore Elliot Warkus, had only practiced for five days, and were competing to experiment on their own mental capacities.

Joshua Foer, a former memory champion and author of Moonwalking with Einstein, attended the competition to cheer on this year's contenders. Although the Europeans and Chinese are far more advanced in memory competitions, Foer said the U.S. competition is becoming more remarkable each year: "What they're able to do now is massively more impressive than the state of the field when I was competing, so it's kind of like an arms race," he said. "Every year someone comes up with a new technique to remember more stuff more quickly."

New records were broken this year: Nelson Dellis, 28, memorized a deck of cards in 63 seconds and 303 random numbers in five minutes. He received 163 points by memorizing names and faces, a 15-minute event in which he received one point for each correct first name and one for each correct last name.

The 28-year-old mountaineer and second-time memory champion was inspired to train his brain after he lost his grandmother to Alzheimer's.

And there were many others starting early.

University of Pennsylvania sophomore Michael Mirski, 19, won third place after the daylong mental battle, beating both high school students and middle-aged opponents who had been training for years.

The method? Assigning memorable mental images to numbers and letters to make the recollection process an easy walk through ones imagination.

Most mental athletes create a system in which an image is assigned to each number between 00 and 99. They then place these images in a "memory palace" -- a place they can walk through in their minds and easily pick up the numbers again.

These techniques could be revolutionary for college students, improving not only their grades on exams, but also growing their brains and preventing memory loss later in life, said Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness.

The hippocampus -- the part of the brain where memory is formed -- can grow based on how active the brain is, and tends to deteriorate later in life.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people think they have either good memory of bad memory," Fotuhi said."They don't realize that memory is a skill they can improve."

By learning and applying memory techniques, the effort will eventually become habit, and both memory and test scores will improve.

College freshmen Nate Harty, 19, has incorporated memory techniques into his life for five years, thereby reducing stress and succeeding in school.

"Instead of studying for six hours and pulling an all nighter, I could do it in about half an hour and go to sleep," he said. Additionally, memory training has been proven to increase focus, thereby reducing the amount of notes students need to take in class.

The key behind mental fitness is simple and available to everyone: converting data to visual images.

"When you read something, close the book and then visualize what you read," Fotuhi said. Or, you can sign up to compete in the 2013 U.S. Memory Championship.

"It's easier for me to stand on the street and get people to come in here and stand on this stage naked before I can get them in here to compete in a memory competition," said Tony Dottino, founder of the competition. "So to me, every one of them is a winner in the game of life."